With hundreds jailed, Egypt's Islamists demand new protest strategy

Former President Morsi's supporters have protested regularly since his ouster, but that has yielded little more than arrests, making some consider more violent means.

By , Correspondent

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    A policeman stood guard outside the police academy where the trial of ousted President Mohamed Morsi was going to take place. Morsi's supporters are losing faith in their ability to effect change through protest.
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Supporters of Egypt's ousted Islamist president are unsure how to make their voices heard now that their key tactic, protests, has landed hundreds of members in jail and forced many others underground.

In the months since former President Mohamed Morsi's ouster, Egypt's military-backed authorities have branded his Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, encouraged citizens to inform on its members, and introduced legislation that effectively criminalizes unsanctioned demonstrations.

The fear now is that increasing numbers of disillusioned Islamists will turn to violence as the only way to make themselves heard.

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The Anti Coup Alliance, a broad umbrella group housing supporters of many different shades of Islamism, has until recently been the main face of the pro-Morsi protest movement. Formed inside Rabaa el Adaweya, the Cairo protest encampment that was brutally dispersed by the security services in July, its leadership has called for street demonstrations every Friday since Mr. Morsi's overthrow.

But participation has dwindled. According to official figures, around 150 protesters are arrested at each Friday demonstration. At least a handful are also killed. Protesters speak of their fatigue and frustration at being asked to go out week after week with no change in strategy. 

"Every time we go out to the streets, the security forces turn up and protesters are killed, injured, or arrested. And what do we do the following week? Exactly the same," says Heba, a student who participated regularly in street protests until last month. "It's been happening for six months now, and nothing changes."

Feeling abandoned

Sitting in an east Cairo back street last week, shortly after his pro-Morsi protest was dispersed, Khaled Naggar says he feels abandoned by the Alliance's leadership. Twelve of his friends have been killed in the violence that has wracked Egypt since July. A further six have been arrested at demonstrations. 

"I know they're doing their best in a tough situation, but this is just getting to be too much," he said. "I don't think I can keep on doing this – we're being left to fight a losing battle." 

Morsi himself has also voiced misgivings about the weekly street protests. On Monday, the private El Watan newspaper published excerpts from a leaked recording of Morsi speaking to his lawyer. He describes the ongoing cycle of protests and clashes as "useless."  

"People must sit down, talk, and reach a solution," his lawyer replies. "Without reaching a solution, Dr. Mohamed, there's no point."

Choosing violence?

The lack of alternative avenues has led some to choose violence. Since the beginning of the year, Egypt's mainland has seen a sharp uptick in attacks on security installations and personnel. 

The Sinai-based Ansar Bayt el Maqdis, a militant group with links to Al Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for a number of high-profile bombings, including the quadruple bomb attacks that rocked Cairo on the eve of celebrations for the third anniversary of Egypt's revolution.

While there is no evidence linking the militants to the anti-coup street movement, some Morsi supporters now argue that lower-level violence is a necessary evil.

Students Against the Coup, one of several movements that work alongside the larger Anti Coup Alliance, say they are now studying tactics used by protesters in Ukraine's recent bout of unrest. Members have argued that the use of Molotov cocktails, for example, represents a proportionate response to a security force that routinely uses force to break up campus demonstrations. 

A handful of smaller groups have emerged to claim attacks on state property. The Facebook page of one, "On Fire," is filled with pictures of masked young men in black clothes. It says the group aims to "battle the coup, overcome it, by all means without killing."

Another group, "Molotov Against the Coup" announced it will attack the property of police officials, judges, and owners of media outlets that support Egypt's military-backed authorities. Morsi's supporters see the security services, judiciary, and unsympathetic media as the spears of a three-pronged attack on their cause. 

More than 16,000 people, many of them Morsi supporters, have been arrested since July, according to figures compiled by the Cairo-based Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights. Detainees are often held without charge for months, before eventually being processed through mass trials.

Sitting alongside Aya in Cairo's Nasr City district, Mohamed spoke of his frustration at the state of Egypt's anti-coup movement. He was once a regular at protests. "We need to be able to defend ourselves but we can't. How do the authorities expect us to react?" he asks.

"My crew and I have decided to lay low - we need to recuperate and plan for the future somehow. But there are many people who want to take this chance to fight back," he says. "This game is not over yet."

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