Unbowed by a savage crackdown, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood promises a war of attrition against the army chief who ousted it from power and appears certain to win next week’s election.
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the now retired field marshal who overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Morsi and the frontrunner in the May 26-27 presidential election, has pledged to wipe out the movement.
Since Morsi’s overthrow in July, he has been arrested along with the leadership of his Brotherhood. More than 1,400 people have been killed, mostly Islamists in clashes with police.
Across the country the tightly knit Islamists are adapting and even radicalising.
Their almost weekly protests continue, though smaller in numbers.
And as soon as a mid-level leader is killed or arrested, another readily takes his place, one member said.
At a Cairo cafe, two veterans of the Islamist movement say their years of indoctrination have prepared them for this moment.
“As the Brotherhood, we’ve been psychologically prepared for the long run,” said one who asked to be identified as Ahmed, a pseudonym.
Popular opinion has also shifted against the Brotherhood after Morsi’s divisive year in power. Millions had demanded he resign before the army toppled him.
The crackdown since has disrupted the organisation’s command, and its imprisoned leaders can now pass messages only through visiting relatives and friends.
Ahmed has shaved his long beard, and spoke in a hushed voice across the table from Sayyed, another veteran member who had barely escaped with his life from a protest in August that turned deadly.
“We believe that a prophet preached for 950 years and gained only 80 followers. It’s our doctrine,” Sayyed said of the Islamic account of the Prophet Noah’s life. He also asked to be identified under a pseudonym.
In Ahmed’s cell of about eight people, called in Muslim Brotherhood parlance an “usra” or family, one person has been detained.
Several usras form a wider unit called the shu’ba, which combine to form a mantiqa, or district. Much of Ahmed’s shu’ba is intact although its head was killed in protest clashes with police.
“According to the guidelines, he was replaced by his deputy. He was then arrested. Council members appointed someone else on the fly.”
– Calls to attack police –
Issandr El Amrani, the North Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, said the group has adjusted its expectations.
“They really thought last summer it would be a matter of months,” he said of the Brotherhood’s opposition to the military-installed government.
“Now they have reassessed, and think it’s a matter of years.”
Some Brotherhood members debate conducting militant attacks on police, similar to the ones carried out by Qaeda-inspired militants that have killed almost 500 policemen and soldiers since Morsi’s overthrow.
The interim government has blacklisted the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, without providing any hard evidence of the group’s involvement in the deadly attacks.
But Brotherhood members and allies have begun targeting police vehicles, and others research officers involved in the crackdown for eventual reckoning, said another activist.
“I collect details on the police,” he said. “There will either be formal justice in the end, or people will take it themselves in a period of chaos.”
– State will ‘collapse’ –
Following one particularly brutal clash on August 14 last year, when police killed an estimated 700 Morsi supporters in Cairo, many members said they had to strike back, said Sayyed.
Dozens of policemen died in attacks by mobs in the days that followed, along with churches of Christians the Islamists accused of supporting Morsi’s overthrow.
More seasoned members, Sayyed said, believe past militancy by the Brotherhood, which formed in 1928 and renounced violence in the 1970s, almost destroyed the movement.
The group, banned by successive dictators until an uprising toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011, turned to grassroots organising.
“No matter the cost of peaceful protest, the cost of conducting attacks is even higher,” Sayyed said.
The members of the group’s politburo, the Guidance Council, who evaded arrest have fled abroad. The supreme guide Mohamed Badie is in prison.
One of the Brotherhood’s top leaders abroad agreed to speak to AFP provided he was not identified.
“The economy is failing. The coup can’t lead the country in this form. The state will collapse. They can’t keep hitting the protests, arresting and killing people for two years. It’s impossible,” he said in a telephone interview.