CAIRO Egyptian security forces detained 80 members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood on Thursday in sweeps at dawn, intensifying a clampdown against the government's most powerful political rival.
The government focused its arrests in Cairo and the Nile Delta, where the Islamist movement has a strong popular base, and the group said those detained included the office managers of three Brotherhood members of parliament.
Security sources said the men were arrested on charges of belonging to an outlawed group and possessing anti-government literature. The Brotherhood, which operates openly despite being officially banned, is Egypt's most powerful opposition group.
The Brotherhood condemned the sweeps as an attempt to reduce its clout ahead of elections for the upper house of parliament in April, in which it is widely expected to take part. The group won a fifth of the seats in the lower house in 2005.
Many of those arrested were professionals, including doctors, engineers and teachers. Two former Brotherhood parliamentary candidates were also held, the group said on its Web site www.ikhwanonline.com.
"This is an attempt to marginalize the role of the Brotherhood in Egyptian political life, an attempt to impede our political path and snarl our plans and strategies," Mohamed Habib, the Brotherhood's deputy leader, told Reuters.
"There are upcoming elections for the Shura Council ... and maybe the regime thinks that we will enter these elections. It is true that we have not decided anything yet on this matter. But they are trying to deliver pre-emptive strikes out of fear that we will contest the elections," he added.
Winning seats in the Shura Council could help the Brotherhood bypass a ban that prevents all but recognized political parties from running for president. Presidential elections are not due until 2011.
The new arrests came as U.S.-based Human Rights Watch called on Egypt to free hundreds of Brotherhood members it said were detained "solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association".
In an escalation against the Brotherhood, Egypt referred 40 members of the group including third-in-command Khairat el-Shatir a week ago for trial in military courts, where verdicts are often issued quickly and cannot be appealed.
Those men, who face terrorism and money-laundering charges, will be the first Brotherhood members to face military trials since 2001. The Islamist group, which says it rejects violence, has said it was preparing for a tough legal fight.
"By trying to crush Egypt's largest opposition movement, the government has shown once again that it cannot tolerate any criticism," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
Many analysts say a protest at al-Azhar University in December, in which students loyal to the Brotherhood dressed in black militia-style uniforms, gave the government the excuse it needed to renew its crackdown on the group.