Muslim Brotherhood members in Egypt only agree to meet after sunset and are wary of everyone including family members, as part of tactics to outwit informants.
Three years after Egypt’s revolt which toppled president Hosni Mubarak, their 85-year-old movement is now designated a “terrorist organisation” by the country’s military-installed authorities.
The standing of the Islamist group has eroded dramatically in the face of a crackdown launched by the government since the military’s July 3 ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
The Brotherhood, which has won all elections in post-Mubarak Egypt, is in complete disarray, with its top leadership behind bars and hundreds of members and supporters on the run or living in constant fear.
After several approaches, some of its members finally agreed to meet up with AFP at their homes or cafes in the capital.
“Ibrahim”, 23, played host at his residence in a Cairo neighbourhood, but only after assurances that his real name would not be revealed.
At the gate of his building, Ibrahim cast worried looks around him, afraid that the doorman who he suspects of being “close to the security forces” would report him for meeting journalists.
And before he started to talk, his friend Mohamed removed the SIM cards from mobile phones, saying the “security forces can tap conversations even when the phone is switched off”.
Such precautions are essential because “the authorities are trying to divide society and calling on people to denounce” the Brotherhood, said Ibrahim.
His biggest fear was neighbours made to feel it was their national duty to report suspected Brotherhood members to police.
“Apart from neighbours, some feel threatened by their own families,” said Amani, whose best friend Mona was arrested last week along with her husband, leaving behind three children aged between six and 13.
Mona was arrested for wearing a full body veil, while her husband sports a long beard, seen as trademarks of Islamists, she said.
“There is an anti-Islam racism in Egypt,” said Amani, who wore a long blue veil, blaming unrest in Egypt on an international conspiracy.
Street clashes since July have left more than 1,000 people dead, mainly supporters and members of the Brotherhood, and the “terrorist” tag has further tightened the noose.
Brotherhood leaders are on trial facing charges which carry the death penalty, while those participating in demonstrations or possessing its leaflets face up to five years in jail.
Shaymaa Awad, 32, an Islamist activist whose family are active members of the Brotherhood, said she and many like her were always devising ways to outsmart the authorities.
“A friend uses a photo of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as his mobile phone wallpaper for when police” stop him at checkpoints, Awad said during a meeting at a cafe.
Sisi, Egypt’s powerful army chief, ousted Morsi after massive protests against the Islamist’s one year in office, although he himself was named defence minister by the elected president.
Three weeks later, Sisi called upon Egyptians to take to the streets and grant him a “mandate” to break up two sit-in protests in Cairo by Morsi supporters demanding his reinstatement.
“My aunt demonstrated (after Sisi’s call). She gave him a mandate to kill me as she knew I was at Rabaa al-Adawiya,” Awad said.
She was referring to one of the Cairo squares where more than 600 people were killed on August 14 after police unleashed a brutal crackdown to end the sit-ins.
Awad’s troubles began on July 4, a day after Morsi was toppled.
She and her family were staying at her father’s government apartment in northern Egypt when they were evicted because he was a senior Brotherhood member.
Awad moved to Cairo and now rarely sees her family.
“When I go (to see the family), I go at night and don’t stay long because I know the security forces have already visited our new home looking for me,” she said.
“My name is on their list of terrorists … so I don’t tell anyone where I live. There are still many things I want to do, so I won’t allow them to get me easily,” a determined Awad said with a smile.
And for that she uses modern technology.
She has installed an application on her mobile phone which when pressed can instantly alert the family and human rights activists in case she is arrested.
“I have also given passwords of my accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Gmail to different people, so that in case I’m caught they can close them down,” she said.