CAIRO — Egypt’s authoritarian government has harassed and repressed the Muslim Brotherhood for most of its existence. But for the last three decades the authorities stopped short of touching the group’s revered leader, the supreme guide, who oversaw the country’s most effective social, political, and religious organization despite its outlawed status.
On Tuesday, the new government installed by General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi provided the latest signal that it was breaking the old rules. Security forces armed with automatic rifles hunted down even the supreme guide, Mohammed Badie, 70, in a nondescript apartment where he had taken refuge, and then provided footage of the arrest to a friendly satellite network.
It was the capstone of a sweeping campaign of arrests and shootings that has damaged the Brotherhood’s core organization more than any crackdown in eight decades, sending the group into a confused retreat deeper underground than ever before.
“We came close to annihilation once under Nasser, but this is worse,” said Gehad el-Haddad, a Brotherhood official now on the run, referring to former president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s attempt to smash the group after he came to power in 1954. Communicating over the Internet to avoid surveillance, Haddad said Brotherhood members now “talk of “the good old days” under President Hosni Mubarak.
With the arrest of Badie, most of the Brotherhood’s top leaders are in prison, along with the former president, Mohammed Morsi. Many of its second- or third-tier leaders are dead or missing, Haddad said, and those still at large are living on the run. They change locations every 24 hours, avoid showing their faces at demonstrations or public places, and stay off cellphones for fear that they might be tracked.
Many are consumed by the loss of those killed or missing in the crackdown, which left dead more than 1,000 Morsi supporters and the children of several Brotherhood leaders — including Badie, who lost his son. Communication to the group’s grass-roots network has been all but cut off, Brotherhood officials and local members said.
“Asking about the structure of the organization now is like asking a dying man how his career is doing,” one Brotherhood leader said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of arrest.
Devastated by the assault, the group has backed off its vow of a “million martyrs,” ending its six-week campaign of organizing demonstrations and sit-ins against the military takeover that ousted its ally, Morsi. Instead, on Tuesday, the group began calling Morsi supporters to organize their own “decentralized” protests.
More street demonstrations or sit-ins “are always an option if the coup leaders’ frenzy goes down,” Haddad said, but the Brotherhood “held the banner for 48 days” and “it is with the Egyptian people now.”
The Brotherhood’s retreat is a victory for el-Sissi. At least for now, it appears that his new government’s brutal force has begun to take control of the streets of the capital. But in the long term, the Brotherhood retains deep roots in Egypt, especially in the countryside, and by forcing it back underground the military-backed government virtually eliminated any hope of fulfilling its public pledges to include it in the political process.
It has also foreclosed the chance to use the Brotherhood’s more pragmatic leadership to channel and control the broader and more fractious Islamist movement, as Mubarak once did. And it risks further alienating a generation of Islamists, or driving some to violence.
It was in Egyptian jails during earlier crackdowns, historians say, that Brotherhood members disillusioned with its nonviolent politics nurtured the ideology that now guides Al Qaeda.