CAIRO — An Egyptian court on Monday banned the Muslim Brotherhood and its vast social services network, freezing its finances and seizing its assets in what could be yet another devastating blow to the Islamist organization that swept former President Mohammed Morsi to power and has fiercely resisted the popularly supported military coup that ousted him in July.
The far-reaching ruling appears to cover any group remotely associated with the world's oldest Islamist movement, potentially widening an already-sweeping crackdown that has seen hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters killed and thousands more, including top leaders, arrested.
The ban covers "all the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood organization, the groups emerging from it, its associations, and any institution that branches from it or follows the group or receives financial support from it," according to Egypt's official state media outlet, MENA.
The ruling was issued by the so-called Court of Urgent Matters, which legal experts said had dubious authority to do so; they noted that other cases challenging the Brotherhood are pending before administrative courts that could yet modify Monday's ruling.
And as a technical matter, they note that the shadowy Brotherhood barely exists as a legal entity to be banned. The only organization officially affiliated with the Brotherhood was registered in April, but it has little money, and none of the Brotherhood's leaders are part of it. The finances of the group — as well its social projects, such as hospitals, clinics, schools and other entities — are generally kept in the names of individuals, a strategy that has helped the Brotherhood survive underground for the past 70 years.
As a practical matter, however, the new decision provides Egypt's military-backed government with a temporary legal basis to go after just about any organization it might deem a Brotherhood affiliate.
"It is giving the government the broadest possible mandate to start sifting through all kinds of organizations and entities and freeze assets belonging to the Brotherhood," said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "It's yet another tool in the box of the mastermind behind the current crackdown on the Brotherhood."
Since the July 4 coup, security forces under the direction of Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi have arrested the first, second and third layers of Brotherhood leaders, including Morsi. Many have been branded as "terrorists" and charged with inciting violence, murder and other crimes that the group's supporters contend are fabricated.
The ruling potentially allows security forces to go even further, targeting the Brotherhood's network of health clinics, schools and other social programs that have formed the basis of its reputation and popular support among millions of poor Egyptians. Those programs continued to operate even under the ban enforced by former President Hosni Mubarak, whose ouster more than two years ago brought the group out of the shadows for the first time in decades, unleashing its formidable political power that swept Morsi into office.
On Monday, a Brotherhood official vowed that the group's social work would continue.
"The court ruling issued today concerning the dissolving of the group is a political decision in the form of a judicial ruling," Ibarhim Moneir, a member of the group's ruling Guidance Bureau, told the Al-Jazeera news network. "The Muslim Brotherhood will continue its work and will continue to protect this country."
Moneir was speaking by phone from London, where many leaders have fled since the crackdown began. The group's primary spokesman for the western media, Gehad el-Haddad, was arrested last week, and other top Brotherhood leaders remain in hiding.