CAIRO, Egypt—Tensions between the Egyptian government and a powerful Islamist opposition force spilled onto university campuses last week with clashes that erupted when security forces barred some candidates from running for student elections.
Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned but tolerated Islamist group, said youth members were blocked from running for student council positions at several universities in Egypt. When students at one college in Cairo protested with a sit-in, baton-wielding riot police swarmed the campus and clashed with students, witnesses said.
While no one was seriously injured in this week's unrest, many Egyptians fear an escalation of violence as President Hosni Mubarak's U.S.-friendly government grows increasingly heavy-handed in fighting the wave of Islamist fervor that's fast encroaching on his own secular, authoritarian regime.
Under the latest crackdown on the Brotherhood, the government has blocked members from running for university and union leadership positions, prevented senior Brotherhood leaders from traveling outside Egypt and turned up the pressure on women who wear the full facial veils favored by ultraconservative Muslims.
Mahdi Akef, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, said the government's use of force and mass arrests would backfire, fueling more anger among the millions of Egyptians who support the group. Akef said 700 Brotherhood members had been arrested in recent months; 65 remain in detention. In addition to restricting Brotherhood candidates from virtually all elections, Akef added, the government is seizing schools and hospitals established by the group.
"They are blocking the Brotherhood from any domain, from any part of society," Akef said in an interview. "This is a failed policy and it will lead to the government's destruction. They're desperate. They're now to be pitied."
Egyptian campuses have emerged as the latest battleground between conservative Islamists and secular, pro-government forces. Student members of the Brotherhood at several universities were outraged to find their names removed from lists of nominees for this month's student elections. Protests against the action turned violent at some schools.
"It was the first time the central police stormed into the university and started beating us," said Mohamed Emam, 23, a student member of the Muslim Brotherhood at Cairo University. "Some people were scared and tried to run out, but they were trapped by a cordon of riot police outside so they could neither move back nor run away."
Interior ministry officials weren't available for comment on the incidents. Georgette Sobhi, a legislator from the ruling National Democratic Party, said it wasn't yet clear whether "the security forces were the aggressors, or whether they were reacting to the Muslim Brotherhood's violence."
At Helwan University south of Cairo, the school administration recently touched off a nationwide controversy by becoming the first to ban full facial veils at female students' dormitories. While school officials said the move was to prevent intruders from sneaking into girls' rooms, veiled students and Islamist activists interpreted it as an infringement of their religious rights.
Wael Helmy, 21, an art student at Helwan University, said he and other students welcome restrictions on Islamists because they're fed up with the Muslim Brotherhood imposing a strict interpretation of Islam on the student body. Helmy said Brotherhood members pester Christian students, bombard classmates with leaflets and have petitioned to suspend classes during prayer time. When the call to prayer sounds, Helmy said, Islamist students disrupt classes by walking around campus and shouting for people to walk out and join the prayers.
"They intervene in the way of teaching and everything in university life," Helmy said.
For now, Helmy said, he takes heart that students affiliated with the Brotherhood aren't allowed to govern the student council.
"But if one day they get the chance," Helmy said, "I'll make sure to campaign against them and to encourage people to run against them."
Alarmed at the success of the militant Islamist group Hamas in the Palestinian elections, the Egyptian government quickly turned to quashing a similar ascension of Islamists in Egypt. The Brotherhood is officially banned, but some members ran as independents in last year's parliamentary elections and scooped up an unprecedented 88 of the 444 seats. They've also assumed leadership positions in influential professional syndicates that represent doctors, lawyers, teachers and pharmacists.
Apart from the efforts to stamp out the group's university presence, analysts say, Mubarak's administration also is keen to prevent the Brotherhood from taking over trade unions, which encompass millions of working-class Egyptians.
"The Muslim Brotherhood already has the professional syndicates under their control, so if they take control of the labor unions as well, it will be a definite disaster for the regime," said Emad Mubarak, director of a human rights group in Cairo.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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