The Muslim brotherhood, back in a fight to survive

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Muslim Brotherhood leaders vowed a long conflict in Egypt.

Muslim Brotherhood leaders vowed a long conflict in Egypt.

They hide in safe houses on the outskirts of this city, talk only fleetingly on cellphones and avoid the cafes where they used to meet. Heavy scarves obscure their identities when they venture out to join protests.

Muslim Brotherhood leaders vowed a long conflict in Egypt.

The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, now outlawed, have adjusted to life underground, even while hundreds of their fellow members have been arrested in this city since the military deposed President Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood leader, and the Egyptian government branded the group a terrorist movement.

Yet, rather than crack and disintegrate under the pressure, members say, the group has fallen back on the organizational structure that sustained it for decades as a banned and secretive movement. It is becoming more decentralized, but also more cohesive and rigid, as its members abandon activities like preaching and social work and shift their attention to a virtually singular goal: resistance to the military-backed government.

Their focus, many Brotherhood members say, is a protracted, grinding struggle.

“There is a vision of a political confrontation that can go on for years,” said one leader, a 33-year-old architect in Fayoum, an Islamist stronghold. He, along with other members, spoke in a cafe for a time, but changed locations after suspecting the employees were eavesdropping.

“This is our persistence stage,” he said. “We are trying to stand up as long as we can.”

The Brotherhood’s endurance so far all but ensures that Egypt will continue to be troubled by civil conflict. And it raises further doubts about the government’s attempts to extinguish a movement that has resisted such efforts since its founding more than 80 years ago and that draws support from hundreds of thousands of members and millions of affiliates and sympathizers throughout the country.

Although leaders of the group say they remain committed to protests to express their activism, some members said that many of its sympathizers were increasingly talking of violence.

“I know people who are not Muslim brothers who say, ‘We’ll get your rights back for you,’ ” said Ramadan Fadel, a 27-year-old member in Fayoum who said that an acquaintance had told him that people were ready to take up arms to protect the group.

In places like Mansoura, north of Cairo, where the Brotherhood’s footprint is smaller, there was less talk of confrontation than of survival, beginning with the difficulty of attracting new recruits. “Who would want to undergo this repression?” asked a doctor who lives just outside the city and who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

Some members described the conflict as a zero-sum game between the military and the Brotherhood. Underscoring the perils of that conflict, at least 13 people were killed on Friday during Brotherhood marches throughout the country in some of the deadliest clashes in months.

“Our backs are against the wall,” the doctor said. The military, he added, “has left us only one path.”

After the ouster of Mr. Morsi, the few government ministers who spoke of reconciliation complained that the Brotherhood was unyielding in its demands, even as hard-liners escalated a crackdown on the movement, killing hundreds of protesters and imprisoning almost every senior leader. Now the hawks are ascendant, no one talks of compromise and officials openly accuse the Brotherhood of carrying out deadly and spectacular attacks on the security services, even when unrelated militant groups claim responsibility for such attacks.

Last week, for instance, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, a government hard-liner, accused the Brotherhood of conspiring to carry out “hostile schemes” over the years with “extremist factions,” including Palestinian militants.

In reality, though, the roots of the government’s problems are much closer to home.

In cities like Mansoura, the doctor said, members have continued to attend the small, weekly “family” meetings that are considered the most critical building blocks of the organization, and the wellspring of the brotherhood’s cohesion and its ideology.

In many neighborhoods in Fayoum, campaign posters for Mr. Morsi still hang on the walls, evidence of the futility of the government’s campaign, Brotherhood members say.

For now, Brotherhood members in Fayoum said they were concentrating on replenishing their ranks, reaching out to new recruits while trying to coax lapsed, older members into more active service. Four of the members, including a senior leader, detailed the movement’s strategy, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they feared drawing further attention from the authorities.

Efforts to keep the movement alive began after Mr. Morsi’s ouster in July, the members said, when leaders appointed deputies, who in turn appointed their own deputies, to ensure a continuity of leadership as the crackdown on protests intensified. As thousands of Islamists from across the country demonstrated in Cairo for the return of Mr. Morsi, meetings were held in the squares where the protests occurred, near the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque and at Cairo University.

When the authorities stormed the squares on Aug. 14, killing hundreds of protesters, the Brotherhood faced its greatest organizational crisis, the members said. “It took about 15 days to absorb the shock, and get back to our grass roots,” said one member, a 26-year-old veterinarian. “Now we’re expanding.”

Still, a growing pressure on the Brotherhood has forced adjustments. Meetings are now held in private homes, and members approach security checkpoints and attend protests assuming they will be arrested. Some of the protests have become more like flash mobs, with demonstrators scattering quickly to avoid a heavy security response.

Some of the older Brotherhood leaders, for whom living under repression had become a way of life, boasted about the movement’s tenacity.

But for younger members, facing the wrath of the state was still a shock. Mr. Fadel, the 27-year-old, said he had become terrified of being singled out as a member of the Brotherhood by people on the street. His family has also pressured him to leave the movement.

Having been wounded by birdshot during protests, he said, he had prepared himself for the likelihood that he would be killed. “For now I see no future,” he said. “I fear for my family.”

With the group’s narrow focus on survival, there was little talk about the long-term direction of the movement, or the mistakes during Mr. Morsi’s time in power, a tenure that ended with millions of angry Egyptians on the streets demanding his ouster. The Brotherhood members talked about a few “errors” but mostly complained about what they said were conspiracies that doomed their rule.

Their official demand, that the military takeover be reversed, has not changed since July. On the horizon were nothing but protests and some unspecified type of resistance that the leaders in Fayoum promised to unveil on Jan. 25, the anniversary of the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak.

In Mansoura, where a bombing last month was followed by retaliatory violence against the Brotherhood, the members of the movement have faced greater difficulties. The doctor said he and other members had learned to live by new rules.

“Don’t stand in the street together for too long,” the doctor said. “If you have money, gold or documents that are important for you or the Muslim Brotherhood, take them to a relative or a friend you trust.”

“We’re now placed in the same boat,” he said. “We must be tighter together than we were before, so the crisis passes.”

Courtesy of New York Times

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