CAIRO – Supporters of Egypt's deposed president, who once overwhelmed cities in the hundreds of thousands, changed tactics Friday by demonstrating in scattered, small rallies that avoided confronting a heavy military deployment waiting for them across the country.
The low turnout signaled the strain on ousted leader Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, as it has trouble drawing large numbers of supporters and faces an increasingly skeptical Egyptian public wary of more bloodshed like that which followed the July 3 military coup that overthrew him. Meanwhile, an intense security crackdown by the military-backed interim government has rounded up much of its leadership.
The Brotherhood has "committed a strategic error last week by mixing peaceful protests with armed clashes with civilians," said Abdullah el-Sinawi, an Egyptian newspaper columnist and analyst. "Many supporters are now staying away fearing that new civilian-on-civilian clashes will erupt."
Morsi supporters dubbed the day the "Friday of Martyrs," in reference to the several hundred people that died in clashes with Egypt's military during raids on street camps this month. Last Friday, vigilantes at neighborhood checkpoints battled Morsi supporters across the capital in unprecedented clashes between residents that killed more than 170 people, including dozens of police officers.
Ahead of the protests, soldiers in armored personnel carriers and tanks deployed early Friday across the country on major roads and plazas to stop demonstrators from gathering. But after Friday prayers, Cairo and the rest of Egypt did not see massive crowds on the streets. Instead, small groups of Islamists in the hundreds chanted against the military and held up posters of Morsi on side streets and outside neighborhood mosques.
Thousands marched through the streets of Cairo's Nasr City district. Some chanted: "We are willing to sacrifice our lives" and "We promise the martyrs that we will end military rule."
Mohamed Ahmed, a Morsi supporter, insisted the movement against what the Brotherhood calls an "illegitimate" coup would continue.
"Everybody knows there could be a bloodbath. But as long as we are fighting for our rights, with God's will, we will win," he said as he joined protesters gathering outside a mosque following prayers in Giza, a satellite city of Cairo and home to the famous Pyramids.
The protests remained largely peaceful, though a few clashes broke out. Police fired tear gas to stop rival camps from fighting with knives and birdshot in the Delta city of Tanta. One pro-Morsi supporter was killed and 26 were injured, a local medical official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
In one incident late Friday, a private TV station, Mehwer, said its crew was held hostage in a southern Cairo suburb by pro-Morsi protesters, who forced them at gunpoint to continue airing a rally they were staging. The standoff in Helwan lasted for more than two hours, and the crew aired the protest live under threat, the station said. The interior ministry later said the crew and the mobile live station were freed, and five were arrested.
Police investigator Hesham Lotfi told Mehwer TV station after the crew was freed that the protesters had handed over the mobile live station and the operators to local gang members who tried to extort them for money in exchange for their freedom. Lotfi said the gangsters were arrested.
The pro-Morsi camp has largely relied on live video feeds it sends to reporters and TV stations to cover its activities, particularly after a number of Islamist stations were shut down after Morsi's ouster. A number of private stations, who are largely supportive of the military, cover the pro-Morsi rallies.
Tarek Morsi, a Brotherhood spokesman not related to the deposed president, described the smaller crowds as a way for the 85-year-old organization to adapt to the environment it faces. He said the Brotherhood is accustomed to operating under repression.
"We decided to adopt a new strategy, to avoid million-man marches and to have instead smaller protests, yet with big numbers, disseminated in different locations across the city to face the security crackdown," the spokesman said. "This way the people see us."
But the Brotherhood's mid-level and senior leadership increasingly finds itself targeted in security force raids. Another 80 Brotherhood members, including senior leaders and spokesmen, were taken into custody on Thursday. Among those captured in the operations is group's spiritual guide Mohammed Badie.
Morsi, the spokesman, said the Brotherhood will keep up its street protest, despite the arrests. He said the crackdown didn't break down the group's ability to communicate with members and said its wide network of social services is still intact.
In a late Friday statement, the pro-Morsi camp said it has used creative new ways to keep up its protest against the military coup. It called on supporters to keep up protests next week and said the arrest campaign "will only increase the persistence and cohesion" of its members.
El-Sinawi, the analyst, said the Brotherhood was changing tactics in response to the security crackdown, saying it affected the group's ability to lead protests and its finances. He said the Brotherhood is also reeling from a sharp drop in popularity where much public has backed the crackdown against it.
"The curve of the group's ability to mobilize and bring out crowds is going down," he said.
Morsi was ousted after millions took to the streets to call for him to step down, accusing him of trying to monopolize power, letting the Brotherhood take over state institutions and ignoring calls for real reform. His defenders counter officials from former autocrat Hosni Mubarak's government and the military blocked his efforts.
Since Morsi's ouster, hundreds of Egyptians have been killed and more arrested. Amnesty International said in a statement Friday that 1,089 people were killed in the violence last week alone, calling on the security forces not to "shoot randomly" even in the presence of heavily armed pro-Morsi protesters.
There also were small demonstrations Friday protesting Mubarak being released from prison Thursday. He's now under house arrest in a military hospital in southern Cairo. Dozens of anti-Morsi and anti-Mubarak protesters held a rally outside Cairo's high court amid tight security.
Mubarak still faces trial on charges of complicity in the killing of nearly 900 protesters during the 2011 uprising against him. But his release was viewed by many who rebelled against him as a setback in their campaign to hold him accountable for years of abuse and corruption.
Many pro-Morsi protesters raised yellow stickers showing an open palm with four raised fingers Friday, which has become a symbol for the main sit-in that was disbanded violently near the Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque. In northern Cairo, demonstrators raised a banner that read: "Mubarak and his aides acquitted while the Egyptian people are hanged."
Somaya Mahfouz, a member of the Brotherhood political party who took part in a protest in Giza, shouted at passing cars: "Mubarak is coming back to rule us again!"
She said: "What is happening now has nothing to do with the Brotherhood. It is a war against Islam."
Associated Press writer Mariam Rizk contributed to this report