updated 5/4/2005 11:22:46 PM ET 2005-05-05T03:22:46

Thousands of supporters of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamic group, protested across the country Wednesday in an escalation of the opposition campaign demanding political reform. Police arrested hundreds of protesters.

More than 2,500 Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters demonstrator in front of a large downtown mosque, some waving copies of the Quran and chanting, “Reform is a religious necessity, reform is Prophet’s way.” One of the banners read, “Freedom is a religious duty.”

The protests — held on the 77th birthday of President Hosni Mubarak — were the latest show of strength by the Brotherhood, which is probably Egypt’s largest opposition movement but for years held few large demonstrations to avoid provoking the government. In recent months it has organized repeated demonstrations, joining other groups in an unprecedented string of protests against Mubarak.

The protests have brought arrests of scores of Brotherhood members in past weeks, though some have since been released.

Police said 400 people were arrested during the protests, which took place in Cairo, several cities in the Delta and in Fayoum, south of Cairo. Large security presences prevented protests in the northern cities of Alexandria and Mansoura.

But senior Muslim Brotherhood member Essam el-Erian put the number arrested at about 1,000 protesters and said 43 were injured in Fayoum province, south of Cairo, during clashes with security forces wielding truncheons and using tear gas.

Some 2,000 Brotherhood members demonstrated in the Nile Delta province of Kafr el-Sheik, and five were injured in scuffles with the police, according to protest organizers.

‘Only increase the tensions’
At the Cairo protest, vast numbers of police, in riot gear, surrounded the al-Fateh mosque, while demonstrators remained in the mosque compound during the two-hour rally.

“We stress that the Brotherhood continues to demand reform. These oppressive means only increase the tensions in Egypt,” Brotherhood leader Mohammed Mahdi Akef said in a statement.

The frequency of anti-government protests has increased since December. Multi-candidate presidential elections will be held for the first time in September. Mubarak, in power since 1981, hasn’t announced yet if he will run for his fifth term, but he is widely expected to.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which calls for implementation of Islamic law in Egypt, was established in 1928 and banned since 1954. It renounced violence in the 1970s, and the state tolerates some of it activities but has frequently imprisoned its leaders. Fifteen Brotherhood members have seats in parliament, elected as independents and forming the largest opposition bloc.

Nationalist credentials
As it has thrown its weight in protests alongside more secular reform movements, the Brotherhood has sought to emphasize its nationalist credentials. During the Cairo protests, participants chanted, “The Muslim Brotherhood is part of the nation,” and “Copts are sons of the nation” in a gesture of unity with Egypt’s Christian minority.

At a conference Wednesday, Brotherhood members and other opposition figures and pro-reform activists called for lifting emergency laws imposed by Mubarak in 1981 after the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat. Critics say the laws, which give security forces broad powers including great leeway in making arrests, are used to stifle opposition.

“There’s no hope that Egypt can progress under the emergency laws,” said Brotherhood member Mohammed Abdel-Qodous, who heads the Journalist Syndicate’s Freedom Committee. “How can free elections be held under the emergency laws?”

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