CAIRO — Egypt arrested two senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders, officials said Tuesday, increasing pressure on the Islamist group at a time when its ranks are divided over whether to pursue a course of direct violent confrontation with the government in response to a nearly 2-year-old heavy crackdown.
The arrests came as a judge said Tuesday he would announce his final decision on June 16 concerning a death sentence against former President Mohammed Morsi and more than 100 others found guilty on charges of carrying out a 2011 prison break. Once the decision is finalized, Morsi and others can still appeal the verdict.
The judge handed down a tentative death sentence against Morsi and the others last month. But under Egyptian law, the country's top Muslim cleric, the mufti, must issue a non-binding opinion on any death sentence before it can be officially issued. The judge said he had received the mufti's opinion Tuesday morning and would issue his final ruling on the sentence in two weeks.
The verdict against Morsi is part of a series of mass trials in the crackdown that has largely crushed the 87-year-old Brotherhood, once the country's most powerful political organization. The crackdown was launched after the military ousted Morsi — a Brotherhood figure who became Egypt's first freely elected president — in July 2013 in the wake of mass protests against his rule. Since then, security forces largely quelled pro-Morsi protests, killing hundreds of Islamists and arresting thousands, including almost all the group's top and middle leadership.
The tight security grip and a series of harsh sentences against Brotherhood leaders appear to be causing cracks within the group, long known for its tight discipline. Last week, two factions came into the open: a younger generation of Islamists advocating a more violent confrontation and the Brotherhood's older generation, which in its official statements insists on peaceful means of resistance.
The government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi — the former army chief who led the ouster of Morsi — accuses the Brotherhood of resorting to violence from the start and has declared it a terrorist organization, a claim the group denies. But the signs of divisions within the group suggest a growing distance between young Brotherhood members who have borne the brunt of street clashes with police and the older Brotherhood leadership, which is largely in prison or in exile abroad and in the past has been willing to strike deals with those in power in Egypt, as means for survival.
The new arrests targeted members of the older generation advocating peaceful resistance: Abdel-Rahman el-Bar, the Brotherhood's top religious cleric, and Mahmoud Ghozlan, its former spokesman and a member of its top decision-making body. The two were arrested late Monday while hiding in the Gaza district of the capital, according to a security official. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.
El-Bar and Ghozlan were wanted by authorities because they had both been convicted in absentia in trials on violence-related charges. They were both sentenced to death, since those convicted in absentia automatically receive the harshest possible sentence for their charges. Egyptian law requires they be given a retrial after their capture.
Several days before his arrest, Ghozlan had posted an online statement underlining that "peaceful means and shunning violence are our basic principles, which we don't diverge from and don't give up on. This is the hardest choice but it is the best."
He made the statement in reply to a volley by the younger generation, coming from Brotherhood spokesman Mohammed Montassir. In a statement, Montassir voiced support for a recent joint document by a group of Brotherhood-connected or hard-line Muslim clerics around the region that denounced el-Sissi's government as a "murderous criminal regime" and advocated retribution against officials, judges, policemen, media figures and politicians involved in the crackdown.
Montassir said he was speaking in the name of the group's new leadership, which he said was created in secret elections held among members last year. He said those elections only left in place the Brotherhood's top leader, Mohammed Badie, who is among those in prison and has had a death sentence issued against him. The group elected a crisis-management team, Montassir said, apparently sidelining the main decision-making body known as General Guidance Bureau filled with older generation figures.
The support for the clerics' document appeared to mark a major shift in the Brotherhood's policy.
The crisis in the Brotherhood "reflects a deep schism between two generations," said Khalil al-Anani, an academic expert on Islamic movements in his commentary on Al-Jazeera TV's website. "Clearly the youth of the Brotherhood have lost hope," he added.
Still, others are skeptical. Researcher Ahmed Bani, a former Brotherhood member, said he believed the dispute was over leadership, not between hawks and doves within the group. Speaking to The Associated Press, he said the older generation used peaceful rhetoric to cover up violent policies, while the younger just wants to get rid of the cover. "The future is to the violent current, alas," he said.
Egypt has been rocked by a surge in blasts, assassinations and suicide bombings, mainly against police and the military, by militant groups from which the Muslim Brotherhood group is believed to have kept a distance. Sinai-based Ansar Beit al-Maqdis — the most dangerous militant group— has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State extremist group, declaring itself to be the group's Sinai Province.