For Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, a fierce crackdown has led to a return to its underground existence of the past: avoiding telephones and the Internet, changing homes and blending in.
Ever since security forces forcibly dispersed two Cairo camps of protesters loyal to ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, members of his Muslim Brotherhood organization have been on the run.
Authorities have arrested the group’s top leaders, including its supreme guide, effectively decapitating the movement and disrupting its organizational structure.
Morsi is being detained at a secret location and authorities have charged him and other Brotherhood members with involvement in the deaths of protesters.
The campaign of arrests has forced the Brotherhood back to ways it had largely abandoned as it inched its way into the spotlight.
Long banned in Egypt, the group had become gradually more tolerated in the years before the 2011 revolution, winning parliamentary seats through candidates who ran as independents.
It took center-stage only after the uprising which toppled former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, winning a majority in parliament and then the presidency. However, Morsi’s July 3 ouster has reset the clock.
“We’ve gone back to direct contact after having banned the use of telephones and the Internet, which could allow us to be found,” said Aisha, an activist in the Alexandria region of northern Egypt, giving a false name for security reasons.
Her father, a Brotherhood member, has gone underground for fear of arrest after the Aug. 14 break-up of the protest camps by security forces at a cost of hundreds of lives.
“It’s worse than under Mubarak, because in addition to the violence of the police, there’s the hostility of the people,” she said. “Many people no longer want to have Muslim Brotherhood as neighbors, but luckily there are still some who sympathize with us.”
Another activist based in Tanta, southwest of Cairo, who asked to be called Ahmed, said the group’s leaders were all on the run.
“None of our leaders spend even two nights in a row in the same place,” he said.
No rank of the Brotherhood has been left untouched, from grassroots members to supreme guide Mohamed Badie, who was arrested on Tuesday last week.
Security sources say more than 2,000 Muslim Brotherhood members have been arrested in the past 12 days.
However, “more than 8,000 activists have been locked up,” said Ismail Wishahi, a lawyer close to the group.
An anti-Brotherhood mood has been growing for weeks.
The army ousted Morsi after massive demonstrations against his rule.
Ordinary Egyptians have attacked dozens of the group’s offices and the local media have lined up behind Morsi’s ouster, dubbing the Brotherhood “terrorists” and terming the crisis a “war against terrorism.”
In the past, the Brotherhood had been able to mobilize tens of thousands of demonstrators, drawing on a network of supporters throughout the country. However, the violent dispersal of the protest camps and the campaign of arrests has thinned its ranks and made it increasingly difficult to mobilize en masse.
Directives can now only be passed by word-of-mouth, and checkpoints on roads make it impossible to bus supporters from the countryside into towns for demonstrations.
However, experts caution against writing off the Brotherhood too soon, particularly as the movement has decades of experience in facing state repression and surviving as a clandestine group.
“The Brotherhood has certainly been shaken up, but it still has control of its finances and the majority of its activists are still free,” said Ashraf al-Sharif, a professor of political science at the American University of Cairo.
“As a closed and secret organization, the Brotherhood is capable of resisting this wave of repression and reorganizing itself quickly,” added Haitham Abu Khalil, a former member of the group.
A Brotherhood activist in the city of Port Said said the movement would continue its work, even under pressure and despite the loss of its headquarters.
“We will engage directly with the population once again, and we don’t need offices to do that,” he said.