Amira Mortada, El Shorouk Newspaper, Associated Press
CAIRO — They tirelessly hold rallies, whether at night or under cold rain, chanting for the return of Egypt's ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. They clash with police, hurling back fuming tear gas canisters and getting dragged by their veils and thrown behind bars. At protests in universities, they get into fistfights with rival female students.
Women supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have stepped into the front line of Islamist protests, one of the few branches of the organization not crushed by a heavy crackdown since Morsi's removal in a July 3 coup.
Former group members say it's an intentional survival tactic by the Brotherhood, aiming to keep its street pressure alive and betting that security forces are less likely to strike heavily against women — and that if they do, it will win public sympathy for the Islamists' cause.
It's a major change in role for the Muslim Sisterhood, as the women's branch is known. Like the Brotherhood's male cadres, its women are highly disciplined and undergo years of indoctrination instilling principles of obedience — often from childhood — but in the women's case, they have largely been trained to play a mostly backseat, family-centered part.
In daily protests the past months, they have proven determined and ferocious.
"We are protecting our religion. I came out for the sake of Islam," said a slim veiled 13-year-old Souhidah Abdel-Rahman, who was arrested along with her mother during a pro-Morsi protest in October in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. Abdel-Rahman was immediately released because of her age, but her mother remained in detention.
"They want to break our back but we are not going to back off," she said, speaking to The Associated Press as she visited her mother earlier this month at a prison in the Nile Delta city of Damanhour.
A male Brotherhood youth leader from the southern city of Assiut said he and many members are "hibernating" in the face of the crackdown. But he said the group is betting that the public, which largely backed Morsi's ouster, will eventually turn against the military and interim government under pressing economic conditions. He spoke of the "butterfly" tactic of swift, snap demonstrations organized by the group's surviving lower cadres.
Women and students, he said, play an important role. "The women are hardly harmed because no one knows them. Security authorities don't have files for them," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns. Also, women help heal the relationship between the Brotherhood and the public, he added, acknowledging that "the group is hated in the street now."
The attempt to win public sympathies appears to be having mixed success.
One win for the group came when 21 women arrested in the October Alexandria protest, including seven juveniles, received heavy sentences of up to 11 years in prison for protesting. The harshness of the sentences — along with images of the handcuffed women and girls in their white robes in the courtroom's defendants cage — shocked even some opponents of Islamists. The sentences were reduced to one-year suspended prison terms on appeal and the women have been released.
Tarek el-Beshbeshi, a former senior Brotherhood member who defected this year from the group, said the Brotherhood is waging a "war of attrition" with constant protests to wear down state resources. Along with university students, women "are making the biggest impact because they are the most zealous and enjoy a societal immunity from prosecution to some extent."
Still, another ex-Brotherhood member, Ahmed Ban, noted that the heavy sentences against the women were a message from authorities "that there are no red lines in the confrontation. If you wave the women card in my face, I will deal with them as if they are men."
At the same time, the Brotherhood women have at times faced a public backlash during the protests.
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