Symbolic Developments Indicate Direction Egypt Is Headed

From 'Morning Edition': NPR's Leila Fadel reports from Cairo

Egypt's military-backed rulers are pressing on in their crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood. Authorities have arrested the group's spiritual leader. Since the security forces crackdown on Islamist protesters last week, nearly 1,000 people have been killed.

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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

Developments in Egypt over the last 24 hours carry some powerful symbolism about where that country might be headed. Security forces have arrested the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, marking another setback for supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.

Contrast that with the news from Cairo's courts yesterday. The lawyer for former dictator Hosni Mubarak said his client may soon be getting out of jail. Even that possibility is a reminder of the country's long tradition of military rule. Since the security forces crackdown on Islamist protesters Wednesday, nearly 1,000 people have been killed in the country.

And for the latest, we turn to NPR's Cairo bureau chief, Leila Fadel. Leila, good morning.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So start off - if you can - with this arrest of the Muslim Brotherhood's spiritual leader. Who is he, and what does this mean for the organization and its supporters?

FADEL: Mohammed Badie is the man that speaks to the masses. He spoke in one of the major sit-ins. He was rumored to be arrested before, and showed up in that sit-in, speaking to the people. At this point, it's a huge blow to the Muslim Brotherhood. Their leadership is in disarray, many of them in detention. So, at this point, we're seeing an inability of the Muslim Brotherhood to mobilize. They're calling for marches. Those marches aren't materializing. So we're really seeing the Muslim Brotherhood kind of fall apart.

GREENE: OK. The Brotherhood potentially falling apart. Now, another setback for them over the weekend: 36 Islamists, in police custody, were killed. Can you update us on what we know about that?

FADEL: Well, it was a very murky situation. The police went back and forth on the story, saying there was some type of riot. They took a policeman hostage, and they had to react with teargas, and the men suffocated in the truck. The Muslim Brotherhood leaders, families of the killed, say they believe these men were tortured and killed on purpose.

GREENE: Well, Leila, when we talk about Islamists and Brotherhood supporters in custody - like these 36 people and the spiritual leader of the Brotherhood - what are they being charged with?

FADEL: Well, they're just basically being pulled off the streets. This is a state of emergency, where you can arrest anyone for anything. And many of them are being accused of things like murder, inciting violence. The spiritual leader will face trial later this month for inciting violence for the murder of protesters.

GREENE: And as if this chaos, Leila, were not difficult enough to follow already, we have Hosni Mubarak - the former dictator, who was deposed in 2011 - now word that he might be coming out of jail? Why would that happen?

FADEL: Many people say, wow, we've come full circle. If Mubarak is out of jail, then what was accomplished when people rose up? But, basically, the court system works in a way where he can no longer be held. He's facing a retrial for his role in the killing of protesters, but he can be no longer held on that charge. And so, since then, the government had been putting other charges against him for corruption and those types of things. So, right now, yesterday, there was a court decision to release him on one of those corruption cases. And his lawyer is hoping that through filing a petition on one more case, he may be released as early as this week.

It's still unclear if that will actually happen, but if it does, that could cause some outcry among people who will see this former dictator walk out, and a democratically elected president remain in prison - I mean, obviously, an unpopular democratically-elected president at this point, but he's in detention.

GREENE: And we should say, I mean, the military eventually turned on Mubarak back in 2011. But just the symbolism of all this makes me wonder. I mean, is Egypt returning to an autocratic state?

FADEL: Yeah. I mean, I think that's the big question right now. Every sign seems to indicate that it is. We're under a state of emergency right now, the curfew on every single night, the military and police patrolling the streets, local television channels heralding this moment, showing them on parade as if they're heroes, and all of it being excused under the label of the war on terrorism - referring to the Muslim Brotherhood basically as a terrorist organization and people feeling, like, well, that's OK. And then when you talk to young revolutionaries, there's a deep sadness that they're caught in this battle between two pretty much undemocratic organizations: the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Leila Fadel, joining us from Cairo. Leila, thanks a lot.

FADEL: Thank you.

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