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Amid crackdown, Egypt's protesters shift tactics

Saturday - 8/31/2013, 8:50am  ET

A supporter of Egypt's ousted President Mohammed Morsi, holds a national flag as he stands next to burning tires during a protest in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. Thousands of protesters and Muslim Brotherhood supporters rallied Friday throughout Egypt against a military coup and a bloody security crackdown, though tanks and armored police vehicles barred them from converging in major squares. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

AYA BATRAWY
Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- Reeling from a fierce security crackdown, the Muslim Brotherhood brought out mostly 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.

The day's largest single Cairo demonstration was more than 10,000 people outside the presidential palace, with thousands also taking part in another similar-sized rally outside the capital. However, the majority of protests Friday were smaller than in the past, consisting of several hundred protesters or fewer around the country.

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 media.

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 in the assaults. More than 100 policemen 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 incident, with 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, U.S. 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 post as director-general of the Sinai peacekeeping force, it added.

Patterson had come under criticism from both Morsi supporters and opponents, which each accused the U.S. 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. He declined to elaborate.

"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.

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