CAIRO, (Reuters) – Egyptian police detained dozens of members of the Muslim Brotherhood on Wednesday, expanding a crackdown on the country’s strongest opposition group ahead of local elections in April.
The Islamist group, which holds one fifth of the seats in parliament, poses the most serious challenge to the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) in the April 8 elections for local councils which the NDP has dominated for years.
The Brotherhood said police rounded up 101 members. Security officials put the number at 85.
The raids brought to at least 180 the number of Brotherhood members taken into custody in the last week. More than 500 in total are now in detention. “Anyone they believe could be a candidate they detain,” Brotherhood leader Mohamed Mahdi Akef said in an interview with the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite channel. “The recent arrests are all linked to the local elections,” senior Brotherhood leader Essam el-Erian told Reuters. “This is as clear as sunshine. “The local council elections were postponed for two years in 2006 after the Brotherhood performed better than expected in the parliamentary elections of 2005. Akef said the Brotherhood would take part in the elections despite the campaign of arrests. “We call on all the people to take part, every honourable person who wants to serve this nation,” he told Al Jazeera.
Erian said the aim of fielding candidates would be mainly to make the group’s presence felt, rather than to win seats. “We know the election will be rigged,” he said. The Brotherhood and other opposition parties accuse the ruling NDP of vote rigging. The party denies this.
Erian said most of those rounded up in recent days were either candidates in previous elections or members who could run campaigns. The Brotherhood’s official Web site (ikhwanonline.com) listed doctors, teachers, civil servants and university professors among Wednesday’s detainees.
The councils have much less influence than in many other countries because the central government continues to appoint powerful provincial governors, mostly ex-generals from the police or the armed forces. But seats in the local council could be important at the national level in future years if an independent politician wants to challenge the ruling party for the presidency.
Under a constitutional amendment approved in 2005, independent candidates for the presidency need endorsements from 65 elected members of the lower house of parliament, 25 elected members of the upper house and 140 members of local councils.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which the authorities refuse to recognise as a political party, can already meet the first requirement and could meet the third if the local elections in April are free and fair. But the movement now has no seats in the upper house of parliament, known as the Shura Council. “This election is important to the Brotherhood because … the Brotherhood is a grassroots group that depends on interacting with people,” said political analyst Mohamed Salah. “The local councils are about peoples’ daily lives: paving roads, providing electricity and utilities,” he added.
In the 2002 local council elections more than 49,000 seats were at stake across the country of 75 million people. At provincial level there were 3,230 seats.