Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

EGYPT: Clash Builds Up with Islamist Opposition

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO, Feb 15 2007 (IPS) - In an escalation of the ongoing campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, the government late last month froze the assets of several companies owned by members of the Islamist movement on money laundering charges. Brotherhood spokesmen say the move represents an attempt to stifle the group’s political activities and incite it to seek recourse outside the political arena.

“The regime is trying to provoke the Brotherhood into forsaking its peaceful methods – but this isn’t going to happen,” Saad al-Kitatni, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood bloc in parliament said at a press conference. “But we won’t hesitate to use any peaceful means available to defend ourselves.”

On 28 January, the prosecutor-general announced a freeze on the assets of 29 businessmen with close ties to the Brotherhood. Along with their bank accounts and liquid cash, the freeze also applies to business assets. This affects several major companies in the construction, manufacturing and tourism sectors.

As a result of the decision, the accused – including the group’s second deputy supreme guide Khairat al-Shater – and their immediate families are prohibited from making any currency or property transactions.

While the defence has filed an appeal, the court ruled to delay its final verdict until Feb. 24. In the interim, however, the assets in question are to remain frozen.

Defence lawyer Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maqsoud decried the “arbitrary” nature of the ruling, saying it would “contribute to the collapse of the Egyptian economy and send a negative message to Arab and foreign investors.”

To make matters worse, Cairo’s criminal court had ordered the release of El-Shater and 15 co-defendants the day before, only to immediately re-arrest them by invoking the country’s decades-old emergency law. Abdel-Maqsoud was quoted as saying the move represented confirmation that “this dictatorial regime doesn’t respect the law.”

The detentions and financial embargoes come amid an ongoing government crackdown on the Brotherhood over the last two months. Since mid-December, scores of the group’s leading members have been arrested, many on charges of money-laundering aimed at financing the group’s alleged “military wing”.

The crackdown was initially triggered by a rally held by Brotherhood-affiliated students – wearing black uniforms and performing martial-arts moves – at Cairo’s al-Azhar University Dec. 10. Despite its small size, the incident triggered a maelstrom of official condemnation, with the state press depicting it as a “military parade”.

Government mouthpiece al-Ahram reported the next day that participants “wore the sort of dress commonly associated with militant groups like Hamas and al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade (in the Palestinian Territories) and the Mehdi Brigades (in Iraq)”. The prosecutor-general’s office, meanwhile, stated the event was an attempt by the Brotherhood to revive its “old military wing” in advance of establishing “a new Islamic Caliphate”.

Brotherhood spokesmen, however, insisted that the event was “athletic” in nature rather than “military”. In statements published on the group’s website, Brotherhood supreme guide Mehdi Akef said “the media is trying to give a false impression in an effort to promote popular fear and anxiety about the Brotherhood.”

Immediately after the event, police arrested about 120 students and 20 high-ranking Brotherhood members on charges of inciting public unrest. “Leaders of the banned group had recruited large numbers of students and tasked them with causing unrest,” al-Ahram reported the next day.

While the government has since announced its intention to release a handful of the arrested students, most of them, along with all of the jailed Brotherhood members, remain in detention.

The incident led President Hosni Mubarak to make the unprecedented declaration on Jan. 15 that the Muslim Brotherhood represented a “danger to Egypt’s security” because of its “religious orientation”. Within the next few days, several other members of the group were arrested on charges of money laundering and for attempting to “revive the efforts” of the banned movement.

Brotherhood spokesmen condemned the escalation, saying that freezing the group’s financial assets would only serve to harm the national economy.

“This decision is a disaster for the Egyptian economy,” Abdel-Hamid al-Ghazeli, professor of economics and political science at Cairo University and advisor to the movement’s supreme guide, was quoted as saying on the group’s website. He went on to blame Egypt’s rising poverty levels and chronic unemployment problem on “the government’s failed economic policies.”

According to Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian and legal expert Sobhi Sallih, the move must be seen “within the context of the current war against Islam” being waged by the U.S. administration and its allies. “The same thing is happening in Palestine,” Sallih added, where the democratically elected Hamas government has been subject to crushing economic sanctions for almost one year.

A number of independent local observers agreed that the move, given the apparent lack of evidence against the Brotherhood, appeared to be politically motivated.

“The reasons for the asset freeze are entirely political,” said Hamdi Abdel-Azim, economist and former head of the Cairo-based Sadat Academy. “Namely, to prevent the group from financing its political activities in advance of coming Shura Council and municipal elections.”

Under anti-money laundering laws, frozen funds must be derived from criminal activity like embezzlement or drug trafficking, Abdel-Azim told IPS. “But investigations haven’t proven that Brotherhood members engaged in any of these activities.”

He added that the move would “lead to a deterioration of the local investment climate and the flight of local and foreign capital abroad.” Contesting government estimates, Abdel-Azim went on to note that the combined capital of affected companies was in the range of 2 billion Egyptian pounds (approximately 350 million dollars).

“These are major, big-name companies,” Atef al-Banna, professor of constitutional law at Cairo University told IPS. “And there’s been no evidence so far that any of their capital was derived illegitimately.”

According to local human rights activists, the issue simply requires further clarification.

“The government must determine the sources of these companies’ capital,” Hafez Abu Saeda, chairman of the Cairo-based Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights told IPS. “But the government has the right to seize funds, according to UN resolutions and Egyptian law, if their origins are not known.”

The Muslim Brotherhood was banned in the mid-1950s when some of its members were accused of trying to assassinate then president Gamal Abdel Nasser. In the 1970s, however, the group officially renounced violence and its tactics have been confined to the political arena ever since.

While the Brotherhood remains officially banned, its members can run as nominal independents in parliamentary elections. In late 2005, the group captured roughly one fifth of the seats in parliament, largely because of the popular support it has built by providing much-needed social services in impoverished areas.

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