A riot police maintains order on al-Azhar university campus after clashes broke out during student protests in Cairo on Wednesday. Picture: REUTERS
A riot police maintains order on al-Azhar university campus after clashes broke out during student protests in Cairo on Wednesday. Picture: REUTERS

CAIRO — Egyptian police fired tear gas at protesting students at Cairo’s al-Azhar University on Wednesday, hours after authorities announced the detention of Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam El-Erian, part of a crackdown against the Islamist movement.

Students at the country’s top institution for Islamic teachings have been demonstrating for weeks in support of ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, whom the army toppled in July after mass protests against his rule.

The head of al-Azhar University had called on the police to enter campus grounds to "protect souls and properties", according to an interior ministry statement.

Demonstrations at Al-Azhar are a sensitive matter because the institution has historically toed the government line.

Mr Erian, the deputy leader of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party, was taken into custody early on Wednesday from a residence in New Cairo where he had been in hiding.

"He’s been arrested and details will soon be released," an Interior Ministry source told Reuters.

Local media circulated a photo of what they described as the moment he was arrested, showing a smiling Erian standing next to a bed with two packed duffle bags.

Many Brotherhood leaders have been detained since the army deposed Mr Mursi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, and declared a road map leading to elections.

Mr Mursi, Mr Erian and 12 other Brotherhood leaders are expected to go on trial on Monday on charges of inciting violence.

The charges relate to the deaths of about a dozen people in clashes outside the presidential palace last December after Mr Mursi enraged protesters with a decree expanding his powers.

The trial of three senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders on charges of inciting violence was halted on Tuesday after the judge withdrew from the case for unexplained reasons.

The trials are likely to create more political upheaval in Egypt, which has a peace treaty with Israel and controls the Suez Canal, a vital global trade route.

The Brotherhood, which demands Mr Mursi’s reinstatement, accuses the army of staging a coup that sabotaged democratic gains made since a popular uprising toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

At least 1,000 people, including members of the security forces, were killed in the violence that followed Mr Mursi’s overthrow. Hundreds of his supporters were killed when police forces stormed two protest camps on August 14.

An Egyptian court in September banned the Muslim Brotherhood group and seized their funds to try to crush the movement, which the government accuses of inciting violence and terrorism.

The Brotherhood’s discipline and hierarchy helped it win elections after the revolt that toppled Mubarak, eventually propelling Mr Mursi into power.

Now the army-led government and its supporters regard the Brotherhood as a terrorist group and enemy of the state. The security forces and police, feared and despised under Mr Mubarak, are lauded for cracking down on the organisation.

The Brotherhood says it is committed to peaceful protest.

But as members go into hiding, its key building blocks — local groups of seven members known as usras — are under pressure.

Critics of the government say it is becoming more authoritarian, stifling dissent and limiting freedom of speech.

Human rights groups and some liberal politicians have expressed alarm over a draft law under debate that would place severe restrictions on protests.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said the law would give police carte blanche to ban protests in Egypt.

"This draft law would effectively mandate the police to ban all protests outright and to use force to disperse ongoing protests," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

"The final law will be an important indicator of the extent to which the new government is going to allow for political space in Egypt."

Reuters