CAIRO — A day after Egypt’s military-backed government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, a more aggressive crackdown was emerging Thursday, as authorities announced dozens of arrests across the country, and the seizure of land, stocks and vehicles belonging to the Islamist movement’s members.
Social and charitable groups even loosely associated with the group struggled after their funds were frozen by the state. It was a new level of disruption to a society already split by violence in the months since the military ousted Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president and a Brotherhood leader.
Egypt’s new leaders clearly signaled they had opened a wide-ranging and possibly protracted war on every facet of the Brotherhood’s activities, with the terrorism designation giving the security forces greater latitude to stamp out a group deeply rooted in Egyptian social and civic life. The government had also sought to deny the group foreign help or shelter, urging other Arab governments to honor an anti-terrorism agreement and shun the organization.
There were indications the government might have overreached. After widespread confusion and concern about the funds cutoff, in particular, government officials partly reversed course late Thursday, saying that the organizations whose funds had been frozen — more than 1,000 of them — would be allowed to continue operating.
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One of the operations caught in the whipsaw was the Islamic Medical Association, a network of hospitals founded by a Brotherhood leader in the 1970s that now serves more than 2 million patients a year, mostly in poor neighborhoods.
At two of the network’s hospitals in Cairo, most of the people waiting for treatment Thursday said they did not belong to the Brotherhood and did not regard the facilities as part of the movement’s operations. Instead, they saw clean, efficient and affordable alternatives to the government’s poorly managed hospitals.
A doctor at one of the facilities, Central Hospital in the Nasr City district of Cairo, said admissions had already dropped by nearly half, with many apparently scared away by news that funding had been cut and worried that even going to the hospital would be viewed as supporting the Brotherhood.
Security authorities warned that even holding a leadership post in the Brotherhood could be grounds for the death penalty.
The announcement came as a bomb exploded in a busy intersection in Cairo, hitting a bus and wounding five people. Though small, the blast raised fears that a campaign of violence by Islamic militants that for months has targeted police and the military could turn to civilians in retaliation for the stepped-up crackdown.
The terrorist labeling of the Brotherhood — an unprecedented step even during past decades when the group was banned — takes to a new level the government’s moves to crush the group.
The Brotherhood, meanwhile, vowed to “qualitatively” escalate its protests against the new military-backed interim government, whose authority it rejects.
The moves raise the potential for greater turmoil as the country nears a key Jan. 14-15 referendum on a revised constitution, a milestone in the post-Morsi political transition. The government is pushing for overwhelming passage of the new document, while the Brotherhood vows to stop it with protests.
Speaking to military graduates Thursday, military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi set the official tone, vowing to eradicate those who try to harm Egypt from “the face of the Earth,” according to a statement released by the military.
In past months, authorities have used penal code’s various legal justifications for arresting Morsi supporters, from inciting violence to blocking roads.
But Wednesday’s terror designation means the Brotherhood’s hundreds of thousands of members can be arrested for simple membership under a tough, years-old anti-terrorism law that outlines death penalties or long prison sentences for some crimes. The government says it will leave leeway for those who renounce the group’s ideology and membership, but didn’t explain how since members don’t carry IDs to prove they belong.
The government said it urged other Arab governments to take similar steps under a 1998 regional anti-terrorism treaty, to increase pressure on Brotherhood branches, especially in Gulf countries already known for longtime enmity to the group.
Police on Thursday arrested 16 Brotherhood members in the Nile Delta province of Sharqiya on charges of belonging to a terrorist group, the state news agency MENA said. An additional 54 were arrested on accusations they attacked police stations or incited violence.
Private TV networks also aired the number for a hotline for people to report “members of the terrorist Brotherhood” to the National Security Agency, raising the possibility of citizens turning on citizens and increasing the group’s isolation.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.