CAIRO — Among the muddy, crowded tents where tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members have been living for weeks in a vast sit-in protest, men in Islamic dress can still be seen carrying incongruous signs above the teeming crowd: “Liberals for Morsi,” “Christians for Morsi,” “Actors for Morsi.” It is the vestige of a plea for diverse allies in the Brotherhood’s quest to reinstate President Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted by the military on July 3.
Munafiq, Mushriks, Kazab and Zalim on one side and the Muslims on the other. The divisions amongst the Muslims have disappeared. The Muslims stand and face the bullets as one group (May Allah accept their shahada. In Egypt the hypocrites (liberals, secularists), The billionaire christian Mushriks, the liars in the media and the Zalim of Mobarak’s rule are now all exposed and stand on the side of the dictator. The Muslims stand as one on the side of democracy and freedom.
But in the wake of the bloody street clashes that took place just outside the sit-in early on Saturday, leaving at least 72 Brotherhood supporters dead and hundreds wounded, another, more embattled language can be heard among the masses gathered around a large outdoor stage. Many Brotherhood members are enraged by the reaction of Christian leaders and the secular elite, who — the Islamists say — seemed to ignore or even endorse the killings while giving full-throated support to calls by Egypt’s defense minister, Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, for a continued crackdown.
As the Brotherhood prepares for the possibility that the sit-in will be forcibly dispersed by the police, and that the organization will be driven underground, it faces a crisis that could shape its identity for years to come. For all its stated commitment to democracy and nonviolence, the Brotherhood’s only reliable partners now are other Islamist groups whose members may be more willing to use violent or radical tactics — partners that would tar the Brotherhood’s identity as a more pragmatic movement with a broader base.
“Now there is just one big Islamist camp on one side and the military on the other, and the differences between the Brotherhood and other Islamists are blurred,” said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements and Egyptian politics at Durham University in England. “It’s a populist confrontation on both sides, driven by hatred.”
Even the Brotherhood’s own members may prove harder to control after the blood spilled on the weekend. On Saturday, some of the group’s leaders pleaded with young members who were confronting the police and plainclothes assailants to retreat to the relative safety of the sit-in. The leaders were rebuffed, a startling act of insubordination for a group that prides itself on strict hierarchy and iron discipline.
With much of its leadership — including Mr. Morsi — held incommunicado, the Brotherhood has been unable to conduct any high-level internal dialogue about what to do. Its options are limited in any case, because to back down now, with no guarantee from Egypt’s interim government that the Brotherhood would be spared deeper repression in the future, could be political suicide. Backing down would also violate the group’s understanding of Islamic law, under which no decision to undercut Mr. Morsi can be made without consulting him, according to Gehad el-Haddad, a Brotherhood spokesman.
In a sense, the Brotherhood’s struggle in recent weeks has been a return to painfully familiar ground. Banned for decades under President Hosni Mubarak and his predecessors, the group grew and matured under the pressure of constant police harassment. Its top leaders were shaped by long years in prison, and many of them were arrested again in early July when the military deposed Mr. Morsi.
Most of the group’s remaining leaders are now effectively confined to the main protest sit-in, in a broad intersection around a towering white mosque in a residential area of northeast Cairo known as Nasr City. On any given evening, some of them can be found in one of the mosque’s outbuildings, looking exhausted but focused as they move from one crisis meeting to the next.
In some ways, Brotherhood members say, the current crisis is almost comforting. Gone are the challenges and inevitable compromises of governing the country, which eroded the group’s popularity over the past year. Now it is in opposition again, a role that sits more easily with its historical self-image as a bulwark against oppression.
“These people dare to mock our religion!” shouted Safwat Hegazy, a Brotherhood leader, as he stood under the bright stage lights on Saturday night and the flag-waving crowd roared its approval. “God will punish them,” he continued. A chant went up in the crowd: “The people want the trial of the serial killer!” — a reference to General Sisi.
The sit-in, like many of the Arab protests of 2011, has taken on elements of a carnival: fruit and popcorn vendors push carts through the crowds, and visitors on their way to the stage clamber over sleeping bodies. The morning and evening meals of the fasting month of Ramadan, handed out in plastic-wrapped foil packages by Brotherhood volunteers, impose a ritual congeniality.
But the slurry of garbage underfoot grows thicker every day, and the smell gets worse. Last week the Brotherhood paid for flowers and apologies to be sent to thousands of local residents.
A core group of Brotherhood leaders who have not been arrested — about a dozen men — meet daily at the sit-in to discuss tactics, Mr. Haddad said during a late-night interview at the meeting room behind the mosque. “They go around, each one presenting his analysis of the situation; then they narrow it down to three or four options, and they vote,” Mr. Haddad said. “Sometimes it’s very heated, with shouting; sometimes it’s easy.”