CAIRO — Egypt's regime is seizing upon a moment of regional chaos and U.S. inattention to crack down aggressively on the country's most popular opposition group and shore up its hold on power, analysts here say.
In a bald push against the Muslim Brotherhood, the secular government in recent weeks has arrested hundreds of activists, unveiled new restrictions on political Islam and published a stream of anti-Brotherhood propaganda in the state-run media. More than 80 members were jailed on Thursday alone, Brotherhood officials said.
"This is the most brutal campaign against the Brothers since [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak came to power," said Amr Shobaki, a political analyst and Muslim Brotherhood expert at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
With the U.S. distracted by the war in Iraq and increasingly nervous about the regional rise of political Islam, Mubarak's regime appears free to squeeze the Brotherhood, which has long been officially outlawed -- though tolerated -- as an Islamist opposition force.
About 300 Brotherhood members have been imprisoned of late, including at least 100 senior activists. Some of the prisoners' assets were frozen by order of the government. Meanwhile, Egyptian officials and their media mouthpieces have accused the group of creating armed militias and receiving aid from Iran.
"The banned Muslim Brotherhood group is dangerous to Egypt's security," Mubarak told an Egyptian newspaper in a recent interview. If the group gets more powerful, "investments will stop and unemployment will increase.... Egypt will be completely isolated from the rest of the world."
Brotherhood activists have seen a severe shrinking of leeway since 2005, when they stunned the country by capturing one-fifth of the parliamentary seats in national elections. Back then, U.S. officials said the invasion of Iraq would deliver democracy to the Arab world, and Egyptian officials portrayed the empowerment of Brotherhood members as a necessary step toward democratization.
"Democracy cannot progress in Egypt without deciding what to do with them," a ruling party official said at the time.
But voting has empowered Islamists across the board: Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iranian-backed Shiite parties in Iraq, in addition to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt is a major recipient of U.S. aid and a partner in a chilly, often contentious peace with Israel. Mubarak's struggle to appease his allies, hold on to power and tamp down the popular Brotherhood has long been considered a litmus test of Islamist strength across the region.
Not its first battle
Formed in the 1920s to advocate Islam and oppose secular and Western influence, the Brotherhood has a history of battling Egypt's governments. With its vast network of social services, it is deeply popular among religious Egyptians who regard it as a non-corrupt answer to cronyism and decadence. Mubarak has controlled Egypt for a quarter of a century, permitting virtually no dissent. As the one movement he hasn't been able to squelch, the Brotherhood is his nemesis. At the same time, it allows Mubarak and his inner circle to justify their repressive style of rule by claiming that the only other option is an Islamist state administered by the Brotherhood.
The elections played neatly into that argument. Many analysts here believe the Bush administration began to back away nervously from its democracy push when it saw Islamists winning at the polls across the Middle East.
Egypt's hand also has been strengthened by the instability in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, conflicts that have forced the United States to call on powerful Sunni allies in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan for diplomatic and political backing.
Nabil Abdel Fattah, an analyst at the Al Ahram Center, said the war in Iraq "has given more weight to the Egyptian foreign policy, which will give the government leeway in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood."
"The regional and international atmospheres have become convenient," Fattah said. "Attacks against the group will continue in order to send strong messages."
A criminal court acquitted several prominent Brotherhood detainees last month, but they were immediately returned to prison while their cases were sent to military court.
In the most startling and incendiary charge, the Egyptian government has begun to accuse the Brotherhood of forming and training underground militias. In news stories short on details, officials say they have seized documents proving that the Brotherhood has secret cells dedicated to provoking civil disobedience.
The accusations mark a serious departure from the status quo between the regime and the Brotherhood, considered the only opposition group with any serious street popularity.