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EGYPT: Islamists Hounded, On Campus and Off

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO, Nov 10 2008 (IPS) - Candidates associated with opposition movements, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, were reportedly barred from participating in last month’s student union elections in universities across Egypt. Recent weeks have seen dozens of Brotherhood members detained.

“This is just a continuation of the regime’s longstanding strategy of wearing down the Muslim Brotherhood and pre-empting fresh bouts of political activism,” Diaa Rashwan, a senior analyst at the semi-official Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies told IPS.

Student union elections, held in the first two weeks of October on university campuses throughout the country, were declared to have been swept by candidates representing student organisations affiliated with the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Virtually no student union positions went to candidates representing opposition movements or parties.

Critics say opposition-affiliated student organisations – particularly the Muslim Brotherhood – were unfairly barred by university administrators from fielding candidates.

“NDP-affiliated candidates ran uncontested in most cases because no one else was permitted to add their name to the candidate lists,” Muslim Brotherhood MP Hamdi Hassan told IPS.

While admitting that some would-be candidates had been barred for “administrative” reasons, university administrators insist the elections were held on a level playing field. “Elections were open to every student without constraint,” Cairo University President Hossam Kamel was quoted as saying in the state press.

Brotherhood officials, however, tell a different story.

“In hopes of seeing fair elections, Brotherhood-affiliated students planned to run only for symbolic positions on university culture committees,” said Hassan. “Nevertheless, university administrations loyal to the NDP barred almost all of them from participating. And in the few cases where they were allowed to run, the voting was rigged in favour of the NDP-affiliated candidate.”

Hassan described the move as “an extension of the longstanding government policy of rigging all elections – be they at the presidential, legislative or municipal levels.” He said this “strategy of exclusion” was “killing political life in Egypt.”

On Oct. 13, thousands of students staged protests at a number of Egypt’s most prominent universities – including Cairo, Ain Shams, Mansoura, Minya and Al-Azhar – against what they called a blatantly biased electoral process. In some places, campuses were cordoned off by riot police in an effort to contain demonstrations.

Rashwan says the government’s heavy-handed approach to the student poll is hardly new.

“For decades, universities have strictly regulated student elections to prevent those affiliated with opposition movements – especially the Muslim Brotherhood – from running,” he said. “The government watches developments on campuses very closely, because this is where new generations of political activists generally come from.”

Hassan said any form of political activism on campus was usually met with firm disapproval – and, potentially, disciplinary action – by university administrators. “Any student thought to be politically active is subject to investigation and possible expulsion,” he said.

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

Although the Brotherhood remains formally outlawed, its members can field candidates as nominal independents in municipal and parliamentary elections. In 2005, the group captured 88 seats in parliament – roughly one-fifth of the national assembly – despite widespread electoral fraud, making it Egypt’s largest opposition movement.

“There’s no party or movement in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood’s political clout or parliamentary presence,” said Rashwan, who is an authority on political Islamist movements. “While secular opposition parties remain weak and divided, the Brotherhood represents the only real challenge to the ruling party.”

Efforts aimed at hindering the Brotherhood’s activities have not been limited to college campuses. Throughout Egypt, the group’s more senior cadres, too, have been subject to a wave of arrests in recent weeks.

Late last month, police arrested 32 of its members for attempting to deliver a convoy of medical supplies into the besieged Gaza Strip through Egypt’s flashpoint Rafah border crossing. Most recently, on Nov. 8, police detained another 25 Brotherhood members in the Nile Delta on charges of “belonging to a banned group.”

“Such arrests are nothing new,” said Hassan. “The regime has always persecuted and detained anyone that opposes it.”

“The government is extremely fearful of the rise of the Brotherhood’s influence in Egyptian society,” said Rashwan. “And its only way of dealing with this threat is to demonise the group in the media and regularly arrest its members.”

On Oct. 26, however, the state appeared to raise the ante, arresting 11 people affiliated with Islamic-oriented satellite-television station Al-Nass in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura for alleged “involvement” with the Muslim Brotherhood. Those detained reportedly included producers and newscasters working for the popular satellite channel.

Egyptian security sources claim the group had gathered to hold a Muslim Brotherhood meeting. The accused, however, insist they were there to conduct an interview with a prominent Al-Azhar University professor.

“This is nothing more than an attempt to terrorise those in the media from getting close to the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Hassan.

Rashwan said the move represented a significant escalation against the group.

“It appears the government has resorted to a new strategy: arresting those in the media that simply talk to members of the Brotherhood,” he said. “And with the approach of parliamentary and presidential elections in the next two years, such tactics are likely to continue.”

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