CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian authorities arrested 11 Muslim Brotherhood members accused of running Facebook pages that incite violence against the police, expanding a crackdown on followers of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi to include social media.
The arrests Wednesday and Thursday are a sign that after largely crippling the group in a wave of arrests and killings of protesters, security agencies are going after younger members using the Internet to keep protests alive — and looking for evidence of links to a growing insurgency and violent backlash.
Bombings and drive-by shootings targeting police officers have accelerated in retaliation for the killings and jailing of Brotherhood members and other Islamists. The attacks have been claimed by an al-Qaida-inspired militant group, but the government accuses Morsi's Brotherhood of orchestrating the violence and has branded it a terrorist group — an accusation the group denies.
The police online pursuit raises concerns that the fear of attacks could be used as a pretext for imposing heavier restrictions on the freedom of the Internet, a major outlet for expression after the military-backed interim government extended the crackdown to silence other forms of dissent, with the arrests of leading secular activists.
According to the private-owned Al-Shorouk newspaper, the government is preparing a new anti-terrorism law that criminalizes websites that promote "ideas or beliefs calling for use of force or violence." The bill, drafted by the Justice Ministry, called for penalties of no less than five years in prison for those creating such sites.
Earlier this month, leading liberal and former lawmaker Amr Hamzawi was referred to trial over charges of insulting a judge because of a Twitter posting criticizing a ruling. Meanwhile, under the crackdown, social media have become one of the Brotherhood's main ways of communication, spreading calls for non-stop protests demanding Morsi reinstatement and posting pictures of blooded faces of slain protesters while calling for revenge.
Authorities say that after police crushed two pro-Morsi protest camps in August, Brotherhood-linked pages were filled with names, pictures and personal details about police officers they accuse of involvement in the assault. The day witnessed one of Egypt's worst bloodbaths, with hundreds killed.
The new arrests were in connection to a number of Brotherhood-linked pages. The Interior Ministry said Thursday the detainees were accused of using the pages to "incite violence, target citizens, make bombs and carry threatening messages." It said some were arrested for sharing postings from other pages called the Free Islamic Army.
Among those detained was a teacher from the Nile Delta city of Damanhour, who allegedly posted on his Facebook page a "statement inciting the burning of police vehicles," the ministry said. Two others, a government employee and his son, were arrested for running a page called "Revolutionaries of Beni Suef," a southern province. The page, set up on Jan. 21, has around 500 followers.
One of its postings shows three pictures of an army officer with his children. A caption with the post identifies him as part of the "el-Sissi militia." "I say to all el-Sissi dogs everywhere, you are under the microscope," it read.
Six others were detained in Damanhour for running Facebook page called "Damanhour Ghosts." The page mostly carries criticism of the military and government and calls for the freeing of detainees — though one picture shows the country's top leaders, including el-Sissi, in prison uniforms with nooses dangling above them.
Others were arrested in connection to a page called "Anti-Coup Hooligans Brigade," launched in October, which includes pictures of policemen the page accuses of killing protesters, warning, "vengeance is coming" and pictures of youth throwing firebombs and instructions.
Suicide bombings, attacks and drive-by shootings by militants have targeted senior police officers, including Lt. Col. Mohammed Mabrouk, whom authorities said was involved in investigating Brotherhood leaders and was killed in November. Small bombs go off or are found planted near police stations regularly.
Social media and Facebook in particular were main platforms for organizing the country's 2011 uprising that led to the ouster of longtime president Hosni Mubarak. Since then, fiercely anti-police pages have arisen during years of turmoil by youth of various stripes, including riotous soccer fans who often clash with police.
During Morsi's one-year presidency, there were several arrests linked to postings seen as blasphemous or offensive to Islam. Coptic Christian Alber Saber sentenced to three years in prison in 2012 after neighbors complained he posted an anti-Islam film on his Facebook page.
In 2012, leading blogger and activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah was detained after a user posted a message on his Twitter account about anti-Morsi protests outside the Brotherhood's Cairo headquarters. Authorities also expanded their anti-Brotherhood crackdown to go after the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV news network, which they have long accused of bias in favor of the group. The network denies any bias.
On Wednesday, 20 Al-Jazeera journalists were ordered put on trial on charges of aiding or joining a terrorist group and endangering national security. After the indictment, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington was "deeply concerned" about the lack of freedoms in Egypt and the country's "egregious disregard for the protection of basic rights and freedoms."
Egypt's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Badr Abdelattie, rejected the U.S. criticism, insisting that the judicial system ensures fair trials and the government does not interfere in its work. No date has been set for the trial and the full lists of charges and defendants have not been released.
The 20 defendants are known to include three men working for Al-Jazeera English: Acting bureau chief Mohammed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian, award-winning correspondent Peter Greste of Australia and producer Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian. The three were arrested on Dec. 29 in a raid on the hotel suites where they were working.
Greste's parents, Lois and Juris, called the arrests of the three an abuse of human rights, free speech and journalists' freedom to report. "Someone didn't like their report. For that, they are now put into a maximum security prison for what is clearly punishment — not mere detention," Juris Greste told reporters in Brisbane. "This is most undeserved, outrageous and shameful."
__ Associated Press writer Kristen Gelineau contributed to this report from Sydney, Australia.