CAIRO • An Egyptian court on Monday ordered the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood and the confiscation of its assets, opening the door for authorities to dramatically accelerate a crackdown on the extensive network of schools, hospitals, charities and other social institutions that was the foundation of the group's political power.
Security forces have already been moving against the Brotherhood's social networks, raiding schools and hospitals run by the group since the military's July 3 ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
The sweep points to the ambitions of Egypt's new leaders to go beyond the arrests of top Brotherhood figures to strike a long-term, even mortal, blow to the group by hitting the pillars of its grassroots organization. Doing so could cripple the group's political prospects far into the future.
"The plan is to drain the sources of funding, break the joints of the group, and the dismantle podiums from which they deliver their message," said one senior security official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss security agencies' intentions.
Blurring its political and religious nature, the Brotherhood vaulted to election dominance in large part because of its multiple business interests that provide funding, as well as schools, mosques and powerful social institutions providing cheap medical care and services to millions of impoverished Egyptians. As a result, after the 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood swept parliament elections and lifted Morsi into office as the country's first freely elected leader.
"The hospitals and schools are among the most powerful tools to garner support, which would be translated into votes," said Ahmed Ban, a researcher and former Brotherhood member. Schools give the group "a large pool to recruit new cadres at a very stage of their lives," he said. Hospitals send the message that "we are offering good and cheap services, and we are the good Muslims."
In election seasons, Brotherhood hospitals, joined by candidates, would send medical convoys offering free care to villages where state services are absent. The past two years, the Brotherhood's political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, held markets selling reduced-price food and clothes.
Outlawed for most of 85-year existence with successive regimes alternating between repression and tolerance the Brotherhood built its networks largely underground. That made it difficult for authorities to track, since many institutions were registered under individuals' names.
After Mubarak's ouster, the group emerged to work openly, opening a formal headquarters and forming a political party. Ironically, that made parts of its structure more visible. The senior security official said intelligence and the National Security agency have been working through banks, oversight agencies and state records to compile a database of Brotherhood members and assets. An earlier court ruling froze the assets of 24 senior figures, including deputy head Khairat el-Shater, a wealthy businessman seen as the group's top financier and strongman.
Monday's court ruling, if upheld over any appeals, gives authorities a legal basis to move against those assets.
The sweeping verdict banned the group as well as "any institution branching out of it or ... receiving financial support from it," which legal experts said could also force the disbanding of the Freedom and Justice Party. It also ordered the group's assets and property confiscated.
The court's explanation gave few specific legal grounds, beyond saying the group used Islam "as a cover" while it "violated citizen's rights." It gave a broad political denunciation, saying that during Morsi's year in office, "Egyptians found only repression and arrogance."
One leading Brotherhood member, Ibrahim Moneir, called the verdict "totalitarian." The Brotherhood "will remain with God's help, not by the orders by the judiciary of (military chief Abdel-Fattah) el-Sissi," he told Qatari-based Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr TV.
The ruling means any member risks arrest, a return to Mubarak's days when the typical charge for arresting Brothers was "belonging to a banned group."
Already some 2,000 senior and mid-ranking Brotherhood figures have been arrested. Morsi, the Brotherhood's top leader Mohammed Badie and two of Badie's deputies face trials on charges of inciting deadly violence. Officials and sympathetic media accuse the group of fomenting violence in retaliation for the coup.
Over the past weeks, security forces stormed at least 10 Brotherhood-linked schools and eight hospitals, confiscating equipment and arresting directors, often on allegations the sites were hiding weapons. The Education Ministry says the Brotherhood is believed to run 40-60 schools nationwide.
The schools are under various Brotherhood-run associations, each with a board of directors headed by the group's top administrative official in each province, part of the pyramid hierarchy of the group.
In southern Assiut province, security forces raided the six schools of the Dar el-Haraa chain, headed by former Brotherhood lawmaker Wafaa Mashhour, daughter of the group's former top leader Mustafa Mashhour. The police seized computers and arrested teachers and even cleaning workers.
"I told the police that this will backfire," Mashhour told the Associated Press, referring to the schools' role with the public.
The schools take "burden off the state's shoulders with low prices and high educational standards," she said. The six schools have some 5,000 students, she said, adding that she also mediates parents' conflicts with children and organizes workshops for women on parenting and marriage.
Hospitals are another window into the Brotherhood's empire. One Brotherhood-linked network, the Islamic Medical Association, owns some 30 hospitals across Egypt treating 2 million patients at low costs and employing 2,000 doctors and 3,000 other staff, according to its official website.
"We get close to God by medical work," the association's slogan proclaims.
The interim government is also tightening its grip over mosques, another key resource for the Brotherhood. One former member, Sameh Eid, said the group collected alms from mosques in absence of state oversight, on top of the 8 percent of their incomes that members pay.
Last week, the Religious Endowments Ministry cancelled licenses for thousands of preachers and ordered the closure of thousands of small mosques.
At the same time, businesses believed rightly or wrongly to be Brotherhood-linked have faced boycotts encouraged by youth movements and anti-Islamist TV stations. That has led a string of businessmen to publicly deny links to the group. Last month, Egypt's leading dairy company Juhayna ran ads in state papers demanding a stop to boycott campaigns against it.
One of the country's biggest department stores Tawheed wa Nour, or "Monotheism and Light" has been hard hit, because it is owned by an ultraconservative sheik seen as an Islamist supporter, though it is not Brotherhood-linked. The stores are popular among middle-class and poor Egyptians, selling everything from clothes to soccer balls and school supplies for low prices. But many branches are empty of customers, even with school now beginning.
Many staffers have shaved off their conservative beards which they said they were required to grow for the job to avoid harassment.
"These people will not see the seat of power once again in Egypt," said el-Moghazi el-Hadi, who has been selling papers for decades in front of one Tawheed wa Nour branch. "Morsi for Egypt was like a driver who doesn't know how to drive ... the minute he turns the engine and turns the wheel, he slams his car by the wall."