Egypt's Crackdown: When a U.S. Ally Does the Repressing

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Amr Nabil / AP

Essam el-Erian, a top figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, was among those arrested by Egyptian police on Feb. 8, 2010

The U.S. government has never been shy to criticize Iran over its dismal human-rights record, particularly since Tehran launched a crackdown on opposition voices following last summer's election. But the U.S. stance remains considerably more subdued when Egypt, Washington's biggest Arab ally in the region, exercises similar bad behavior. And the months ahead will test just how subdued it intends to be.

For Egypt, which receives an annual $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid, the equivalent of Iran's election drama hasn't unfolded yet. Parliamentary elections are still several months away, and presidential elections aren't slated until next year. But there are signs of an imminent crackdown on opposition groups. U.S. silence on the issue suggests that Cairo may be able to avoid the international spotlight in a way that Tehran did not.

On Feb. 8, for example, Egyptian security forces arrested 16 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most popular opposition group. Those arrested included three senior members, including the deputy leader, Mahmoud Ezzat. More than 30 others had been arrested in the two weeks prior to that. "They were arrested having done nothing except calling for reform and freedom and for adopting a moderate approach which Egypt needs the most at this time," read a statement posted on the Muslim Brotherhood website on Feb. 9.

This isn't anything new for the Brotherhood. The group has been banned since 1954, but its popularity — derived mainly through Islamic charity work, calls for political reform and appeals to Muslim religiosity — makes it especially threatening to the authoritarian regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Even so, the Brotherhood has been tolerated to varying degrees over the years, the state having found a way to keep its members in check through a system of arbitrary arrests and detentions that rights groups say are illegal under international law. "It's a repeated situation," says Taha Ali, a political analyst at the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, a Cairo NGO. "But this time, we're going to see the parliamentary election in the upcoming period, so it's a historical moment for the regime and the Brotherhood."

Indeed, the state has previously detained hundreds of Brotherhood members in the run-up periods before elections, but the upcoming polls (the upper-house vote is scheduled for May, the more important lower-house vote is in November) — and the arrests, detentions and trials that come with them — could set a new historical precedent for two reasons.

First, the Muslim Brotherhood is unlikely to see anything close to the electoral success it enjoyed during the 2005 parliamentary elections, in which the group, whose members run as independent candidates to get around the ban, swept a stunning 20% of the seats in the lower house of parliament, making it the largest opposition bloc to face off against Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party. The regime now seems ready to make sure that doesn't happen again. Three senior leaders among the 16 Brotherhood members arrested earlier this month, including the deputy leader of the group, are, according to Reuters, being charged with setting up training camps to plan terror attacks as well as setting up an internal body that heeds militant Islamist ideals preached by a firebrand Brotherhood intellectual who was executed in 1966. The Brotherhood, however, renounced violence in the 1970s and still calls for establishing a state based on Islamic law via peaceful, democratic means.

The government crackdown appears to have been triggered by the Brotherhood's own selection of more conservative leaders who have offered their fellow members a more conciliatory approach toward the regime. Joshua Stacher, a political scientist and Egypt expert at Kent State University, says the move likely served to signal that regardless of who leads the group, the government will continue to beat it down. The government, says Stacher, does "not want them participating in legislative elections or syndicate elections or generally," and it would rather see the Brotherhood "withdraw." "They would ideally like the same thing from the Brotherhood that they've been able to achieve with most other sectors of society and the other remaining opposition: complete acquiescence to their terms."

Analysts say the 2005 electoral reforms that allowed for such a large Brotherhood win were induced, at least in some part, by pressure from the Bush Administration — a policy that many say strained relations between the two countries. The new U.S. Administration is playing its cards differently. "I think it's indisputable that there was significant domestic pressure inside of Egypt [in 2005], and that the United States under the Bush Administration, and Europe, both sort of supported those demands in Egypt for freer and fairer elections — and that had an impact," says Michele Dunne, editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The first round of the parliamentary elections in 2005 constituted the freest and most transparent election Egypt has ever experienced. But, Dunne adds, "Up till now, I see very little interest on the part of the Obama Administration in raising these issues."

Egypt ranks low on the Obama Administration's list of regional priorities. The war in Iraq, the Arab-Israeli peace process and a growing al-Qaeda threat in Yemen are all outranking concerns. And the Administration has also sought to distance itself from some of the more aggressive policies of its predecessor, which Dunne says damaged bilateral relations with important allies like Egypt. "But I don't think they realize that there is real, observable backward movement when it comes to democratization and human rights in Egypt right now," she says. "And I think that the Obama Administration is going to bear some of the blame for this if they don't get engaged in these issues."