CAIRO — The Muslim Brotherhood's top leader looked somber and fatigued after his arrest Tuesday, his demeanor mirroring the Islamist movement's predicament following its stunning fall from power and a deadly government crackdown.
The Brotherhood's decision to play hardball after the military's ouster of Egypt's Islamist president has backfired, leaving it embroiled in a crisis and looking at unattractive choices: Aligning with hard-line groups in an insurgency that almost certainly will fail or going underground in the hope of resurfacing one day.
Regardless of which path it chooses, the Brotherhood's grim future will impact Islamic groups across the Middle East and beyond. The Egyptian organization is something of a "mother ship" that has inspired their creation and provided a role model of the political Islam they want to prevail.
"It looks like it's over for the Brotherhood," said Sameh Eid, a former member who has maintained contact with the group. "Brotherhood families are grieving over their dead or busy trying to see how they can visit loved ones in detention or others who are injured. The animosity on the streets is exhausting them and allies are abandoning them."
Founded in 1928, the group has spent most of its 85-year existence on the sidelines, outlawed, harshly treated and demonized by successive regimes. The June 2012 election of one of its longtime leaders, Mohammed Morsi, in Egypt's first free presidential vote was the pinnacle of its newfound power. With its own man in the land's highest office and its members dominating the legislature, the Brotherhood looked invincible.
It did not last long, however. The military toppled Morsi in a July 3 coup after barely a year in office, dealing the Brotherhood a devastating blow.
Shortly before his ouster, Morsi's supporters set up two sit-in camps at strategic squares on opposite ends of Cairo. The camps soon became a springboard for daily demonstrations that crippled much of the city. Protesters, some of them armed, congregated outside ministries, security buildings and military installations.
After security forces cleared the two camps last week, leaving hundreds dead, enraged Brotherhood supporters attacked police stations and government buildings, as well as churches, homes and businesses of minority Christians nationwide. It was an attempt to spread chaos and force the police to vanish as they did in the face of the mass protests of the 2011 uprising against autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
It was a risky gamble that cost the Brotherhood dearly in popularity and lives — as many as 1,000 killed since the Aug. 14 dismantling of the protest camps — and gave the military-backed authorities cover to press ahead with a campaign to decimate the group.
At the same time, state media unleashed a propaganda blitz that has portrayed the group as a terrorist organization that must be banned.
Hundreds of Brotherhood leaders and supporters have been detained in the crackdown, crippling the group's command structure and demoralizing loyalists and sympathizers with the arrest of some of its most iconic figures, including 70-year-old supreme leader Mohammed Badie.
Badie and his powerful deputy are to face trial later this month for their alleged complicity in the killing of protesters outside the group's national headquarters in Cairo. Morsi, who has been detained at an undisclosed location since his ouster, is accused of conspiring with the militant Palestinian Hamas group to escape from prison during the 2011 uprising as well as complicity in the killing and torture of protesters outside his Cairo palace in December.
In addition to the arrests, a campaign is in full swing to "cleanse" ministries, government departments and state media of Brotherhood supporters, dismantling a network built during Morsi's year in office. Employees known to have taken part in sit-ins or protests are being brought before disciplinary panels to account for not showing up for work.
The Brotherhood, said former member Abdel-Baset el-Meligi, is paying the price for trying to impose its agenda on Egyptians and resorting to violence when it was met with resistance.
"The group lost direction and there is little hope it will be included in the political process," he said.
Already, the effects of the crackdown are apparent.
Pro-Morsi demonstrations in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt have diminished since last week's deadly clashes, with only a few hundred or even dozens showing up for protests. Insiders say supporters are reluctant to take to the streets after the government authorized the use of deadly force against protesters last week.
Still, the Brotherhood's history shows the group's resilience in the face of past crackdowns — lying low, regrouping, then re-emerging to steadily regain influence. A major crackdown by the military in 1954 outlawed the group and for the rest of that decade and the next, thousands of its members and leaders were jailed or executed.
Many fled to the oil-rich Gulf region where some built businesses that later proved crucial in helping the group reorganize in the 1970s. It had mixed fortunes under the 29-year rule of Mubarak, who jailed many Brotherhood members but looked the other way when they fielded ostensibly independent candidates in parliamentary elections.
Mubarak's 2011 ouster allowed the group to regain legitimacy and it went on to win every election since, capping those victories with Morsi's ascent to the presidency by a narrow margin. But a series of serious missteps, including an ill-fated attempt to place himself above any kind of oversight, concentrating powers in the hands of the Brotherhood and failing to solve any of the nation's pressing problems, sparked a wave of anger that saw millions take to the streets in June to demand that he step down.
It's not at all clear whether the group, despite being highly disciplined and organized, can recover from the latest crackdown. Insiders say it has already decentralized its leadership because many are detained or in hiding, and meetings often fail to come up with any decision on continuing street protests amid fears of arrest or violence.
The military-backed government has reinstated security officers who had spent years following the activities of religious groups, including the Brotherhood, under Mubarak, lending their expertise and knowledge to the ongoing crackdown, officials said. These officers have capitalized on the wave of popular resentment of the Brotherhood to go after mid-ranking members, arresting many of them, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
"The Brotherhood will become a secret organization, will go underground once again and join ranks with extremist organizations," predicted Raafat Sayed Ahmed, head of the Yafa Center for Arab studies, a liberal think tank. "Younger members will take up arms against the government and you will see an armed secret organization in Egypt."
Still, he predicted the group will continue to show a measure of resistance so long as its sources of funding are left untouched by authorities. "The blow of death is when the money dries up," Ahmed said.
He, like others, predicted the Brotherhood will join an insurgency already under way in the Sinai Peninsula by extremists sympathetic to the group, while simultaneously starting another in southern Egypt, where the Brotherhood and Gamaa Islamiyah, an allied hard-line organization with a history of violence, enjoy significant influence.
In an ominous sign of what's ahead, suspected militants killed 25 policemen in Sinai on Monday in a dramatic escalation of the unrest roiling the strategic region, where security forces have been coming under daily attacks by Islamists since Morsi's ouster.
Other scenarios floated by insiders include the rise of a reformist Brotherhood leadership that is able to convince authorities that it represents a genuine change, as well as fragmentation into small groups or the breakaway of sizable factions to join moderate Islamist parties.
Brotherhood member Islam Tawfiq said he was confident of the group's future because the harsher the crackdown, the stronger it becomes. The 27-year-old said he was constantly on the run, sleeping somewhere different each night to escape arrest and taking part in demonstrations. He has lost more than 20 friends and acquaintances in the crackdown, he said, but remains unperturbed.
"The more killings, the more foolish actions by those behind the coup, means more pressure on the military and more strength for us," he said.