CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt’s army-backed government detained the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader on Tuesday after a bloody crackdown on his supporters, underscoring its intention to crush the movement that had propelled the country’s first freely elected president to power.
Egypt is enduring its bloodiest week of internal strife since the monarchy was overthrown in 1952, with about 900 people killed, including 100 police and soldiers, after the authorities broke up Brotherhood protest camps in Cairo last Wednesday.
A spokesman for a pro-Brotherhood alliance said the death toll among supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Mursi, deposed by the military on July 3, was at about 1,400.
The turmoil has alarmed the United States and the European Union, but Israel and some Gulf Arab states led by Saudi Arabia have urged the West not to punish Cairo’s new rulers.
Mohamed Badie, 70, the Brotherhood’s general guide, was taken from an apartment in Nasr City in northeast Cairo, the area where protesters demanding Mursi’s reinstatement had staged a vigil for six weeks before they were violently dispersed.
He was charged in July with incitement to murder during protests before Mursi’s overthrow and is due to stand trial on August 25 together with his two deputies.
Footage circulated on local media showed the bearded Brotherhood leader sitting grim-faced on a sofa in a grey robe, hands folded in his lap, while a man with a rifle stands by.
The release of the images seemed designed to humiliate the Brotherhood’s most senior chief, whose arrest means the top echelon of the Islamist movement is now behind bars.
After decades as an outlawed movement, the Brotherhood emerged as the best-drilled political force after Hosni Mubarak’s fall in pro-democracy protests in 2011.
Now the state accuses it of al Qaeda-style militancy and subversion, charges it vehemently denies.
The whereabouts of many other senior Brotherhood politicians are unknown. Those who had been posting frequently on social media have stopped in the last two days. Arrests have extended beyond Cairo, netting provincial leaders of the movement.
The Brotherhood condemned the detention of Badie, whose 38-year-old son was killed on Friday in Cairo clashes.
“When the hand of oppression extends to arrest this important symbol, that means the military coup has used up everything in its pocket and is readying to depart,” it said.
The state news agency said Badie was taken to Tora prison on the southern outskirts of Cairo, where other Brotherhood leaders are held, as well as former president Mubarak.
Mursi has been held in an undisclosed location since the army toppled him on July 3 following mass protests against him.
Tamarod, the youth organization which orchestrated the street campaign against Mursi, hailed Badie’s detention.
“Arresting Badie is an important step on the path of the revolution, fighting terrorism and dismantling the terrorist group by arresting its leaders,” Mohamed Abdelaziz, a Tamarod spokesman, wrote on the organization’s Facebook page.
The Brotherhood, which renounced violence decades ago, has promised peaceful resistance to the army takeover.
On Monday the public prosecutor opened a new investigation against Mursi over incitement to violence. The same day, a court ruled that Mubarak, who was arrested after his overthrow in 2011, could no longer be held on a corruption charge.
A petition for Mubarak’s release on bail will be examined by a court on Wednesday, judicial sources said.
Mursi was already facing accusations stemming from his prison escape during the anti-Mubarak revolt. These include murder and conspiring with the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the authorities to release Mursi, or at least ensure a transparent process for him. He also said on Monday that the “very limited” political space for the Muslim Brotherhood should be expanded.
The United States urged Egypt not to ban the Brotherhood, an option floated in the past week by the interim prime minister.
Founded in 1928, the Brotherhood used its organizational muscle to propel Mursi to power in last year’s presidential election. It says it has about a million members among Egypt’s 85 million people, as well as offshoots across the Arab world.
Egypt began three days of official mourning for 25 policemen killed on Monday by suspected Islamist militants in the Sinai near the desert border with Israel. State television carried emotional demands for retribution against the Brotherhood.
The off-duty policemen were returning to their barracks in Rafah when militants attacked them. The government said the men had been forced from their vehicles and shot in cold blood.
The army said on Tuesday it had captured 11 “terrorist elements” in Sinai, including two Palestinians.
The United States, a close ally of Egypt since it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, said on Monday it was still reviewing whether to freeze any of its $1.55 billion annual aid package to Egypt, which mostly funds U.S. weapons supplies.
Washington also voiced concern about the deaths on Sunday of 37 detainees who authorities said were suffocated by tear gas during an escape attempt. The circumstances remain unclear.
The pro-Brotherhood alliance condemned the Sinai attack, which it accused the “security apparatus of the coup government” of carrying out to divert attention from the deaths of the 37 men who had been in transit to Abu Zabal prison near Cairo.
Foreign ministers of the European Union, another donor to Egypt, meet in Brussels on Wednesday to discuss how it might apply its influence for a peaceful compromise.
However, Egypt’s interim government, buoyed by considerable popular support, as well as diplomatic backing from Israel and Saudi Arabia, which has promised to make up for any shortfall in Western aid, has said it will resist any outside pressure.