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Egypt arrests Muslim Brotherhood leader as country heads for court showdown

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Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

(Read caption) Essam El-Erian, vice president of the Freedom and Justice Party, speaks during Egypt's Shura Council meeting in Cairo May 25, 2013. Egyptian authorities have detained the senior Muslim Brotherhood leader Oct. 30, 2013, the latest arrest since the military overthrow the group's president in July.

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Egyptian authorities arrested senior Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam el-Erian today, adding another big name to the list of Brotherhood leaders – including deposed President Mohamed Morsi – who are expected to stand trial next week on charges of inciting violence.

The group, which had functioned semi-underground in Egypt for decades before the revolution that overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak, rode a wave of popular support into the presidency and to the top of a governing coalition in the legislature. But Mr. Morsi and the Brotherhood alienated many Egyptians with their political style and lost the support of the military, which ousted them in a July coup.

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Now the group is facing one of the darkest moments in its history, outright banned by an Egyptian court in September and with its leaders who haven't yet been arrested in hiding. Mr. Erian was the vice president of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood's political arm, and one of its last leaders still at large, according to Egypt's Al Ahram, a state-owned newspaper.

Many leaders have been arrested on similar "inciting violence" charges since July. At least 1,000 people were killed in the ensuing violence, as pro-Morsi protest camps were overrun by police. But the charges against Brotherhood leaders stem from an incident last December, when clashes erupted outside the presidential palace after Morsi issued a decree expanding his powers, Reuters reports.

Al Ahram reports that Erian pre-recorded several video messages that have now been broadcast on Al Jazeera.

The most notable of these messages was directed at the country’s interim government or what El-Erian described as ‘coup leaders,' demanding they recognize their "mistakes" and “confess that they’ve sided with one particular faction against another.”

With court proceedings against Erian, Morsi, and other leaders scheduled to begin next week, tensions are high. On Monday Morsi's supporters said that the former president wouldn't recognize the legitimacy of the military-backed government that replaced him and that he would not use a lawyer in court, "because to do so would imply that he accepted the legitimacy of the court and its proceedings," according to The Los Angeles Times.

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On Tuesday the judges presiding over a parallel trial of Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie and deputy Khairat El Shater, stepped down, forcing that trial to be abandoned. The judges cited "unease" over the proceedings, the LA Times reports.

The US has tried and failed to exert influence over the military-backed government since Morsi's July ouster. It announced a partial suspension of its $1.6 billion aid package to Egypt earlier this year – it had no choice, given a law that bars the US from providing aid to "governments that come to power through force," according to The Washington Post – but the move garnered little reaction in Cairo because a $12 billion aid package from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait has made US funds superfluous.

The US now appears to be seeking ways to backtrack on the aid suspension to try to halt the erosion of its influence.

The Obama administration has charged Congress with finding a "legislative work-around" to keep the money on track, insisting the money is essential to ensuring US interests in the Middle East. According to the Post, most lawmakers at a House foreign affairs committee hearing Tuesday were in favor, considering it "the best of bad options."

“While we would like a democratic partner for our many security interests in the region, we need a partner,” said Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), the committee chairman. “We should push and pull with what influence we have.”

Rep. Eliot L. Engel (NY), the ranking Democrat on the panel, said the military’s removal of Morsi, an Islamist criticized as failing to govern inclusively, “replaced one autocratic government with another.” But he argued that a partial suspension of military aid would not encourage democratic reforms in Cairo.

“In fact, I think it’s more than likely to have the opposite effect,” he said. “That military cooperation is important. We’ve spent billions of dollars. We’ve cemented relationships. Let’s use them. Let’s not destroy them. Let’s use them.”

An unnamed congressional appropriator told the Post that the US has continued sending military equipment and funding for civilian programs using money set aside before the July coup, but when it runs out in a couple months, the US cannot continue sending money without breaking its own law – or changing it. The US also halted the scheduled delivery of F-16 fighter planes, Abrams tanks, Apache helicopters and Harpoon missiles in a bid to encourage the Egyptian government to hold promised elections soon. But as the Post notes, "there is little evidence that the strategy is bearing fruit."

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