Africa, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, Religion

EGYPT: Muslim Brotherhood on the Mat

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani

CAIRO, Jun 3 2009 (IPS) - Several leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement stand accused of plans to form an "international network of organisational cells." Its leaders say the charges are blatant fabrications.

"We're used to trumped-up charges," says Saad Al-Husseini, a prominent Brotherhood MP accused by police of spearheading the group's alleged global expansion plans. "I was also briefly accused of training jihadists in Chechnya five years ago – despite never having left Egypt," he told IPS.

Thirteen leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, including a member of the group's Guidance Office, were arrested last month for "establishing organisational cells worldwide." The claims were accompanied by customary charges of "belonging to and financing a banned organisation," and of money laundering.

Although the Brotherhood remains formally outlawed, its members can contest as nominal independents in municipal and parliamentary elections. In 2005, the group captured 88 seats in parliament – roughly one-fifth of the national assembly – making it Egypt's largest opposition bloc.

The independent daily Al-Dustour reported last month that the 13 had been formally accused of setting up an illegal "committee for communications abroad." According to official charges cited in the press, the committee constituted an attempt to "form an international network of Muslim Brotherhood strongholds."

The men were further accused of "exploiting foreign religious students in Egypt to promote the Muslim Brotherhood's message in their respective countries," and of "communicating with Brotherhood cells overseas." The police charge sheet spoke of plans to establish cells in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Iraq, as well as in the U.S., Germany and Italy.

Police additionally went on to accuse four high-ranking Brotherhood figures of complicity in the plot. Along with Al-Husseini, these included Ibrahim Al- Katitani, head of the group's parliamentary bloc; Hussein Ibrahim, Al- Katitani's number two in parliament; and Abdel Menaam Abou Al-Fotouh, who is also secretary-general of the Arab Doctors Union. All the men except Ibrahim are also members of the group's 21-member Guidance Office.

Al-Husseini, who leads the parliamentary bloc's committee for foreign relations and was therefore accused of heading the alleged "communications committee", calls the charges against him "illusory".

"It's true that I'm responsible for foreign relations for the Brotherhood bloc in the assembly. Whenever international figures visit Egypt's parliament, I meet with them openly," he said. "But this doesn't mean that I run a 'committee for international communications', the existence of which is a police fabrication.

"Throughout the world, Muslim Brotherhood members respect the laws of the nations in which they reside," Al-Husseini said. "This is part of the group's philosophy. Despite the frequent moves against us – such as arrest campaigns, asset seizures or false accusations – we remain devoted to political change by peaceful means only."

Some of the group's spokesmen have suggested that the recent arrest campaign was aimed specifically at Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mehdi Akef, noting that a number of Akef's personal assistants had been detained in the recent sweep.

"The latest campaign targets Mehdi Akef," leading Brotherhood member Essam Al-Arian was quoted as saying. "It's an attempt to punish him for his recent public statements in support of (Lebanese resistance group) Hizbullah."

In early May, Akef declared that Hizbullah leader Hasan Nasrallah "should be thanked for his support to the Palestinian resistance (against Israel) and his perseverance against the enemy." Akef added that Egypt "should offer Nasrallah its gratitude, respect and appreciation, rather than try to tarnish his image."

In April, authorities announced the arrest of members of a Hizbullah cell that they claimed had been planning terrorist operations in Egypt. Although Nasrallah hastily stated that the group had only been tasked with assisting the Palestinian resistance in Gaza, the government has since used the incident to launch a blistering media campaign against the Lebanese Shia resistance group and its leader.

Ibrahim Mansour, political analyst and executive editor of Al-Dustour, agrees that the crackdown on the Brotherhood leadership may have been in reaction to Akef's public support of Hizbullah.

"A number of western governments officially consider Hizbullah a terrorist group," Mansour told IPS. "Therefore, Akef's statements in support of Nasrallah allow Egypt to portray the Brotherhood to the west as a dangerous supporter of terrorism.

"The case will probably remain in limbo, at least for a while," added Mansour. "It will give the government an additional means of pressuring the Brotherhood in advance of parliamentary elections next year."

Mohamed Habib, first deputy to the group's supreme guide, has stated that the recent arrests were aimed primarily at pre-empting rapprochement between the Brotherhood and the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, who is scheduled to deliver a high-profile speech in Cairo Jun. 4.

"It's been suggested that Obama was going to invite a number of Brotherhood parliamentarians to attend the event," Habib was quoted as saying. "But the prospect of the U.S. President opening communications with us angered the regime, which decided to launch a pre-emptive strike."

Al-Husseini, however, attributed the crackdown primarily to the state's longstanding fear of the group as Egypt's largest and best organised opposition force.

"The main reason for the latest round of arrests and accusations is that the Muslim Brotherhood represents the strongest popular force in the country," he said. "The Egyptian regime remains deep in the embrace of America and Israel, while the Brotherhood opposes the Zionist-U.S. colonial project in the region – several of those arrested also happened to have led demonstrations against Israel's recent assault on Gaza."

Al-Husseini added: "For these reasons the government is continuing its longstanding strategy of attrition aimed at perpetually harassing, threatening and wearing us down, without any regard for the law."

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