Television preacher Saftwat Hegazy was arrested earlier this week as the military-installed government moved to crack down on its Islamist opponents.
He was rounded up while fleeing toward Libya, supposedly captured while dressed in women’s clothing and his once-lengthy beard trimmed.
“I am not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Hegazy reportedly told authorities.
In fact, Hegazy was a prominent voice in the organization that elevated Mohammed Morsi to the Egyptian presidency, and that has been on the run since his recent ouster.
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The Brotherhood, a hierarchical movement that commands hundreds of thousands of faithful, had lost another leader. Hegazy was one of roughly a dozen senior figures – including spiritual leader Mohammed Badie and several provincial chiefs – detained in the last month.
The manner of Hegazy’s arrest – fleeing when the organization is facing its biggest crisis in its 85-year history – was another embarrassing blow to the Brotherhood. With roughly two-thirds of its leaders under arrest or on the lam, the crackdown prevented the movement from mobilizing massive nationwide protests on Friday.
First, Morsi was booted from the presidency. Then hundreds of his supporters died this month when the government rousted protesters from their prolonged sit-ins. Now much of the Brotherhood leadership is absent, their organization essentially in retreat.
Brotherhood members told McClatchy they didn’t get the call to take to the streets in the way they once did. Many said that even if they had, they couldn’t respond because they were too busy.
Some were burying friends and family killed in clashes with security forces in the last week. Others were pleading with international human rights groups to help them release their loved ones from jail.
Still more said they were too afraid to go down to the streets and confront the security forces or ordinary Egyptians who hold the Brotherhood responsible for the country’s political crisis.
A Brotherhood-led coalition of mostly Islamist groups called the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy called for “Friday of Martyrs” protests. But Egyptian media reported feeble turnouts in Cairo and other cities and towns.
Clashes did break out in several cities between protesters and supporters of the army-led regime. At least one death was reported, according to the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper.
The low turnout Friday renewed questions about whether a government crackdown had successfully crippled Egypt’s largest political and social organization or whether it would fight for Morsi’s reinstatement in another form.
Ali Kamel, a Muslim Brotherhood lawyer, told the Al Jazeera news channel that roughly 10,000 members are under arrest. While there are no official numbers, the group is estimated to have as many as 500,000 activists.
The absence of the Brotherhood machine was apparent Friday on the hot streets of the Egyptian capital. In recent weeks, mountains of freshly printed posters could be seen across Cairo supporting Morsi. But by Friday, the number of new posters championing the displaced president was noticeably diminished.
A number of men could be seen with trimmed beards. Security forces and everyday citizens alike have targeted those with longer beards – men who would appear more piously Muslim and therefore more likely part of the Brotherhood.
The army and police maintained a formidable presence around Cairo, blocking major intersections and side streets with troops, barbed-wire barricades and armored vehicles. That kept locally organized marches from leaving their neighborhoods and merging into major gatherings.
As a result, a march by some 3,000 protesters, which appeared to be one of the largest organized in downtown Cairo, headed enthusiastically but almost aimlessly along open streets through the Mohandesin district until it dissolved in the late afternoon heat.
“We aren’t going to any specific place,” said a man who would only give his first name of Taha. “We are defending our vote.”
Many marchers held four fingers in the air for “Rabaa,” the Arabic word for “fourth,” and the name of the largest pro-Morsi sit-in site that government forces assaulted and dispersed on Aug. 14. Most of at least 638 people killed that day died in Rabaa.
Tensions, however, were high. Shoving and shouting matches erupted between pro-military and pro-Morsi worshippers as they left noon prayers at the Assad Ibn Al Furat Mosque in the city’s upper-class Dokki district.
Several hundred men and women, some leading children by their hands, gathered under a grimy overpass in the neighboring Giza district. “All Egyptians are here,” they chanted, “not just the Brotherhood.” They denounced as a “traitor” Gen. Abdel-Fateh el-Sissi, the army chief and defense minister who has emerged as Egypt’s de facto ruler.
Ahmed Mohammad, 53, an electrician who appeared to be helping to marshal the crowd but denied belonging to the Brotherhood, said the turnout wasn’t low because of fears of violence or the mass arrests that have all but decapitated the organization’s leadership.
“The main effect is the army blockades. People are coming out and mobilizing without the leadership,” he said as passing cars and trucks honked support. “I have a question for Sissi: Why don’t you remove your tanks and see how large the crowds will be?”
Mohammad Abdul Rahman, 43, an engineer who also denied being a Brotherhood member, insisted that the pro-Morsi movement would persist.
“We believe in God and we are not afraid of tanks and soldiers,” he said.
Kamel el Helbawy is a former member of the Brotherhood who speaks publicly about the often opaque organization. He said leaders who are still free have been left alone because they are too weak to organize the group, “especially in such difficult circumstances.” The Brotherhood, el Helbawy said, has lost public support.
His conclusion was bolstered by a poll released by the Egyptian Centre for Public Opinion Research. It found 67 percent of 1,395 Egyptians surveyed Aug. 19-21 were “content” with the government decision to violently break up sits-in supporting Morsi. That compared with 24 percent who were not content and 9 percent who were undecided.
For the movement to survive, el Helbawy said, the Brotherhood’s leadership needs to step forward now while the organization is in crisis.
“The leadership left the battle at the wrong time. This is the worst crackdown,” el Helbawy said. “Within 10 years, maybe they can come back again.”
McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this article.