The arrest of Mohamed Badie, 70, the Brotherhood’s general guide, followed the bloody suppression of rallies demanding the reinstatement of Egypt’s first freely elected president, toppled by the military last month.
Egypt is enduring its bloodiest week of internal strife since the monarchy was overthrown in 1952, with about 900 people killed, including 100 police and soldiers, after the authorities broke up Brotherhood protest camps in Cairo last Wednesday.
A spokesman for a pro-Brotherhood alliance said the death toll among supporters of Morsi, deposed by the military on Jul 3, was at about 1,400.
The turmoil has alarmed the United States and the European Union, but Israel and some Gulf Arab states led by Saudi Arabia have urged the West not to punish Cairo’s new rulers.
Badie, the Brotherhood’s general guide, was taken from an apartment in Nasr City in northeast Cairo, the area where protesters demanding Morsi’s reinstatement had staged a vigil for six weeks before they were violently dispersed.
He was charged in July with incitement to murder during protests before Morsi’s overthrow and is due to stand trial on Aug 25 with his two deputies.
Footage circulated on local media showed the bearded Brotherhood leader sitting grim-faced on a sofa in a grey robe, hands folded in his lap, while a man with a rifle stands by. The release of the images seemed designed to humiliate the Brotherhood’s most senior chief, whose arrest means the top echelon of the Islamist movement is now behind bars.
After decades as an outlawed movement, the Brotherhood emerged as the best-drilled political force after Hosni Mubarak’s fall in pro-democracy protests in 2011. Now the state accuses it of al-Qaeda style militancy and subversion, charges it vehemently denies.
The whereabouts of many other senior Brotherhood politicians are unknown. Those who had been posting frequently on social media have stopped in the last two days. Arrests have extended beyond Cairo, netting provincial leaders of the movement.
The Brotherhood condemned the detention of Badie, whose 38-year-old son was killed on Friday in Cairo clashes.
The state news agency said Badie was taken to Tora prison on the southern outskirts of Cairo, where other Brotherhood leaders are held, as well as former president Mubarak. Morsi has been held in an undisclosed location since the army toppled him on Jul 3.
Tamarod, the youth organisation which orchestrated the street campaign against Morsi, hailed Badie’s detention.
“Arresting Badie is an important step on the path of the revolution, fighting terrorism and dismantling the terrorist group by arresting its leaders,” Mohamed Abdelaziz, a Tamarod spokesman, wrote on the group’s Facebook page.
On Monday the public prosecutor opened a new investigation against Morsi over incitement to violence. The same day, a court ruled that Mubarak, who was arrested after his overthrow in 2011, could no longer be held on a corruption charge. A petition for Mubarak’s release on bail will be examined by a court today, judicial sources said.
Morsi was already facing accusations stemming from his prison escape during the anti-Mubarak revolt. These include murder and conspiring with the Palestinian Islamist group, Hamas.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called on the authorities to release Morsi, or at least ensure a transparent process for him.
Meanwhile, Egypt began three days of official mourning for 25 policemen killed on Monday by suspected Islamist militants in the Sinai. State television carried emotional demands for retribution against the Brotherhood. The off-duty policemen were returning to barracks in Rafah when militants attacked them. The government said they had been forced from their vehicles and shot in cold blood.
Foreign ministers of the EU, another donor to Egypt, meet in Brussels today to discuss how it might apply its influence for a peaceful compromise. However, Egypt’s interim government, has said it will resist any outside pressure.