CAIRO (AFP) – Egypt was set on Saturday to charge 16 leading members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood after their arrest in the latest clampdown on the Islamists, the country’s main opposition movement.
The men, including senior figures Essam al-Aryan and Mahmoud Hussein, were arrested in a police swoop at the home of a fellow Brotherhood member in Cairo late on Friday.
“This is yet another hard blow for us,” the organisation’s number two, Mohammed Habib, told AFP.
Hundreds of members of the Brotherhood have been rounded up in recent weeks, many at summer camps the state says are used for training to “destabilise the nation.”
The 16 are expected to be charged with belonging to a banned organisation, possession of illegal documents, and holding a meeting to plan illicit activities. The Brothers said they were arrested “at a routine meeting.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, which describes itself as a moderate Islamic organisation that wants to bring Islamic law to Egypt, has been outlawed since 1954.
The group has more than a fifth of the seats in Egypt’s parliament, but its representatives sit as independents because of its illegal status.
Considered a moderate, Aryan is part of the Brotherhood’s political bureau, while Hussein sits on the Orientation Council, the group’s other major leadership organ.
Aryan, a doctor who often serves as spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, has spent many years in prison since the 1970s, and was last released in December 2006, said another Brotherhood spokesman, Ibrahim al-Houdaiby.
He said on the Brothers’ website that Aryan’s arrest “is a clear attempt by the regime to crackdown on the moderate leaders of the Brotherhood who could push the group towards more moderate stances.
“Some observers make distinctions between his discourse and that of other Brotherhood leaders … and claim that Aryan presents a moderate facade for a group which is not that moderate,” Houdaiby said.
One of the organisation’s new generation of leaders, Aryan was prevented on Friday from going to Istanbul on a trip sponsored by the doctors’ union which is controlled by the Brotherhood.
The group made a stunning breakthrough in the legislative elections of November and December 2005. Running as independents, Muslim Brotherhood members won 88 of 454 seats in the national parliament which is dominated by President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party.
The latest arrests came as 40 other members — mainly businessmen — are being tried in a military tribunal for financing a banned organisation and money laundering.
A hearing took place earlier this month on a military base behind closed doors despite protests by rights groups barred from attending the politically charged trial, which is set to resume on Sunday.
Amnesty International has called on Mubarak to allow independent observers to witness the proceedings. The defendants — including the Brotherhood’s number three leader, Khayrat al-Shater — could face the death penalty if convicted.