The No. 2 leader of Egypt's opposition Muslim Brotherhood and two other top figures were arrested by police Monday in a dawn sweep targeting members of the nation's most powerful opposition group.
The arrests, part of an ongoing crackdown, come as the group recently chose a new leadership and ahead of parliamentary elections set for October.
Police arrested the new deputy leader, Mahmoud Ezzat, and two other members of the Guidance Council, Essam el-Erian and Abdul-Rahman el-Bir.
A fourth member of the group's top level decision making body was not home when police raided his house. At least 10 other members were also arrested in the provinces Monday.
"These arrests will not prevent the Brotherhood from the path it has chosen to achieve progress for the nation and it will continue its struggle through all available peaceful means to provide freedom and confront corruption and combat tyranny," the group said in a statement.
The group suggested that the arrests were related to its support for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the upcoming parliamentary elections.
"This regime does not want a partner or a participant," in running the country, said spokesman Mohamed Morsi, describing the arrests as a continuation of the state's "pressure and marginalization of the whole nation."
Morsi said the arrests wouldn't alter plans to participate in October's parliamentary elections.
Morsi said the men have not yet been charged and are awaiting interrogation. Police said they face charges of engaging in banned political activity — a standard government charge used against the group.
The London-based Amnesty International said the men arrested are considered "prisoners of conscience, detained solely for their peaceful political activities." The human rights watchdog called on the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release them.
It also urged the UN Human Rights Council, which is to scrutinize Egypt's human rights record later this month, to give attention to the authorities' continued misuse of emergency powers that allow for arbitrary and prolonged detentions to quash opposition at home. The emergency laws have been in place for nearly three decades.
The Brotherhood was banned in 1954 but is occasionally tolerated by the state. Its candidates are allowed to run for parliament as independents and in 2005 won 20 percent of the seats, making them Egypt's largest opposition bloc.
"The regime wanted to express its opinion to the new leaders by punishing them and tightening the noose on the old ones," Abdel-Gelil al-Shernouby, who runs the group's Web site, told The Associated Press.
The move comes just weeks after the movement selected a new supreme guide, Mohammed Badie, to great fanfare and media attention. He immediately embarked on a round of meetings with various intellectuals and opposition figures in the country.
"In the last few days after Mohammed Badie's accession, there has been a kind of media offensive in which he made various declarations and met many people," said Diaa Rashwan, an expert on the Islamist movements.
"I think (the arrests) are a kind of intimidation of them ... it is a kind of (government) offensive," he suggested, though he didn't expect the day-to-day work of the organization to be overly affected.
The men taken come from different tendencies in the movement, with Ezzat a powerful conservative and el-Erian known for a more pragmatic approach favoring cooperation with other political groups.
Within a year of the Brotherhood's dramatic win of a fifth of the parliament seats in the 2005 election, the government launched a wide-ranging crackdown against the group, including the arrest of Khayrat el-Shater, the group's third-ranking member, who works as the chief strategist and financier.
In October, Egypt's Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, who runs the nation's powerful security apparatus, predicted the group would not repeat their election successes in the 2010 parliamentary contest.
In elections for municipal councils and parliament's upper house following the 2005 vote, election officials disqualified Brotherhood candidates from running.
The Muslim Brotherhood advocates an Islamic state in Egypt, implementing Islamic law. Moderates in the Brotherhood feel that rather than insisting on an Islamic state, it should be a party for promoting Islamic values in a democratic system.