Police arrested the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood's chief strategist and at least 140 others Thursday in a crackdown after a protest by uniformed students raised fears the Islamist political group is creating a military wing.
The Interior Ministry announced the arrests, accusing the Brotherhood of recruiting students at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt's foremost Islamic institute, and providing them with combat training, knives and chains.
The Brotherhood confirmed the arrest of Mohammed Khayrat el-Shater, the group's main financier and third highest ranking member. It also said police had arrested 180 students and 13 other members including el-Shater's son-in-law.
The detentions came four days after about 50 student members of the Brotherhood, clad in black, staged a militia-style demonstration outside Al-Azhar, spurring an official investigation into whether the group had established a military wing. The demonstrators wore masks resembling those of the military wing of the Palestinian Hamas organization.
The Brotherhood denies it is setting up a military wing.
The Interior Ministry said the detention of el-Shater and "140 leading members" had been ordered by the state security prosecutor's office.
"The arrests were carried out according to information received about the dangerous path adopted by students affiliated to the Brotherhood at Al-Azhar University by instigating riots on Sunday," the Interior Ministry said.
The ministry accused the Brotherhood of exploiting the students and "pushing them to demonstrate outside the university in the main street in an attempt to create gross disorder and break the law."
The dean of Al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb, was quoted by the pro-government newspaper Al-Gomhuria in its early Friday edition as saying that 16 students had been dismissed for "activities incompatible with the university's rules and traditions."
Abdel Gelil el-Sharnoubi, editor of the Brotherhood's Web site, said hundreds of security forces stormed part of a university dormitory where the Brotherhood students were living and arrested everyone there.
"This round of arrests is a government reaction to a year of strong performance by the group in parliament, in advocating for reforms and in their opposition to the succession of power," el-Sharnoubi told The Associated Press.
El-Shater, 55, the Brotherhood's second deputy, joined the Brotherhood in 1974 and has been imprisoned four times for a total of seven years on charges relating to his membership.
Following the arrests, hundreds of Al-Azhar students, mostly sympathizers with the Brotherhood, held an angry demonstration inside the campus and called for the release of their colleagues.
The Brotherhood has stressed that the students acted on their own without coordination with top leaders. The students issued a statement apologizing for the parade, saying it was "misinterpreted."
‘We made a mistake’
"We just wanted to attract attention to our issues, but we made a mistake in our move," according to the statement posted on the group's Web site.
The arrests also came five days after release of two key Brotherhood figures, Essam el-Erian and Mohammed Morsi. They were arrested six months ago in a wave of pro-reform demonstrations.
The Brotherhood is outlawed in Egypt and hundreds of its members have been arrested in the past year.
But the banned organization is also Egypt's largest political opposition group. The Brotherhood won 88 of parliament's 454 seats in elections a year ago, with its candidates running as independents.
The group, founded in 1928, established a military wing during the 1948 Middle East war to fight against Jewish forces setting up the state of Israel.
The militia also fought the British army, which stayed in Egypt until its withdrawal in 1956, and was accused of attempting to assassinate former President Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
Egypt officially banned it in 1954 and has accused it of aiming to set up an Islamic government.
The Brotherhood renounced violence in the 1970s and in recent months has been increasing its influence in powerful trade unions and challenging President Hosni Mubarak's administration in parliament.