Egyptian authorities have arrested at least eight people, including prominent activists who were part of the country’s 2011 uprising, accusing them of a plot to bring down the government.
The arrests drew condemnation by Amnesty International, which described Egypt as “an open-air prison” where no opposition or independent reporting was allowed.
In a statement on Tuesday, the Egyptian Ministry of Interior said Zyad Elelaimy, a former legislator and member of the secular Egyptian Social Democratic Party, was held along with seven other people.
The ministry said those arrested were loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt designated a “terrorist” group in 2013.
It added that the eight suspects were the most prominent figures arrested, but did not specify how many others were arrested.
Authorities said they had also identified and targeted 19 companies and “economic entities” run via “secret methods” by Muslim Brotherhood leaders and the “provocateur elements” loyal to it.
Elelaimy’s party was one of the main protest groups in the 2011 uprising that led to the departure of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak, but it also opposed the government of Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader who became the country’s first freely elected president in 2012.
Morsi was toppled a year later in a military coup led by then-army chief and current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and was promptly arrested.
Last week, he collapsed during a court appearance in the capital, Cairo, and shortly afterwards was pronounced dead.
Morsi’s death prompted criticism of el-Sisi’s government, with human rights groups accusing it of mistreating the former president and failing to provide adequate medical care or prisoner rights, charges the Egyptian authorities have denied.
In its statement, the interior ministry accused Elelaimy and other detainees of involvement in a plan financed through leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood abroad “to carry out violent and disorderly acts against state institutions simultaneously with creating a state of revolutionary momentum”.
It accused five individuals outside Egypt, including former presidential candidate Ayman Nour and prominent TV personalities Moataz Matar and Mohamed Nasser of involvement in the alleged plot.
Economist Omar el-Shenety and journalists Hossam Monis and Hisham Fouad were also arrested, it said.
Monis was the campaign manager for opposition leader Hamdeen Sabahi, the candidate who ran against el-Sisi in the 2014 presidential election. El-Sisi won that vote with almost 97 percent.
Abdelaziz el-Husseini, a senior leader in the Karama, or Dignity party, said Elelaimy and Monis took part in meetings with political parties and opposition legislators to discuss possibilities to run in the 2020 parliamentary elections. Their latest meeting was late on Monday in Cairo, he added.
“These public meetings are legitimate. They are members in legitimate parties and absolutely have no ties to the Brotherhood,” he told The Associated Press news agency.
The meetings included the Civil Democratic Movement (CDM), a coalition of liberal and left-leaning parties, which called for their release on Tuesday.
In a statement, the CDM denied Elelaimy and the others arrested had any connections with the Muslim Brotherhood.
One of Elelaimy’s colleagues said he believed the arrest was linked to the coalition’s move to seek more members to prepare for next year’s elections.
“We have nothing to do with the Brotherhood … I am truly astonished and I don’t know why security would be upset that we want to take part in the elections in the framework of the law and constitution,” CDM member Khaled Dawoud told Reuters news agency.
Amnesty criticised the arrests as part of “the Egyptian authorities’ systematic persecution and brutal crackdown on anyone who dares to criticise them.”
“The crackdown leaves no doubt about the authorities’ vision for political life in Egypt; an open-air prison with no opposition, critics or independent reporting allowed,” Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty’s North Africa director of research, said in a statement.