CAIRO - Egyptian authorities on Thursday ordered a senior Islamist leader to remain in police custody for two weeks after a day of questioning by state security prosecutors about his alleged links to Egypt's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group.
The order was the latest development in the government's crackdown on dissent ahead of next month's presidential election.
Abdel-Monaem Abul Fetouh, 66, was arrested Wednesday night shortly after his return from a trip to London. On Thursday, a prosecution statement said he had been ordered detained for two weeks pending completion of an investigation.
The statement said Abul Fetouh was facing accusations that he spread "false news'' that could hurt Egypt's national security and joining an outlawed organization — Egyptian parlance for the Brotherhood — that sanctions the overthrow of the government by force and endangers society.
Abul Fetouh's attorneys demanded that their client be taken to a hospital for a checkup after he felt a "sudden bout of exhaustion,'' according to the statement, which did not say whether prosecutors agreed to the request.
Separately, a statement by the Interior Ministry said senior Brotherhood leaders living in exile in Britain and Turkey had held secret meetings with Abul Fetouh to finalize plans to sow confusion and instability in Egypt to coincide with attacks against vital state installations "to create a state of chaos that will allow them [the Brotherhood] to return to the political scene's forefront.''
Election allegedly targeted
The plan was to be executed during next month's presidential election, it added. Documents pertaining to the alleged plot were found at Abul Fetouh's home, it added.
Abul Fetouh is the leader of the Strong Egypt party, whose deputy, Mohammed el-Kassas, was detained about a week ago, also over alleged links to the Brotherhood. At least five senior members of his party were released early Thursday, just hours after their detention over similar accusations.
The questioning of both men is part or a wider investigation into what authorities say is a plot to resurrect the Brotherhood as well as dealings with media outlets loyal to the group. The Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed and declared a terrorist organization shortly after the ouster by the military in 2013 of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president and a Brotherhood stalwart.
Their detention also points to a stepped-up crackdown on dissent ahead of the March 26-28 vote that is virtually certain to be won by the incumbent general-turned-president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Standing between the president and another four years in office is an obscure politician and a supporter whose eleventh-hour entry into the race spared the president and his government the deeper embarrassment of a one-candidate election.
The officials said Abul Fetouh would also be questioned by prosecutors about comments he recently made to Al Jazeera, the television news network that Cairo sees along with its host nation, Qatar, as uncompromisingly hostile to its government and accommodating toward militant Islamic groups in the region.
Vote boycott urged
In the February 11 interview, he accused authorities of fabricating cases against critics and violating the constitution. Abul Fetouh was also among prominent opposition figures who last month called for a boycott of the vote, something that pro-el-Sissi lawmakers and media celebrities described as tantamount to an attempted coup.
Abul Fetouh was a longtime Brotherhood member but quit the group in 2011 to run for president in the 2012 election won by Morsi, whose one-year rule proved divisive. Under el-Sissi, pro-government media have insisted that his sympathies continue to be with the Brotherhood.
The security officials said prosecutors possessed documents and video recordings that allegedly show that Abul Fetouh has been in contact with Brotherhood leaders living in exile.
Abul Fetouh's arrest was the latest in a series of high-profile, election-related detentions that have rocked the country ahead of the vote.
Former military chief of staff Sami Annan was arrested last month, days after he declared his intention to run for president. The military accused him of incitement against the armed forces and forgery. Earlier this week, the country's former anti-graft chief was arrested after he told a television interviewer that Annan possessed documents secured abroad that incriminated the country's leadership. An army colonel who released a video in which he declared his intention to run for president is serving a six-year prison sentence following his conviction for violating the military's ban on political activism.
Besides Annan, a string of would-be candidates, including a former prime minister and a rights lawyer, have quit the race amid charges of coercion by authorities or fears about the safety of their supporters.