Low turnout at Egypt's protests highlights Islamists' disarray

Although the brutality of the military's crackdown on them has prompted broader public support, Egypt's Islamists are still having trouble mobilizing.

Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
Supporters of Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi protest in Cairo August 23, 2013.

Thousands of anti-military and Islamist protesters took to the streets in Cairo and around the country today, displaying their defiance of a government crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.

But their relatively low turnout – compared to the huge mobilization of previous Islamist protests – showed the extent to which the crackdown has hurt the Brotherhood and its ability to bring out supporters.

In Cairo, where military and security forces deployed to block several major squares and roads, some of the protests were smaller and more disorganized than typical for those called by the Muslim Brotherhood. But those who came out were willing to brave possible violence to make their voices heard on what the alliance dubbed “The Friday of Martyrs.” Roughly 1,000 people have been killed since Aug. 14, including at least 173 when protesters took to the streets last Friday.

“What am I afraid of? That they will kill me?” asked Hala, a young woman protesting in eastern Cairo who declined to give her last name. “Then I will enter paradise, and we all want to go to paradise. The Egyptian people tasted freedom, and even if it means death we will not turn back.”

The Brotherhood-led alliance of mostly Islamist groups called for 28 protests throughout Cairo today, as well as demonstrations in provincial capitals. The protest movement is a response to the July 3 military coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi, a former Brotherhood leader, after nationwide protests against him.

But it has grown more broadly anti-military since Aug. 14, when security forces attacked two protest camps full of Morsi supporters, killing hundreds. They have since arrested hundreds of leaders and members of the Brotherhood, disrupting the organization's decision making, communication, and mobilization abilities. 

Unlike last week, when the protests all converged on a central square where violence broke out, the demonstrators today did not attempt to meet in central Cairo, but remained in separate parts of the city. Many of the protest dissipated by evening. They also largely remained peaceful.

At one march in eastern Cairo, the protesters were met by hostile residents as they came out of a mosque to begin their demonstration after Friday prayers. The residents chanted pro-military slogans and and gestured at the protesters to leave. The protesters responded by holding up four fingers, in what has become the sign for the Rabaa el Adaweya protest camp that was dispersed by security forces and now serves as a symbol of the brutal crackdown.

The residents chanted in support of Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of the Army, while the pro-Morsi protesters, in their own chants, called Sisi a "killer." The several hundred people in the protest then moved away before clashes broke out. But the other marches they were intending to meet did not show up, and organizers halted the march on a main road, reluctant to continue without larger numbers.

Despite the show of hostility – which is widespread across state and private media as well – some of the protesters insist that the majority of Egyptians support them, particularly outside the capital. Architect Hany Saeed said he did not vote for Morsi last year, and had never been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or even a supporter. But the events of this year made him sympathetic to the group, he said.

“I'm here today to say 'no' to the military coup. They killed hundreds and hundreds in cold blood, and they're reproducing the Hosni Mubarak system,” he said, referring to the former president who was ousted after a popular uprising against him in January 2011. Mr. Mubarak was released from prison yesterday and placed under house arrest at a hospital, further angering many.

“They tricked a great number of people on June 30, they used their media to demonize the Muslim Brotherhood, and now we're seeing Hosni Mubarak come back. So now how can we accept this? Why did we do the January 25 revolt then?”

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