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Egyptian police arrest students thought to be part of Islamist group

CAIRO, Egypt—Egyptian security forces stormed the dormitories of the world's most prestigious Islamic university Thursday morning and arrested scores of student activists in a sweeping raid targeting the powerful Muslim Brotherhood.

The raid came in the wake of a headline-grabbing demonstration at al-Azhar University in Cairo on Sunday. Student members of the Brotherhood, the Islamist group that leads Egypt's opposition movement, marched in black militia-style uniforms and masks to protest the government's alleged harassment of Islamist students.

The demonstration was unusually brazen in this tightly controlled police state, and it elicited murmurs that the Brotherhood was forming an armed wing. The group renounced violence in the 1970s and has since moved into the mainstream.

Government officials said 140 people were arrested Thursday; Brotherhood leaders put the figure at 180. Apart from the students, security forces detained 16 senior members of the Brotherhood, including its No. 3 leader, Mohamed Khairat al-Shater, the group's chief financier and strategist.

The Brotherhood's lawyer, Abdelmonem Abdelmaksud, said the 16 leaders arrested included doctors, professors, businessmen and other professionals. Abdelmaksud said al Shater was seized from his home at dawn and that police searched his home and office. Al-Shater, 55, described as the owner of a prosperous import and export business, has spent seven years in prison on charges related to his activities with the Brotherhood.

Authorities discovered large sums of cash and knives during the raids of the student dormitories, according to a statement from the Egyptian interior ministry. Ministry officials also accused Brotherhood leaders of trying to infiltrate student groups, encouraging youths to hold illegal demonstrations and teaching them martial arts.

The Brotherhood is officially banned, but it was generally tolerated until it grew into the largest opposition movement working against the authoritarian government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Members won 88 seats in the Egyptian parliament in elections a year ago, alarming the Mubarak administration and triggering fears of the Brotherhood replicating the electoral gains of the Palestinian militant group Hamas or the Lebanese guerrillas of Hezbollah.

Abdelrahman Yassin, a journalism student in his junior year at al-Azhar, said Egyptian authorities arrived at the dormitory before dawn Thursday and dragged students from their rooms. When the forces couldn't find students in some rooms, Yassin said, they carted off computers and other personal belongings.

Yassin, a student member of the Brotherhood, said he was spared detention only because he happened to be out of his room. He said the raid was a response to Sunday's demonstration. About 50 students had protested the expulsion of eight of their friends from the university with a demonstration that included recitations from the Quran, Yassin said. He delivered a speech at the event, where protesters donned masks and black uniforms and marched in formation.

"Our colleagues from the faculty of athletic education wanted to take part in the show, and they came up with this idea of performing karate and kung fu," Yassin said. "It was only for 10 minutes, and we had no intention of coming out looking like Hamas or Hezbollah."

Yassin denied police accusations that the protesters destroyed government property or violated any rules. The students boycotted classes until Wednesday, when the Brotherhood issued an apology for the youths' behavior on the group's Web site: "We apologize to our university, professors and colleagues for the show we staged, which harmed our university's image."

Muslim Brotherhood leaders publicly chided student members and denied involvement or prior knowledge of the demonstration.

"Violence is not our method, nor is defeating the security forces our aim. But the students had apologized, and there was no need for arresting them," said Essam el Erian, a Brotherhood spokesman who was released from jail only five days ago after being held since May for taking part in a demonstration in support of Egyptian judges.

Mohamed Habib, deputy leader of the group and a typically outspoken critic of Mubarak, was even harsher in his criticism of the student supporters.

"I severely condemn this issue. We have no relation to violence and we denounce the actions of those students," Habib told the independent daily al Masry al-Youm in Wednesday's edition.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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