In Egypt, Military Tightens Hold on Muslim Brotherhood

October 30, 2013
Watch Egypt in Crisis, FRONTLINE’s in-depth look at the aftermath of Egypt’s revolution and what could come next.

Another senior Muslim Brotherhood leader was arrested in Egypt on Wednesday, as the military-led government continues its crackdown on the religious group.

Essam El-Erian, the vice president of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice political party, was ordered detained for a month, accused of instigating street clashes, a charge he denies.

The military has been working steadily to marginalize the group since overthrowing President Mohammed Morsi, a Brotherhood leader and Egypt’s first democratically elected president, in July. In September, the government banned the group from organizing and froze its assets. It issued arrest warrants for several top leaders, including El-Erian. In the past four months, Egyptian security forces have swept up hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members, and jailed at least 2,000.

Until recently, the government had not directly attacked the Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, although with most of the group’s top members imprisoned and funds inaccessible, it was already crippled. But now a state commission has recommended the party be disbanded as well, an Egyptian newspaper reported.

Before he was arrested on Wednesday, El-Erian had been in hiding, periodically releasing taped statements critical of the military government, according to Egyptian media.

In Egypt in Crisis, FRONTLINE asked El-Erian how long the Muslim Brotherhood would protest against the new military regime, which they consider a coup. In English, he said:

The people are more courage. They have no fear in their chests. They inspire freedom and cannot leave it again. And they can sacrifice and can have tens of martyrs, maybe hundreds of martyrs, to restore the inspired spirit of the revolution and continue reforming as a democratic country.

Since then, many people have died in such clashes. Earlier this month, at least 51 people were killed, the highest death toll since the brutal crackdowns in August.

The new government, led by a president appointed by the head of the military, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has been able to pursue the Brotherhood with considerable support from liberal Egyptians who stridently opposed Morsi and backed his overthrow with massive rallies in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt.

“[Morsi] has the mandate of the ballots, but democracy is not about ballot boxes,” Khaled Fahmy, professor and chair of the American University in Cairo’s history department, told FRONTLINE just after Morsi was ousted. “And if he thinks that he has a mandate because he had got a majority, well, a, he got a very slim majority, and b, democracy is not only about casting ballots.”

Gen. Sisi has gained wide support among liberal and more moderate Egyptians, with his face emblazoned on posters and baked onto cakes. Some Egyptians have even called for him to run for president, which would mark an official return to military rule for a country that just emerged from such control two years ago.

There is little tolerance for military critics in Egypt now.

An Egyptian political satirist, Bassem Youssef, has mocked the overwhelming liberal support for military rule on his popular TV show.

“I can understand the intolerance of the religious movement and its penchant for the far-right,” he said recently. “…At least they are consistent with their beliefs. … But I can’t understand a current that claims to defend liberalism and freedom but which, in the end, is less tolerant than the religious one.”

He’s now facing criminal complaints for “undermin[ing] the honor and dignity of Egypt and its people,” and encouraging sedition.

Meanwhile, Morsi remains imprisoned, accused of inciting violence. His trial is set to begin on Monday, Nov. 4.

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