Egyptian police have arrested more than 70 members of the Muslim Brotherhood early Thursday, the latest in a wave of arrests that the banned Islamist group says is connected to upcoming local elections. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Cairo.

Police raided the homes of Muslim Brotherhood members in five provinces at dawn. Accounts differ on the exact number of people detained.

The Muslim Brotherhood's deputy leader, Mohammed Habib, told VOA more than 500 of the group's members are now in detention, with nearly 180 of them arrested during the past week.

He said the arrests are linked to the upcoming municipal election. He said the ruling National Democratic Party is unable to compete with the Brotherhood in a fair poll, so members of the group are being detained to clear the way for the ruling party.

Habib said he expects more arrests before voting day.

The elections are scheduled for April 8.

Although the group is officially banned in Egypt, its members run for office as independents.

Analysts note that mass detentions of Muslim Brotherhood members have preceded most Egyptian elections in recent years, especially since the parliamentary election of 2005, when the group won 88 seats.

Mohamed Salah is the Cairo bureau chief for the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, and a noted expert on Islamist groups.

He said the municipal elections - originally scheduled for 2006 - were delayed nearly two years so the ruling party and the government could come up with a new plan for dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood after the group's success in the parliamentary poll.

Several controversial constitutional amendments were adopted last year that will raise even higher electoral barriers to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Salah said it will be even harder for the group to participate in future elections, so it is likely to participate in this one even if it means paying a high price in terms of arrests and detentions of Brotherhood members.

City councils in Egypt have traditionally been dominated by the ruling party, and have had little role in national politics. But there is more at stake in this local election than previous ones, because the new constitutional changes require any presidential candidate to have support from at least 140 members of local councils.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is 79 years old, and is widely believed to be grooming his son Gamal to succeed him, although both men deny that.