CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s military-backed authorities arrested the supreme leader of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood on Tuesday, dealing a serious blow to the Islamist group at a time when it is struggling to keep up street protests against the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi in the face of a harsh government crackdown.
The Brotherhood’s spiritual guide, Mohammed Badie, was arrested in an apartment in the Cairo district of Nasr City, close to the site of a sit-in encampment that was forcibly cleared by security forces last week, triggering violence that killed hundreds of people.
Badie’s arrest is the latest move in an escalating crackdown by authorities on the Brotherhood, which has seen hundreds of its members taken into custody.
The group’s near-daily protests since Morsi’s ouster have diminished in recent days, with scattered demonstrations in Cairo and elsewhere attracting mere hundreds, or even dozens, of protesters. On Tuesday, several hundred Morsi supporters staged protests in Helwan, an industrial suburb north of Cairo, and in Ein Shams, a residential district on the opposite end of the city, shortly before the nighttime curfew went into effect at 7 p.m.
Morsi has been detained in an undisclosed location since the July 3 coup that ousted him, following protests by millions of Egyptians against his rule. He is facing accusations of conspiring with the militant Palestinian Hamas group to escape from prison during the 2011 uprising and complicity in the killing and torture of protesters outside his Cairo palace in December.
Badie’s last public appearance was at the Nasr City protest encampment last month, where he delivered a fiery speech from a makeshift stage in which he denounced the military’s removal of Morsi. His arrest followed the killing of his son Ammar, who was shot dead during violent clashes between security forces and Morsi supporters in Cairo on Friday.
Badie and his powerful deputy, Khairat el-Shater, are to stand trial later this month on charges of complicity in the killing in June of eight protesters outside the Brotherhood’s national headquarters in Cairo.
Badie was taken to Torah prison in a suburb south of Cairo, where a team of prosecutors was questioning him, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Torah is the same sprawling complex where ex-president Hosni Mubarak, ousted in the 2011 popular uprising, is being held, along with his two sons. Several Mubarak-era figures are also imprisoned there, as are several Brotherhood leaders and other Islamists.
After his arrest, the private ONTV network showed footage of a somber-looking Badie sitting motionless on a black sofa as a man in civilian clothes and carrying an assault rifle stood nearby.
Meanwhile, the Brotherhood released the text of Badie’s weekly message to the group’s followers. Quoting heavily from the Quran, he warned that anyone who supports the current “oppression, suppression and bloodshed” — including Arab and foreign governments — will soon regret their stand.
He also called on the international community to “take a strong stand on the side of righteousness, freedom for all peoples of the world, since the age of military coups has gone and you have stood against them everywhere in honor of the values of freedom, justice and human rights.”
In the aftermath of last Wednesday’s violence, the military-backed government is considering outlawing the Brotherhood, which has spent most of the 85 years since its creation as an illegal organization. The government has asked the judiciary for advice on how to go about a ban. It has also come under growing pressure from the pro-government media and a wide array of secular politicians to declare the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
Brotherhood spokesman Ahmed Aref sought to downplay the significance of Badie’s arrest, writing on his Facebook page Tuesday: “Mohammed Badie is one member of the Brotherhood.”
Badie’s arrest came after suspected Islamic militants ambushed two minibuses carrying off-duty policemen in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula early Monday, forcing the men to lie on the sand and shooting 25 of them dead.
The daylight attack raised fears that the strategic desert region bordering Israel and the Gaza Strip could be plunged into a full-fledged insurgency.
The Sinai Peninsula has long been wracked by violence by al-Qaida-linked fighters, some of whom consider Morsi’s Brotherhood to be too moderate, and tribesmen who have used the area for smuggling and other criminal activity. Attacks, especially those targeting security forces, have been on the rise since Morsi’s ouster.
Monday’s attack took place near the border town of Rafah in northern Sinai. A few hours later, militants shot to death a senior police officer as he stood guard outside a bank in el-Arish, another city in the largely lawless area, security officials said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for either attack.
Meanwhile, a little-known law professor, Sayed Ateeq, filed a case against Mohamed ElBaradei, accusing the Nobel Peace Prize laureate of committing “high treason” and damaging the country’s world image by quitting his job as interim vice president last week. Egyptian law allows citizens to file cases like that, although many are swiftly thrown out by judges.
ElBaradei quit to protest the use of force by security forces in clearing the Morsi supporters’ sit-in camps, warning the violence will only breed more violence and play into the hands of extremists. He has since been the target of a media and political campaign accusing him of abandoning the country at a time when his services were most needed. Some questioned his credentials as a politician who could withstand the pressures of politics.
Elsewhere, an Egyptian journalist working for a state-run daily was shot dead early Tuesday by soldiers at a military checkpoint, security officials said. Tamer Abdel-Raouf from Al-Ahram and a colleague were on the road after finishing a late-night interview with the recently appointed governor of Beheira province in the Nile Delta north of Cairo.
They were stopped at a checkpoint, asked for identification papers and told they had broken the dusk-to-dawn curfew. The two then drove off without permission and a soldier from the checkpoint opened fire, killing Abdel-Raouf. His colleague was injured when their car hit a tree, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.