CAIRO, Qahirah – For Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, a fierce crackdown has led to a return to its underground existence of the past: avoiding phones and the Internet, changing homes and blending in.
Ever since security forces forcibly dispersed two Cairo camps of protesters loyal to ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, members of his Muslim Brotherhood organisation have been on the run.
Authorities have arrested the group's top leaders, including its supreme guide, effectively decapitating the movement and disrupting its organisational structure.
Morsi himself is detained at a secret location and authorities have charged him and other Brotherhood members with involvement in the deaths of protesters.
The campaign of arrests has forced the Brotherhood back to ways it had largely abandoned as it inched its way into the spotlight.
Long banned in Egypt, the group had become gradually more tolerated in the years before the 2011 revolution, winning parliamentary seats through candidates who ran as independents.
It took centre-stage only after the uprising which toppled president Hosni Mubarak, winning a majority in parliament and then the presidency. But Morsi's July 3 ouster has reset the clock.
"We've gone back to direct contact after having banned the use of telephones and the Internet, which could allow us to be found," said Aisha, an activist in the Alexandria region of northern Egypt, giving a false name for security reasons.
Her father, a Brotherhood member, has gone underground for fear of arrest after the August 14 break-up of the protest camps by security forces at a cost of hundreds of lives.
"It's worse than under Mubarak," she said. "Because in addition to the violence of the police, there's the hostility of the people."
"Many people no longer want to have Muslim Brotherhood as neighbours, but luckily there are still some who sympathise with us."
Another activist based in Tanta, southwest of Cairo, who asked to be called Ahmed, said the group's leaders were all on the run.
"None of our leaders spend even two nights in a row in the same place," he said.
No rank of the Brotherhood has been left untouched, from grassroots members to supreme guide Mohamed Badie, who was arrested on August 20.
Security sources say more than 2,000 Muslim Brotherhood members have been arrested in the past 12 days.
But a lawyer close to the group, Ismail Wishahi, says "more than 8,000 activists have been locked up."
An anti-Brotherhood mood has been growing for weeks.
The army ousted Morsi after massive demonstrations against his rule. Ordinary Egyptians have attacked dozens of the group's offices and the local media have lined up behind Morsi's ouster, dubbing the Brotherhood "terrorists" and terming the crisis a "war against terrorism".
In the past, the Brotherhood has been able to mobilise tens of thousands of demonstrators, drawing on a network of supporters throughout the country. But the violent dispersal of the protest camps and the campaign of arrests has thinned its ranks and made it increasingly difficult to mobilise en masse.
Directives can now only be passed by word-of-mouth, and checkpoints on roads make it impossible to bus supporters from the countryside into towns for demonstrations.
But experts caution against writing off the Brotherhood too soon, particularly as the movement has decades of experience in facing state repression and surviving as a clandestine group.
"The Brotherhood has certainly been shaken up, but it still has control of its finances, and the majority of its activists are still free," said Ashraf al-Sharif, a professor of political science at the American University of Cairo.
"As a closed and secret organisation, the Brotherhood is capable of resisting this wave of repression and reorganising itself quickly," added Haitham Abu Khalil, a former member of the group.
A Brotherhood activist in the city of Port Said, in northern Egypt, said the movement would continue its work, even under pressure and despite the loss of its headquarters.
"We will engage directly with the population once again, and we don't need offices to do that," he said. AFP