Brotherhood leaders lay low as Egypt government cracks down
Wednesday, March 7,2007 00:00
By (AP)

Essam el-Erian was once the most visible face of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, arguing the case of Egypt’s most powerful opposition movement to the public. But now he’s laying low as the government wages a crackdown.

"Conventional wisdom says if there is a storm, you have to bend to let it pass over, otherwise the storm will break you," el-Erian, the head of the Brotherhood’s political bureau, told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "But one thing is certain: They cannot eliminate us."

Since el-Erian was released from prison in December after six months in jail, authorities have banned him from going abroad and forced him to inform them about his movements inside Egypt.

Once a regular guest on television talk shows and at political seminars, el-Erian’s appearances in the media have become less frequent. He says the government has pressed the Cairo-based offices of Arab networks to shun him.

With his skill at communicating with people across Egypt’s political spectrum, el-Erian’s new low profile could hurt the Brotherhood’s ability to reach out to its grassroots and the general public.

But the entire Brotherhood is feeling the pressure these days under the government’s stepped-up campaign.

Some 300 Brotherhood members, including key leaders, have been arrested in recent weeks, according to the group and to New York-based Human Rights Watch. Authorities also struck the group’s economic institutions and seized their assets.

"It is a liquidation campaign," said the bearded, bespectacled el-Erian, a physician turned politician. "They do not aim to weaken the group, but to uproot it entirely."

The government moves appear aimed at driving the group largely out of Egyptian politics, after it scored a surprisingly strong showing in legislative elections in late 2005. Brotherhood candidates — who run as independents though their loyalties are known — won 88 of the parliament’s 454 seats. The government then postponed 2006 municipal elections for two years, apparently out of fear of more Brotherhood gains.

In parliament, the group’s lawmakers have stirred up trouble through policy debates and by questioning government ministers on such sensitive issues as corruption, police torture and President Hosni Mubarak’s pro-American foreign policies.

Such efforts have been met with fierce counter-attacks by pro-government writers who accuse the Brotherhood of having a hidden agenda to topple the government.

Mubarak has blasted the group as "a threat to Egypt and its economy" and ordered 40 members, including three of its top officials, tried before a military court, whose rulings cannot be appealed. He also introduced amendments to Egypt’s constitution that include a ban on political parties with religious affiliations and limits on independents running in elections — both sharp attacks on the Brotherhood.

Some observers believe the government also aims to drive a wedge inside the group’s leadership. Egyptian newspapers have recently reported a rift inside the movement on the best ways to respond to the government drive.

But Husam Tamam, an analyst and expert in Islamic affairs, said the nearly 80 year-old movement is strong enough to weather the government attacks. "As long as they face an external challenge, they will stay steadfast and united," Tamam said.

Indeed in public, the group’s leaders remain defiant.

Recently, the Brotherhood’s supreme leader, Mohammed Mehdi Akef, said the group plans at some point to form a political party, something it has refrained from doing in the past to avoid further friction with the government.

Brotherhood leaders also are pointed in their criticism of the United States and what they view as its reduced public pressure on Egypt in recent months to enact political reform.

The United States contends it continues to press Mubarak toward democratic reforms.

But Brotherhood members like el-Erian accuse Washington of all but dropping its democracy and human-rights pressure on Mubarak because of Washington’s need for his support in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and because of U.S. worries over the Brotherhood’s showing in elections.

"Americans do not tolerate democracy," said el-Erian.

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