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Beleaguered Brotherhood switches tactics

In Cairo and beyond, a flurry of small protests

A protester covered his face with a flag as Muslim Brotherhood supporters and security forces clashed in Cairo Friday.

MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images

A protester covered his face with a flag as Muslim Brotherhood supporters and security forces clashed in Cairo Friday.

CAIRO — Reeling from a fierce security crackdown, the Muslim Brotherhood brought out only scattered, small crowds Friday in its latest protests of Egypt’s military coup.

While the remnants of the Brotherhood’s leadership are still able to exhibit strong coordination from underground, the arrests of thousands of its supporters and members — and the fear of more bloodshed — have weakened its ability to mobilize the streets.

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The day’s largest single demonstration was a little more than 10,000 people outside the presidential palace in Cairo, and there were dozens of gatherings of about 100 protesters or fewer in multiple sites around the capital and the provinces.

It was an intentional shift in tactics from a week ago, when the group failed to rally in a single location as a show of strength.

Security officials dubbed it the ‘‘butterfly plan,’’ a flurry of protests to distract them. Rather than have protests converge in one square and encounter force from police and angry residents, the group appeared to purposely plan hundreds of small marches as another way of continuing demonstrations and avoiding bloodshed, according to security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalissts.

Protest organizers also tried a bit of subterfuge: They said a rally would take place in Sphinx Square in Cairo, but after security forces barricaded the site with barbed wire, tanks, and roadblocks, only a few hundred people demonstrated nearby, and the biggest crowd converged across town at the presidential palace.

Tens of thousands heeded the Brotherhood’s call nationwide for a day of ‘‘decisiveness,’’ in which the group urged people to ‘‘break your fear, break the coup.’’ They marched defiantly past tanks and armored vehicles on the streets of Cairo and other major cities.

More than 1,300 people, most of them Brotherhood supporters, have been killed since President Mohammed Morsi, a longtime leader in the group, was ousted in a popularly backed coup July 3.

Violence peaked two weeks ago when security forces attacked two Brotherhood-led sit-ins, killing more than 600 people. More than 100 police officers and soldiers have been killed since the Aug. 14 raids. Police stations, government buildings, and churches also have been attacked.

‘‘When it started, it was only about the return of Morsi to power,’’ said 18-year-old protester Ahmed Osama, who says he lost friends in the recent violence and that his brother was shot. ‘‘Now it has gone past that. Blood has been shed.’’

He said that despite the arrest of Brotherhood leaders, ‘‘We are still here.’’

The Brotherhood has more than 80 years of experience operating secretly as a banned organization. It was not until after the 2011 revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak that the group surfaced with its full might and created its own political party.

The group appears to have changed its tactics from two weeks ago, when it urged people to converge in a main Cairo square. Nearly 100 people died in that rally, with many protesters jumping to their deaths off an overpass as residents and police fired on them from different vantage points. They took cover in a nearby mosque, which the army besieged before arresting those inside.

In another development, US Ambassador Anne Patterson left Egypt after a little more than two years at the post, the State Department said. David Satterfield will be acting ambassador, taking a temporary leave from his post as director general of the Sinai peacekeeping force, it added.

Patterson had come under criticism from both Morsi supporters and opponents, each accusing the United States of supporting the other side in the political divide.

Cairo residents mostly stayed off the streets Friday in anticipation of the Brotherhood rallies. A military-imposed nighttime curfew in Cairo and 13 other provinces started two hours earlier.

The location of the rally at the presidential palace was kept largely secret until the last hour, even from those leading the march. In expectation of possible protests converging there, security forces had blocked parts of the road in front of the presidential building, but had greater security around Sphinx Square.

One of the protest leaders, Ahmed Khaled, said organizers didn’t tell demonstrators where the march was heading, for security reasons.

Khaled and others said they were receiving instructions by phone on where to direct their march as it was happening. ‘‘We stopped communicating the itinerary and destination of the marches so nobody can follow us or wait for us with snipers at the arrival point,’’ he said.

Thousands gathered in other cities, with smaller protests drawing hundreds and sometimes just dozens, including many women and children.

They marched through neighborhoods that are largely sympathetic to them, while others traveled outside their villages to areas where they are not known, to avoid security forces and neighbors working with police in their hometowns.

Brotherhood officials in the provinces communicated with people in Cairo who alerted them to the overall plans, according to security officials and members of the group. With little local media coverage of their protests, they also have activists stream live video of their rallies with cellphones. Videos are then disseminated on the group’s Facebook pages and sent by e-mail to foreign media outlets.

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