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Egypt closes opposition newspaper, arrests at least 27

CAIRO, Egypt—The Egyptian government this week shut down a newspaper known as the mouthpiece of the Muslim Brotherhood and reportedly arrested at least 27 members in the latest crackdown on the influential Islamist group.

The closure of the Afaq Arabiya—"Arab Horizons"—newspaper Wednesday and the arrests throughout the week came as the government struggled to curb the growing popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose legislative influence and wide support make it the leading opposition force in Egypt. The move was the latest example of U.S.-backed President Hosni Mubarak reneging on election-season promises of democratic reform and more freedom for opposition parties.

Religious groups and political scientists in Cairo complained that the Bush administration's calls for regional reform grow silent when it comes to Islamist parties, allowing authoritarian regimes to tout cosmetic changes without making true reforms.

The Brotherhood is officially banned, but it fielded independent candidates who won 88 seats in last year's parliamentary elections.

The electoral success of the Brotherhood in Egypt mirrors the Islamist movement that's sweeping much of the Muslim world, with the militant Sunni Muslim group Hamas taking power in the Palestinian territories, Shiite Muslim Hezbollah guerrillas in the Lebanese legislature, conservative Shiite Islamists ruling Iraq and other branches of the Sunni Brotherhood working against the Jordanian and Syrian governments.

The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 and banned since 1954, is the oldest Islamist group in the Middle East. It's given birth to more extremist offshoots, including Hamas and al-Qaida.

"There is now a campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood after Hamas' victory in Palestine," said Mohamed Abdel Kouddous, an Islamist-leaning activist and an official of Egypt's journalist union. "The U.S. has abandoned all talk of reform."

Because the Brotherhood isn't recognized as a political party, it isn't allowed to operate a newspaper in Egypt. But Afaq Arabiya, which belongs to another opposition party, frequently gives space to the Brotherhood's views and became known as its mouthpiece.

Officially, Abdel Kouddous said, Afaq Arabiya came under fire because of political disputes within the paper. However, Cairo journalists and members of the Brotherhood said the government-run press council took advantage of the dispute to stem the publication of Islamist articles.

"Security forces are trying to limit the legislators' performance through a campaign of terrorism against the Muslim Brotherhood and through the arrests," said Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a senior leader of the Brotherhood. "This is a clear message from the government: Stop confronting and monitoring the system."

The Brotherhood said security forces had rounded up at least 27 of its members and associates this week. Among the detainees, according to the group, are a lawyer, students, engineers and legislative assistants.

Spokesmen at the Interior Ministry wouldn't comment on the newspaper closure or the reported arrests. The arrests couldn't be independently verified, though the detentions were reported in several Egyptian opposition papers.

The Brotherhood's parliamentary bloc has challenged the government on its promises of reform. Members of the group have called for an end to Egypt's perpetual emergency law, which allows security forces to make arrests without a judge's approval. The Brotherhood also has pressed to change a law that allows judges to sentence journalists to up to two years in jail in defamation cases.

The arrests and closure of the newspaper amounted to government retaliation, Brotherhood spokesmen charged.

"Members of the Brotherhood in Parliament started getting on the government's nerves because they exposed all their mistakes and corruption," Aboul Fotouh said. "The state faced two options: either to dissolve the Parliament or hinder its actions."

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(El Naggar is a Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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