Will Egypt’s crackdown on top Islamists banish the Brotherhood?

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Following the arrests of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading ranks in Egypt, attempts to contact the group’s members, media representatives or other Islamist associates is proving a tough job.

According to local reports, most of the Brotherhood’s figureheads aren’t answering their phones, avoiding the Internet and have seemingly stopped making public appearances.

While their supporters are still holding scattered protests across the country, defiantly demanding the return of Islamist President Mohammad Mursi, a campaign of arrests has forced the Brotherhood’s top figures to return to the “underground,” a leap back into to the years in which they were long banned in Egypt.

But the Brotherhood, which managed to keep large protests camps in Cairo powering on for six weeks to protest against what they deemed a military coup, is now struggling to get people on the streets.

“To some extent they have succeeded. Turnout in the street is low,” Khalil Anani, an expert on Islamic movements, told Reuters. “For the short term the Brotherhood has received a major blow,” Anani added.

Since security forces forcibly dispersed the two Cairo camps of protesters loyal to ousted Islamist president, top Brotherhood officials have been rounded up by authorities.

No stone has been left unturned, from grassroots members to general guide Mohammad Badie, who was arrested on August 20, security sources say more than 2,000 Muslim Brotherhood members have been arrested in the past 12 days, according to AFP news agency.

But will the crackdown effectively manage to crush the Brotherhood?

Observers of the Brotherhood have taken a step back, revisiting the Brotherhood’s history of suppression which may have now come full circle.

“Ever since the Muslim Brotherhood was formed, it has been under regimes that have provoked it; from when Egypt was a monarchy to when it was ruled by the presidencies of Gamal Abd el-Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak,” Tariq Mursi, an official spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) told Al Arabiya English.

Throughout these years, the Brotherhood’s leaders have endured bouts of persecution under former Nasser and his successors and hardship in jail. Banned in Mubarak’s era, the Brotherhood was also heavily suppressed.

Badie, for instance, was jailed for his involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood in 1965 and his cellmates included Sayyid Qutb, the influential Islamist writer who was eventually executed by the Nasser government.

The Islamist group’s light at the end of the tunnel was the January 25, 2011 uprising which ousted Mubarak, allowing the Brotherhood to win a majority in the parliament and then the presidency. But Mursi’s ouster has induced an overriding blast from the past for the group.

“This is why they are used to enduring times of hardship. The previous regimes could not ever crush the Brotherhood. The group is too attached to the Egyptian people,” the FJP spokesman said.

A strong element of this “attachment” is the group’s charity infrastructure.

"The organization is based on social relationships with families, neighbors, schools, hospitals, institutions and orphanages," Nidal Sakr, a Brotherhood political strategist, told Reuters.

"If you want to approach the Brotherhood you have to approach society," he said. "In the organizational sense it can be halted. But you cannot take it out of society."

However, since the pro-Mursi Cairo protests were dispersed, a cautious calm has been felt among many Egyptians, Abdallah Kamal, an Egyptian political analyst and a former member of the country’s Shoura Council told Al Arabiya English.

“The recent events have led to organizational tremors within the Muslim Brotherhood, with the arrests of the primary and secondary leadership ranks.

“I don’t think the (Muslim Brotherhood and Mursi supporters) protests will continue. They are retreating, as they know their protests are ineffective, like last Friday’s dismal turnout. It showed that the arrests have actually stilled the protests,” Kamal added.

Badie and two deputies -- Rashad Bayoumi and Khairat al-Shater were due in court on Saturday, accused of inciting the murder of protesters who died outside their Cairo headquarters on the evening of June 30, when millions of Egyptians attended anti-Mursi protests.

Their trial was quickly adjourned until October, with the defendants failing to make a court appearance, reportedly due to security concerns.

Mohammed Attia, an attorney for Badie, Shater and Bayoumi, explains his interpretation of the mass arrests.

“They want to say they are terrorists and demonize the Brotherhood and its leaders so when the coup settles down, the people will be against them,” Attia told the Washington Post.

Also arrested last week on similar charges was hard-line cleric Safwat Hegazy, found at a checkpoint near the Siwa Oasis, near Libya. Egypt’s state news agency reported that Hegazy was trying to flee the country across the Libyan border.

The head of the Freedom and Justice Party Mohammad Saad al-Katatani was also detained on charges of inciting the murder of protesters and possessing firearms.

Mohammad Mahdi Akef, the forrmer general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood was also arrested on similar charges, as well as Salafist former presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismail.

And among the most popular Islamist faces is Hassan al-Prince, the official spokesperson of the Freedom and Justice Party, who was filmed sitting in an undisclosed location reportedly after his arrest. Prince is being held on charges of incitement to murder and violence against protesters opposing Mursi in the port city of Alexandria.

A Brotherhood member’s daughter has recently spoken out in comments to AFP news agency, saying the arrests have forced those on the run to blend in.

"We've gone back to direct contact after having banned the use of telephones and the Internet, which could allow us to be found," said Aisha, giving a false name for security reasons.

Her father had gone underground for fear of arrest after the August 14 deadly break-up of the Cairo protest camps, the news agency reported.

The most prominent Muslim Brotherhood official that authorities could now be scouting for is Mahmoud Ezzat, the Islamist group’s deputy general guide. Ezzat took temporary leadership of the group after Badie was detained, its Freedom and Justice Party newspaper reported before shortly denying this on the party’s official website.

Ezzat has not made a public appearance since the June 30 protests, according to Egypt’s al-Masry al-Youm newspaper, adding that he is also wanted on charges of incitement to murder.

Mohamed el-Beltagy, the Secretary General of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is also wanted on similar charges, specifically ordering protesters to rally in front of Republican Guard headquarters.

Essam al-Erian, an advisor to the former president and the man who prompted widespread controversy after he said last year that all Jews should return to Egypt, is wanted on similar charges. He too was last seen in the Rabaa al-Adawiya Square protests.

The search for the group's members and affiliates appears to be ongoing.

“The campaign of arrests is not only targeting the Brotherhood,” said Mursi, the FJP spokesman, highlighting a point that he believes has been generalized by local and international media.

“It’s not all about the Brotherhood. Authorities are also targeting members of the FJP, the Wasat Party (a moderate Islamist party) and those in the Building and Development Party, as well as political activists that are not affiliated to any Islamist coalition.”

“The Brotherhood was not the only group supporting (President Mursi’s) legitimacy,” he added.

*For a list of the top Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist figures that have been detained, and those reportedly wanted by Egyptian authorities, see our interactive info-graphic.

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