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.
Page 2 of 2 - 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.