Egypt escalated its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood on Thursday, detaining at least 16 of the group's supporters on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization the day after it was declared one by the government.
The activists were held in the Nile Delta province of Sharkiya on suspicion of "promoting the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood group, distributing its leaflets, and inciting violence against the army and police," the state news agency said.
The government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group on Wednesday in response to a suicide attack a day earlier that killed 16 in the Nile Delta, accusing the group of carrying out the bombing. The Brotherhood condemned the attack.
Interior Ministry spokesman Hani Abdel Latif told state TV on Thursday that anyone taking part in Brotherhood protests would be jailed for five years. "The sentence could be death for those who lead this organization," he added.
The government did not provide evidence to back up the charge that the Brotherhood had staged the Nile Delta attack in Mansoura, north of Cairo, which was claimed by the Sinai-based radical Islamist group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis.
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has taken responsibility for several other major bombings, including a failed attempt to kill the interior minister in September.
The Brotherhood's Islamist allies responded defiantly to the cabinet decision announced late on Wednesday, vowing to continue the protests it has staged against the army since the overthrow of President Mohammed Mursi.
"The putchists are a terrorist organization. The Brotherhood are peaceful patriots," they said in a statement.
Wednesday's move marked an escalation in the government's campaign to suppress the Islamist movement that propelled Mursi to the presidency 18 months ago but has been driven underground since the army toppled him in July after big protests against him.
In the weeks after Mursi's removal, the security forces killed hundreds of his supporters while dispersing their protest camps, and arrested thousands more including most of the Brotherhood's top leadership.
Though the Brotherhood has been outlawed for most of its existence, this is the first time it has been formally listed as a terrorist organization.
State prosecutors last week ordered Mursi and others to stand trial on charges including terrorism for which they could be executed.
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