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Reformers suffer setbacks in Egypt; police beat, arrest protesters

CAIRO, Egypt—Egypt's uneasy path to democratic reform received more setbacks Thursday as police arrested and beat scores of protesters, a disciplinary board punished a judge who had exposed alleged election fraud and a court rejected a pro-reform politician's appeal for a reversal of his five-year prison sentence.

Outraged opposition groups in Cairo called the events proof that President Hosni Mubarak's flirtation with reform had ended and the country, the most populous Arab nation and a close U.S. ally, had returned to authoritarian rule enforced by heavy-handed security forces.

A year ago, the Bush administration had praised Egypt, which receives $2 billion a year in American aid, for allowing contested elections and making other democratic overtures that the United States had hoped would spread throughout the Middle East.

But incidents of police brutality, the mass arrests of dissidents, a decision to delay municipal elections and renewal of Egypt's perpetual emergency laws have drawn condemnation in recent months.

Earlier this week, the government banned unlicensed public gatherings. Nevertheless, for the second Thursday in a row, protesters lined the streets around the High Court in Cairo to show support for two prominent judges who faced punishment from a disciplinary panel for alleging that some judges had helped rig last year's parliamentary elections.

As with previous gatherings in support of the cause, uniformed and plainclothes security forces harassed, beat and arrested the protesters, though the clashes were more subdued than last week's, when riot police beat protesters, bystanders and journalists and detained an estimated 250 people.

Police arrested more than 150 in the latest roundup, according to opposition groups and accounts from witnesses, though some groups put the figure as high as 400.

Plainclothes officers dragged one man into a fruit market and screams were heard coming from the building minutes later. Security agents with batons hanging from their trousers swept the streets in groups.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed Islamist group that is Egypt's leading opposition force, said all 88 members of its parliamentary bloc had turned out in protest. They wore black sashes that read, "The people's representatives support the judges," and stood together in front of the courthouse before the authorities pushed them back.

Dozens of Muslim Brotherhood members were among those arrested, including its spokesman, Essam el-Erian, and former legislator Mohamed Morsy, the group announced.

Police banned lawyers, legislators and journalists from attending the disciplinary hearing at which the panel withdrew the scheduled promotion of one judge but cleared the other.

Also on Thursday, an appeals court rejected a leading opposition figure's appeal of his five-year sentence on forgery charges that many observers have deemed flimsy. Ayman Nour has been in jail since 2004. The leader of the secular al-Ghad opposition party, Nour placed a distant second to Mubarak in last year's presidential elections, which were the first contested Egyptian polls in decades.

The ruling means Nour won't regain his full rights until six years after his sentence ends, effectively barring him from any political activity for the next decade.

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(El-Naggar is a special correspondent for Knight Ridder. Hannah Allam contributed to this report from Cairo.)

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

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