CAIRO — With political tensions rising, the Egyptian government jailed about 100 members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and on Sunday sealed off part of the capital to prevent the popular group from staging a scheduled demonstration.
The crackdown began Saturday night, when Egyptian agents swept through Cairo and outlying provinces to arrest about 60 people in predawn raids. The detainees were accused of disturbing public order and possessing anti-government literature, Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Badr Mohamed Badr said.
The large Islamist party had called upon its followers to convene in front of the Egyptian parliament Sunday to protest the slow pace of election reforms introduced by President Hosni Mubarak. But the demonstration was blocked when thousands of police in riot gear formed a tight ring around downtown, sealing off all traffic toward parliament.
Some of the protesters managed to break through the lines of riot police; others gathered in an impromptu demonstration in a nearby square. Dozens of people were reportedly arrested during the scattered demonstrations.
Despite periodic arrests of its members, clashes between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood have become relatively rare in recent years. Believed to be one of the most powerful forces in Egyptian politics, the organization advocates the establishment of an Islamic state. Although it has been banned for decades, it is now generally tolerated by officials and has managed to seat 15 lawmakers in parliament by running them as independents.
Mubarak surprised the country this year when he agreed to allow other candidates to run for the presidency for the first time since he took power in 1981. In the past, Egypt has held referendums in which Mubarak was the only candidate and people were asked to choose "yes" or "no."
Skeptics, including the Muslim Brotherhood, have dismissed Mubarak's election reforms as gestures meant to deflect pressure for democratic change. Demonstrators have staged a series of small but unprecedented anti-Mubarak protests, calling openly for an end to his monopoly on the presidency.
In recent days, the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood issued stinging criticisms of the Egyptian government. The group decried the emergency laws that have ruled the country since President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamists in 1981. They also called for freedom of speech, freedom of association and presidential term limits.
"Today they were confirming their existence in the Egyptian theater," said Diaa Rashwan, an expert on militant Islam at Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "The real message was that they are here, that you cannot ignore the Muslim Brothers."
Staff writers Hossam Hamalawy and Jailan Zayan contributed to this report.