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Egypt's bruised Brotherhood fails to show street power

Egyptian soldiers stand guard as they close one of the entrances to Tahrir Square in Cairo August 23, 2013. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
Egyptian soldiers stand guard as they close one of the entrances to Tahrir Square in Cairo August 23, 2013. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

By Maggie Fick and Lin Noueihed

CAIRO (Reuters) - Mass protests called by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood mostly failed to materialize on Friday as the movement reels from a bloody army crackdown on followers of ousted President Mohamed Mursi.

Troops and police had taken relatively low-key security measures before the "Friday of Martyrs" processions that were to have begun from 28 mosques in the capital after weekly prayers.

But midday prayers were canceled at some mosques and few major protests unfolded in Cairo, although witnesses said at least 1,000 people staged a march in the Mohandiseen district.

There were no reports of violence in that procession, but the Brotherhood's website said one person had been killed in the Nile Delta town of Tanta in clashes with security forces. The Interior Ministry confirmed the death.

Brotherhood supporters also turned out in Alexandria, several Delta towns, the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, the north Sinai town of Rafah, and Assiut in the south, with minor skirmishes reported in some places.

The Health Ministry said 54 people had been wounded on Friday in Cairo and two Delta provinces, without giving any details of the violence or who was injured.

"We are not afraid; it's victory or death," said Mohamed Abdel Azim, a retired oil engineer who was among about 100 people marching slowly from a mosque near Cairo University.

"They intend to strike at Muslims," the grey-bearded Azim said. "We'd rather die in dignity than live in oppression. We'll keep coming out until there's no one left."

Despite his defiant words, the mood of the protesters seemed subdued, perhaps a sign that the crackdown and the round-up of Brotherhood leaders has chilled the rank-and-file.

Some marchers carried posters of Mursi, who was toppled by army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on July 3 after huge demonstrations against his rule. "No to the coup," they chanted.

A militant Islamist group active in the lawless Sinai Peninsula threatened new attacks on the army and police. In a statement published on a jihadist website, the Salafi Jihadi group condemned security forces for what it called the "heinous crime" of killing Brotherhood supporters.

It was the first statement from any of the militant groups in the Sinai desert bordering Israel since last Wednesday's violent move by security forces on the Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo.

The number of attacks on security forces in Sinai has jumped since the army removed Mursi. Suspected Islamist militants killed at least 24 policemen on Monday.

"GOD WILL BRING DOWN SISI"

At another small protest in Cairo, a veiled nursery teacher with four children, who gave her name as Nasra, said: "God will make us victorious, even if many of us are hurt and even if it takes a long time. God willing, God will bring down Sisi."

Egypt has endured the bloodiest civil unrest in its modern history since August 14 when police destroyed protest camps set up by Mursi's supporters in Cairo to demand his reinstatement.

The violence has alarmed Egypt's Western allies, although President Barack Obama acknowledged that even a decision to cut off U.S. aid to Cairo might not influence its armed forces.

But he said Washington was re-evaluating its ties with Egypt. "There's no doubt that we can't return to business as usual, given what's happened," he told CNN in an interview.

Some U.S. lawmakers have called for a halt to the $1.5 billion a year given mostly in military assistance to Egypt to bolster its 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Military cooperation includes privileged U.S. access to the Suez Canal.

The Brotherhood, hounded by the new army-backed rulers, had called for demonstrations across Egypt against the crackdown, testing the resilience of its battered support base.

Security forces kept a watchful eye, but did not flood the streets, even near Cairo's central Fateh mosque, where gun battles killed scores of people last Friday and Saturday.

The mosque's metal gates and big front door were locked and chained. Prayers were canceled. Two armored vehicles were parked down the street, where people shopped at a busy market.

Only one riot police truck stood by near Rabaa al-Adawiya square in northeastern Cairo, home to the Brotherhood's biggest protest vigil until police and troops stormed in, killing hundreds of people, bulldozing barricades and burning tents.

SYMBOLIC VICTORY

The mosque there was closed for repairs. Workmen in blue overalls stood on scaffolding as they covered its charred walls with white paint. Children scavenged through piles of garbage.

Troops used barbed wire to block a main road to Nahda Square, the site of the smaller of the two Brotherhood sit-ins.

The authorities declared a month-long state of emergency last week and they enforce a nightly curfew.

An official of the interim government said in a television interview on Friday that the state of emergency and curfew would be reconsidered if the security situation calmed.

Security forces have arrested many leading figures from the Brotherhood, all but decapitating an organization that won five successive votes in Egypt after the overthrow of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

In a symbolic victory for the army-dominated old order, Mubarak, an ex-military man who ruled Egypt for 30 years, was moved out of jail on Thursday. His successor Mursi, Egypt's first freely-elected president, remains detained incommunicado.

The Brotherhood's "General Guide" Mohamed Badie, who was arrested on Tuesday, is due to go on trial on Sunday along with two other senior figures, Khairat al-Shater and Saad al-Katatni, on charges that include incitement to violence.

More than 1,000 people, including over 100 soldiers and police, have been killed since Mursi's overthrow. Brotherhood supporters say the toll is much higher.

Graffiti on a mosque wall in a rundown Cairo neighborhood illustrated the deep divisions that have emerged since Sisi's takeover. The spray-painted message "Yes to Sisi" had been crossed out and painted over with the word "traitor."

Slogans elsewhere read "Mursi is a spy" and "Mursi out". Someone had also written "Freedom, Justice, Brotherhood".

The Brotherhood, founded in 1928, emerged as Egypt's best-organized political force after Mubarak fell. Its popularity waned during Mursi's year in office when critics accused it of accumulating excessive power, pushing a partisan Islamist agenda and mismanaging the economy.

The Brotherhood, which the new government has threatened to dissolve entirely, says Mursi's administration was deliberately undermined by unreformed Mubarak-era institutions.

Mubarak, 85, still faces retrial on charges of complicity in the killings of protesters, but he left jail on Thursday for the first time since April 2011 and was flown by helicopter to a plush military hospital in the southern Cairo suburb of Maadi.

The authorities have used the state of emergency to keep him under house arrest, apparently to minimize the risk of popular anger if he had been given unfettered freedom.

(Additional reporting by Cairo bureau; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Will Waterman and David Stamp)

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