Egypt's Brotherhood dig in for the long game
Unbowed by a savage crackdown, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood promises to dig in for the long game 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 democratically elected 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 opponents of the coup in clashes with police.
Across the country the Islamists are adapting. 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 persecution 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.
The crackdown since has disrupted the organisation's command, and its imprisoned leaders can now pass messages only through visiting relatives and friends.
'Matter of years'
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."
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, which were claimed by a militant group critical of the Brotherhood.
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. He also asked to be identified under a pseudonym.
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.
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 supreme guide Mohamed Badie is in prison. But 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