- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 22, 2005

CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian authorities arrested the fourth-highest official in the powerful Muslim Brotherhood early yesterday, one of 25 members of the outlawed movement picked up in a major crackdown ahead of a referendum on presidential election rules that the group opposes.

Mahmoud Ezzat, secretary-general of the Islam-based politicalmovement and head of its Cairo operations, is the highest-profile member of the group to be arrested since 1996, said a police official. Egyptian police policy is to speak to reporters only on the condition of anonymity.

Mr. Ezzat and 24 others were picked up in dawn sweeps of several provinces, police and Brotherhood officials said. Brotherhood deputy leader Mohammed Habib confirmed Mr. Ezzat’s arrest. Three of the others also held senior positions within the banned group, which advocates the peaceful establishment of an Islamic state.

Prosecutors have begun questioning the detainees on charges of membership in — and in the case of Mr. Ezzat and the three others, leadership of — a banned group and organizing demonstrations without permission from the government.

“The arrest is an escalation against the Brotherhood and a message to the group that no one is beyond arrest,” said Abdel-Galil el-Sharnoubi, editor of the group’s Web site.

The Egyptian regime “is arresting the leading figures who are capable of moving the people in the street to boycott the referendum,” he added.

The Wednesday referendum allows Egyptians to approve or reject changes to the constitution that will allow the nation’s first multiparty presidential elections, to be held in September.

Opponents of President Hosni Mubarak, including the Brotherhood, have urged a boycott of the referendum, saying the changes will provide little more than window dressing to the current yes-no, one-candidate system.

Mr. Mubarak, who has served 24 years as president, always has been handily reinstalled in referendums in which there were no other candidates. The Brotherhood commands a substantial following in Egypt, and it alone among Mr. Mubarak’s opponents could prove a tough challenger.

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