Egypt targets Muslim Brotherhood moderates

President Hosni Mubarak's regime is clamping down on the banned opposition group ahead of next month's local elections.

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    Family: Zahraa El Shater's father and husband are both on trial before a military court for belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood group.
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Hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members waited under the hot spring sun on the Hikestep Army Base near Cairo on Tuesday to hear the verdict against 40 other influential members on trial for participating in the banned opposition movement.

Many traveled from far away provinces to hear the decision, only to be told that the verdict was being delayed – again.

It was a repeat of a similar scene in February, when around 1,000 Brotherhood members holding banners, photographs of the defendants, and copies of the Koran filled the parking lot of the base, only to be told then that the decision was postponed.

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Members of the opposition group, human rights activists, and other reform advocates here see the 14-month-old military trial as part of the government's ongoing crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood to diminish its political prospects ahead of next month's polls in which more than 10,000 local council seats are up for grabs. They say the trial has targeted key moderates in the movement, as well as important financiers, in an attempt to push it further to the margins of Egyptian public life.

"The fact that they keep delaying the verdict means that this case is purely political and there are no actual, serious charges," says Mohamed Habib, deputy leader of the Brotherhood, who himself was sentenced to five years in prison by a military court in 1995 for membership in a banned group. "The regime is mainly interested in keeping pressure on the Brotherhood to prevent us from taking any action."

Detained, intimidated, on the run

More than 800 Brotherhood members who have been involved in campaigns for local council seats have been detained in recent months and many of its prominent members have gone into hiding around the country.

Thousands of aspiring Brotherhood candidates have been barred from filing their paperwork by a mix of bureaucratic trickery and violence, says Mr. Habib, who estimates that the group will not be able to field more than 15 candidates in next month's race.

While the Muslim Brotherhood is officially banned in Egypt, its members run in elections as independents. In parliamentary elections in 2005, the group stunned President Hosni Mubarak's regime by winning one-fifth of the seats in the country's People's Assembly.

The group renounced violence in the 1970s and focused on establishing a vast network of charitable activities for the country's poor, such as schools, clinics, and youth centers.

In recent years, it has emerged as a major advocate of democratic reform in Egypt, coupling calls for elections with its longstanding arguments for Islamic law.

Brotherhood members and outside observers say the crackdown has weakened the influence of the movement's moderates and empowered its more conservative ideological elements.

Ibrahim El Houdaiby, an editor of IkhwanWeb, the group's English-language website, says the government is cracking down on moderate Islamists because they are more willing to engage with the international community and to work across party lines with opposition groups of different ideological stripes.

He points to the recent arrest of a senior IkhwanWeb editor, Khaled Hamza, who was detained on a busy street just hours after meeting with visitors from an international human rights group.

Moderates increasingly targeted

"People with a greater ability to reach out to those with different ideologies and backgrounds, like secular opposition groups in Egypt and the international community, are at a higher risk of being detained," he said.

That view is shared by Zahraa El Shater, the daughter of Khairat El Shater, the movement's No. 3 leader and a lead defendant in the case.

Ms. El Shater says it will take "a miracle" for her father and her husband, Ayman Abdel Ghani, who is also on trial, to be released.

If the regime wanted to give them a fair trial, she says, it would abide by the multiple acquittals they received in civilian courts.

Instead, she thinks the regime wants to punish the men for their moderate views and openness to the West.

"My father was taken because he was moderate and liked to open dialogue with Western people, with American people," she says. "The government here hates that. It does not want the Muslim Brotherhood to talk to Western people.

The imprisonment of Mr. El Shater and other moderates has had "a tremendous effect on the internal workings of the group" by upsetting the balance between pragmatists and conservatives, says Joshua Stacher, a fellow at Syracuse University who specializes in Middle Eastern politics.

This case is the first time the government has gone after the finances of Brotherhood members, says Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University.

That is significant, he says, because it strikes a blow at the charitable activities that draw in many of its supporters, and also sends a warning to the movement's donors.

"If the government goes after its funding, then this stops the money used to fund these activities," says Shehata. "Now the government is not only jailing people, but also threatening their families' well-being."

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