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Egypt’s military heads off protests

Demonstrators are few and wary

A soldier stood watch near Cairo’s Mustafa Mahmoud mosque, one of several closed off on Friday to squelch gatherings.

Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

A soldier stood watch near Cairo’s Mustafa Mahmoud mosque, one of several closed off on Friday to squelch gatherings.

CAIRO — A tight lockdown on Cairo by Egyptian security forces Friday all but squelched a planned day of protests by the Muslim Brotherhood and allies, suggesting that the military government had gained a decisive edge in its battle against supporters of the ousted president, Mohammed Morsi.

Armored military vehicles moved through the streets around dawn, unrolling coils of barbed wire across major thoroughfares encircling mosques where protests have often broken out after prayers on Fridays. A few marquee mosques were closed, an extraordinary step, forcing neighbors to go elsewhere for prayers.

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Tanks and armored personnel carriers took up positions at bridges, tunnels, and other key intersections. Soldiers and police officers sat in folding chairs with automatic rifles across their laps, shooing journalists and other pedestrians away from potential flash points.

The relatively small number of demonstrators who did turn out were so cowed by the violence of the crackdown that they took steps to avoid even the smallest confrontation, gathering in one place or moving in circles on a few blocks to avoid approaching army barricades. Few blocked traffic.

“It is like an occupation,” Ismail Sayed Mohamed, 47, said at a demonstration of a few hundred people who gathered in a small space under an overpass near Giza Square, across the river from Cairo. “People want to go to the streets to defend their freedom, but they are afraid. They are killing us.”

It was the latest sign that the crackdown against “terrorism” called for by General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, chief of the armed forces, appears to have broken the back of the Brotherhood, the Islamist organization allied with the ousted president, which has spearheaded opposition to the military takeover.

Egyptian security forces have killed more than a thousand and arrested at least as many in the nine days since they dispersed two Brotherhood-led sit-ins by tens of thousands of Morsi supporters. The police have arrested the Brotherhood’s top spiritual leaders and much of its governing board, forcing a rushed and secret selection of new leadership. Its officials say most of its second- and third-tier leaders are dead or missing, and on Friday a spokesman was arrested.

For the first time since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, many demonstrators were afraid to give their name, and some denied, unconvincingly, an affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood or any Islamist group.

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