Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood switches tactics amid military crackdown
Egypt security officials dubbed it the 'butterfly plan' — a flurry of protests to distract them
Reeling from a fierce security crackdown, the Muslim Brotherhood brought out only scattered, small crowds Friday in its latest protests of Egypt's military coup.
While the remnants of the Brotherhood's leadership are still able to exhibit strong co-ordination from underground, the arrests of thousands of its supporters and members — and the fear of more bloodshed — have weakened its ability to mobilize the streets.
More than 1,300 people, most of them Brotherhood supporters, have been killed since President Mohammed Morsi, a longtime leader in the group, was ousted in a popularly backed coup July 3.
"When it started, it was only about the return of Morsi to power," said 18-year-old protester Ahmed Osama, who says he lost friends in the recent violence and that his brother was shot. "Now it has gone past that. Blood has been shed."
He said that despite the arrest of Brotherhood leaders, "We are still here."
The day's largest single demonstration was a little more than 10,000 people outside the presidential palace in Cairo, with dozens of gatherings of about 100 protesters or fewer in multiple sites around the capital and the provinces.
It was an intentional shift in tactics from a week ago, when the group failed to rally in a single location as a show of strength.
Security officials dubbed it the "butterfly plan" — a flurry of protests to distract them. Rather than have protests converge in one square and encounter force from police and angry residents, the group appeared to purposely plan hundreds of small marches in Cairo and neighbouring towns, as another way of continuing demonstrations and avoiding bloodshed, according to security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Protest organizers also used subterfuge: They said a rally would take place in Sphinx Square in Cairo, but after security forces barricaded the site with barbed wire, tanks and roadblocks, only a few hundred people demonstrated nearby, and the biggest crowd converged across town at the presidential palace. The location of the rally at the presidential palace was kept largely secret until the last hour, even from those leading the march.
Tens of thousands heeded the Brotherhood's call nationwide for a day of "decisiveness," in which the group urged people to "break your fear, break the coup." They marched defiantly past tanks and armoured vehicles on the streets of Cairo and other major cities.
Violence peaked two weeks ago when security forces attacked two Brotherhood-led sit-ins, killing more than 600 people in the assaults. More than 100 policemen and soldiers have been killed since the Aug. 14 raids. Police stations, government buildings and churches also have been attacked.
Friday's demonstrators marched through neighbourhoods that are largely sympathetic to them while others travelled outside their villages to areas where they are not known, to avoid security forces and neighbours working with police in their hometowns.
Notably absent were large numbers of supporters from the Brotherhood's more hard-line allies in the Salafi parties, which have begun distancing themselves from the group.
Those who did take to the streets chanted against the army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah el Sissi, who led the coup.
"The people want the death of the assassin!" the protesters yelled while waving the Egyptian flag and holding up yellow posters with the outline of a hand showing four fingers. Morsi supporters have used the symbol to remember the Cairo sit-in at the Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque, which in Arabic means "fourth."
The yellow poster was in every protest Friday. According to members of the Brotherhood, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisal, the posters are printed in secret locations, sometimes in the backs of Islamic bookstores and then distributed by youths in different towns.
While largely peaceful, the protests saw some sporadic violence in Cairo and elsewhere as angry residents confronted Brotherhood supporters. The group said seven people were killed nationwide; a government health official said six people died.
Not all of Friday's protesters were from the Brotherhood. Some said they were seeking justice for relatives killed by security forces this month or protesting the way in which Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, was removed from power.
Tarek Safa, a 43-year-old engineer protesting with his teenage daughter in Cairo, said the Brotherhood may have lost its leadership but was not crushed.
"If we look at their 80 years of history, they have proven that they are stronger than the regimes. The leaders pass and they stay," he said. "They will not be defeated easily."