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The Muslim Brotherhood's daily bulletin carried news of the release of 20 of their members in Sharqiya Governorate, as well as the fresh arrests of six members in the same province, and 12 in Beheira for protests against renewed Israeli threats to Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Roughly around 100 Brotherhood members have been arrested since February.
In Egypt it is illegal for more than five people to assemble; to do so can warrant detention under the Emergency Law, which has been in force since 1981. The protests came at a time when President Hosni Mubarak was undergoing a gallbladder surgery in Germany, amid rumors that he was in critical condition, and "when the regime was at its weakest in the absence of its top leader," according to Abdel Moneim Mahmoud, a prominent blogger who is close to the group.
Mahmoud says the wave of arrests wasn't just about disruptive demonstrations in support of Palestinians and Muslim holy sites. "The regime was lashing back in fear that these protests, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, may turn into something bigger against the country's absent president."
Those who were arrested this month are "junior" members of the Islamic group, but every blow dealt to the Brotherhood makes a difference, with parliamentary elections scheduled for this year and presidential elections in 2011.
The Brotherhood's popularity extended to the grassroots and beyond the scope of politics thanks to its charity activities and the recent rise in religiousness and conservatism among Egyptians.
In 2005, the Brotherhood shocked the regime by clinching 88 seats in the lower house of parliament, the People's Assembly. The Brothers fielded candidates as independents, taking advantage of constitutional provisions.
However, with recently enacted constitutional limitations on independent candidacy, duplicating such success this year is a far-fetched (if not impossible) prospect. The regime has learned its lesson, and Muslim Brotherhood senior leaders seem to agree.
"The elections are completely in the hands of the Interior Minister now," says Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, a senior leader in the Brotherhood. "It's he who decides who wins and who loses and who can run."
Abul Fotouh is referring to a 2006 amendment to the constitution that ended judicial monitoring of elections and supervision inside balloting stations, putting the job in the hands of a state-appointed committee. Vote counts should be done by locally elected officers.
Does this mean the Brothers will turn their back on politics?
That's not an option, according to Abul Fotouh, but at the same time the group is under no illusions about its waning political influence. "Under the current oppressive regime, there isn't a path [the Brotherhood can take] to reach power. There simply isn't a way."
The latest crackdown on Brotherhood cadres stunned many for being both early and vicious. It began in February, a few months before canvassing for parliamentary elections and a few weeks after the Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau impromptu elections, which left the Brotherhood ranks weary and divided.
The wave of arrests included newly elected deputy to the Supreme Guide Mahmoud Ezzat and media spokesman Essam el-Erian--two of the Brotherhood's biggest names. According to Abul Fotouh, these two in particular were supposed to be in charge of election campaigning. "So their arrest does affect us. And it leaves the job of running our campaigns in the hands of those who might be less popular or have less experience."
Recently, rumors surfaced that the Brotherhood has been holding secret talks with members of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), a notion that was swiftly denied by both the Brotherhood and Safwat el-Sherif, secretary general of the NDP.
The rumors, however, brought to memory the history of the Brotherhood's dealings with governments, including with Anwar Sadat when the Brothers were reportedly used to crush leftist opposition, especially among students. The rumors also come amid increasing speculation that some opposition groups are allying with the government in order to elbow out the Brotherhood from upcoming elections.
As pragmatic as they are, both Abul Fotouh and Mohamed Morsi, senior media spokesman for the group, deny the claim that "alliances" were built between government and the Brothers at any point in history, brushing the Sadat incident aside as an unfounded claim, although it is documented by historians.
"It's true that we liaise with state security police before protests sometimes. But this is as far as it goes," says Morsi.
Abul Fotouh suggests that the rumors may have been circulated by the NDP to raise doubt about the Brothers and create a rift between it and other opposition groups. Recent reports saying the group's supreme guide Mohamed Badie was "praying for Mubarak's health" were seen by some as a sign that the Brotherhood is trying to win sympathy from the regime, another notion which the Brotherhood denies.
"Mohamed Badie was asked by reporters during a wedding whether the Brothers are praying that Mubarak will get well, and he simply replied that the Brotherhood prays for all the sick, and not just Mubarak," says Morsi. "Because we're not malicious, we don't wish illness or death upon anyone."
Mohie adds that deals with the NDP are out of the question. "The Brothers' dictionary doesn't contain the words 'secret deals' or any such sordid term. How can we make deals behind the people's backs? This would be an act of treason."