CAIRO — They pounded on drums and blared music, drawing spectators from the balconies up above. The demonstrators held their banners aloft as they marched. And they chanted, repeatedly, against Egypt’s powerful military leader and presidential shoo-in, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi — all in the hot, open vulnerability of broad daylight in a capital where voicing opposition has become synonymous with jail time.
Egypt’s military-backed government is waging the harshest political crackdown in nearly two decades. But it has failed to crush a seemingly perpetual force of opposition; thousands of men and women still flood into the streets of slums, towns and villages across the country every Friday and on many of the days in between — even as captured friends and relatives receive prison time and death sentences.
“Point your gun at me,” the marchers chanted on one recent Friday, in a taunt against military rule. “Whatever you do, you will become the victim anyway.”
In the eight months since a military coup ousted Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, the state has effectively decapitated Morsi’s powerful political organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, and branded it a “terrorist” organization.
But it has proved harder to break the contagious spread of anger that has flowed forth from the crackdown, infecting not just die-hard Brotherhood members but also a growing net of non-Brotherhood Egyptians motivated by the suffering of friends and family or the scenes of state-sponsored violence that they have witnessed on the streets or on university campuses.
The activists now leading the charge against what they see as Egypt’s newest autocracy are often young people or relatives of the detained with little previous political experience.
The crackdown “has the opposite effect of what they wanted,” said Ahmed, 21, who until recently worked as a photographer for a state-run newspaper. He said that those who witnessed the government’s deadly dispersal of a pro-Morsi camp known as Raba’a in August had been transformed by the event and that a new law that has effectively banned protests is rebounding in the demonstrators’ favor.
“If one person from a five-person family gets detained at a protest, that makes the other four go down to protest — and those four bring 20 others,” said Ahmed, who did not give his last name.
Ahmed’s estimate may well be exaggerated — or at the very least, signify no more than a very small splash in the larger bucket of Egypt’s 85 million people, many of whom supported last summer’s coup and the crackdown that followed.
But while experts predicted that Egypt’s opposition would disintegrate into extremes under the pressure of new military rule, there remain some notable exceptions.
The protest on the recent Friday began gradually, as hundreds of men, women and children swarmed into the streets after the noon prayer in a hot and dusty neighborhood on the outskirts of Cairo.
Some cursed Sissi, an act of daring in an era when nearly every demonstration ends with a police confrontation. On the metal shutters of storefronts, teenagers spray-painted slogans declaring the military leader a “traitor” or a “killer.”
Some carried posters of Morsi, as they have since the July coup, demanding his reinstatement. As music blasted from speakers in the bed of a truck, men joined hands and danced to the thumping pop song that had served as a Muslim Brotherhood protest-camp anthem last summer, declaring that “Egypt is Islamic.’’
But the crowd also held aloft bigger banners bearing likenesses of ordinary-looking boys and girls who are being remembered as “martyrs” of the government’s crackdown.
These days, few protests are staged anywhere near the major highways and famous squares, such as Tahrir, where Egyptian security forces have learned to blanket the demonstrators in tear gas and gunfire. Their chosen destinations now are more likely to be in the slums, outskirts and side streets.
“We used to announce protest destinations on Facebook,” said Mohamed, 43, a longtime Brotherhood member who declined to be identified by his full name. But the security forces started getting there first. “Now we stand in front of the mosque after prayer, and we walk around a little first to make sure it’s safe. If not, we change places.” They notify others by word of mouth.
To their critics, the anti-coup activists are propagandists and liars, part of what the military-backed government alleges is a movement bent on destroying the nation.
“They are not ordinary people. They want violence,” said one high-ranking officer in Egypt’s Interior Ministry who spoke on the condition of anonymity, as per government protocol. “They try to show that they are moderate. But that’s not true,” he said.
On this day, in this neighborhood, there would be no confrontation — to the palpable relief of even those marchers who had pulled on ski masks to disguise themselves in the case of violence.
After arriving at a central square in the lower-class district of Ain Shams, the demonstrators chanted for several more minutes before deciding that the protest was over. Then, almost as quickly as they had arrived, the march dissipated in the dimming afternoon sunlight; protesters jumped into vans and buses, and descended into the subways and down alleys.
“The police come and pick up whoever is left,” said Mohamed Mourad, the 19-year-old son of a jailed Morsi aide. “So let’s move.”
Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.