On 23 November 1995, Egypt's Supreme Military Court sentenced 54 leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood to prison terms ranging from 3 to 5 years with hard labor. The trial marked the culmination of a turbulent four-year period which witnessed a deterioration of the state's tolerance for the outlawed Brotherhood -- Egypt's largest political opposition group.
Significantly, the court's verdict, charging the defendants with membership in an illegal organization(1) and ordering the closure of the Brotherhood's headquarters in downtown Cairo, represents the first prosecution of members of the organization by a military court since 1965, when Nasir -- for the second time during his presidency -- sought to crush the Brotherhood by imprisoning its revived leadership. The recent move by the Mubarak regime against the organization's active younger leadership demonstrates a marked departure from the policy of accommodation and tolerance toward the Brotherhood that prevailed for much of the 1980s. This policy, in the past, had afforded the organization wide berth to function as a technically illegal, but widely recognized, political entity, allowing the group's indirect participation in parliamentary elections and the growth of its operations in the field of social services throughout the country.
The November court decision, preceded by arrests of scores of Brotherhood members throughout 1995, raised considerable debate within Egypt about the significance of the crackdown against the organization. Opposition newspapers and political commentators directed attention to the parliamentary elections the same month and a government strategy to prevent prominent Brotherhood candidates, forecasted by many to score substantial victories at the polls, from participating. The strength of such arguments was buttressed by the scope of the 1995 crackdown, during which 81 Muslim Brothers -- all of them former parliamentarians, leading civic activists, or parliamentary candidates -- were prosecuted in 2 trials before the Supreme Military Court. They comprised the organization's younger dynamic leadership within professional associations, university faculty clubs and non-governmental organizations. As for the People's Assembly (majlis al-sha'b) election, it is noteworthy that not one of the approximately 150 Muslim Brotherhood candidates who competed as independents or under the Labor (al-'Amal) Party name won a seat(2) in a contest which local and international human rights groups saw tainted by extraordinary government interference and strong repression against Brotherhood candidates and campaign workers.(3)
While the above hypotheses present a plausible interpretation of events, the behavior of the state over the past four years strongly suggests that the recent crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood goes beyond the 1995 People's Assembly election. Rather, it represents a longer-term strategy -- one which has been in effect for the past four years -- designed to severely curtail the Brotherhood's gains within civil society and weaken its ability to garner increased grassroots support. The state's gradual intensification of its crackdown against the group coincides with several important events during the 1990s which highlight the Mubarak regime's growing concern about the Brotherhood's increasing influence across a broad range of societal levels.
The earliest evidence of the regime's changed attitude toward the group can be traced to the mid-1980s following the Brotherhood's unanticipated success in parliamentary elections (see next section below). However, events of the 1990s, beginning with a parliamentary election boycott by opposition parties -- including the Brotherhood -- and the rising influence of the organization within professional associations and other civil institutions, grasped the state's attention. The regime viewed the group's increasingly visible participation in civil and political life as a formidable threat to its own declining legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Egyptians. …