CAIRO â€” Police arrested 73 members of the Muslim Brotherhood on Thursday, in what appeared to be a pre-emptive strike against the countryâ€™s largest Islamic group ahead of elections and a key parliamentary debate, officials said.
The arrests bring the total of Brotherhood members in custody to just under 300, according to figures provided by the group and Human Rights Watch.
Police did not give a reason for Thursdayâ€™s early morning detentions, but those arrested were mostly members who were expected to run in the April elections for the Shura Council, the upper house of parliament, and assistants to the groupâ€™s legislators, said Abdel Gelil el-Sharnoubi, the editor of the Brotherhoodâ€™s website.
Mr. el-Sharnoubi said that the group had not chosen candidates for the Shura polls but that â€œthe government targeted figures who are popular in their provinces and are expected to run the elections.â€
The Brotherhood did surprisingly well in the 2005 legislative elections, winning 88 seats in the 454-member parliament. The government postponed the 2006 municipal elections for two years, apparently out of fear of big gains by the Brotherhood.
Brotherhood candidates stand as independents in elections â€“ the group has been banned since 1954 â€“ but their campaigns are financed by the Brotherhood and voters know their allegiance.
â€œThey also arrested a number of legislatorsâ€™ assistants in order to paralyze the lawmakers,â€ Mr. el-Sharnoubi added.
President Hosni Mubarak has asked the legislature to amend 34 articles in the constitution as part of a political reform package. The opposition, of which the Brotherhood is by far the largest component, has criticized the amendments as doing little to advance democracy. One amendment would ban the formation of political parties with a religious foundation â€“ a restriction clearly aimed at the Brotherhood.
The authorities have intensified their campaign against the Brotherhood since December when student members staged a militia-style demonstration at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. The parade, which Brotherhood leaders said was unauthorized, provoked fears that the group was forming a military wing.
Mr. Mubarak signed an order last week to put 40 Brothers on trial in a military court on charges of money laundering and terrorism.
The accused include the groupâ€™s No. 3 leader, Khayrat el-Shater, executive Mohammed Ali Bishr, and a millionaire and patron of the group, Hassan Malik.
Human Rights Watch said Thursdayâ€“before the dayâ€™s arrests became knownâ€“that the police had detained a total of 226 group members â€œsolely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and associationâ€ since December.
Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, accused the government of trying to crush Egyptâ€™s largest opposition movement.
â€œThe government has shown once again that it cannot tolerate any criticism,â€ she said.