CAIRO – With the start of school this week, young activists of the Muslim Brotherhood have taken the lead in the group's protests against the military coup that ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. But their re-energized rallies at schools and universities are notably missing something: Pictures of the toppled leader and slogans demanding his return.
Instead, Brotherhood students are rebranding their rallies into protests warning that the coup will bring back the widely hated police state of former autocrat Hosni Mubarak. They tout pictures of protesters killed by security forces since Morsi's July 3 ouster and sing songs from the early days of the 2011 uprising against Mubarak. "The first lesson on the board: the Interior Ministry is full of rabid dogs," junior and high school students chanted at a rally this week, focusing on the ministry that runs the security forces.
Crippled by a crackdown and arrests and facing a court order to dissolve the group and seize its assets, the Brotherhood is tailoring its message in hopes of attracting a wider base and finding new allies for what has been a predominantly Islamist protest movement. That has meant watering down their insistence that Morsi be returned to office — something that has increasingly grown impossible as the military-backed authorities consolidate their power.
"We have transcended the issue of Dr. Morsi and legitimacy," said Islam Tawfiq, a youth member in the Brotherhood. Like other Brotherhood members, he shrugged off the ban on the group issued last week by a Cairo court, saying the group has already suffered from the killing of its members in crackdowns. "The ban will attract more supporters," he said.
The group and its youth insist that it doesn't mean they dropped completely the demand for Morsi's return. Brotherhood leaders — those who have not been jailed — deny there is any youth push to soften the group's official stance or any division among the senior figures and the youth. Youth leaders say they are not contradicting the group's official position.
And the Brotherhood faces deep skepticism over its rebranding, particularly among leftist and revolutionary activists who oppose the military's current domination of the political scene. Those activists recall how the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies supported military rule after Mubarak's 2011 fall because it served their interests, paving the way to elections they would win. The Brotherhood and other Islamists even backed deadly crackdowns on anti-military protesters at the time.
Osama Ahmed, of the student chapter of the leftist Revolutionary Socialists, which is fiercely critical of the military, said his and other groups refuse to protest alongside the Brotherhood-led "Students against the Coup" group.
"There is no way" other groups can work with the Brotherhood, he said. The Brotherhood "wrote the death certificate of their own organization, at least temporarily," by allying with the military after Mubarak's fall.
The tightly hierarchical and disciplined Brotherhood does, however, seem to realize it must show some flexibility to survive.
The military removed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected leader, after protests by millions demanding his ouster. Much of the public remains bitter against the Brotherhood and other Islamists over their political domination and perceived arrogance during Morsi's year in office. Demands for Morsi's return are widely seen as an attempt to restore Islamists to power, not a sincere call for democracy.
In the streets, pro-Morsi protests have waned under their weight of the crackdown, which has arrested more than 2,000 Brotherhood members and other Islamists.
But the start of the school year Saturday gave the Brotherhood an opportunity to shift its focus to universities, where it has always had a strong presence.
Brotherhood students have held near daily protests on campuses, usually numbering in the hundreds. Military backers have held their own campus rallies, and clashes broke out at several universities in the Nile Delta and Alexandria on Wednesday.
Before the university year's start, Brotherhood students agreed with their allies on a "code of ethics" for rallies, trying to establish common ground with non-Islamists. Ahmed Ghoneim Mustafa, a Brotherhood leader at Cairo University, said protests would focus on "the public good" — ending military rule, preventing the return of the Mubarak regime and protecting the "Jan. 25 revolution" — the anti-Mubarak revolt that united groups of many ideologies.
"We agreed it is more important than the Brotherhood," he said. "We agreed not to talk about the return of the president. We agreed that we face a common enemy, or have a common goal, which is to restore the spirit of January 25."
At their campus ralies, chants for "Islamic state" and "Morsi, my president" are gone, replaced by a refrain from the anti-Mubarak uprising against the police, hated by all stripes of Egyptians for abuses and corruption — "Freedom where are you? State security agents stand in the way!" A poster for new protests being passed on Brotherhood social media uses the image of a fist on a red background — echoing leftist symbolism.
Brotherhood youth say it is vital the group tap into student sentiment, saying the young can provide the critical mass in larger protests.
Shaimaa Awad, a Brotherhood member, said that in the absence of senior leadership, young members of the group are taking the lead in organizing.
"The important thing is to bring the youth together, whether they agree on Morsi or not. We all agree the revolution is going to waste," she said. "The Brotherhood ... made mistakes in the past years and paid for it dearly, in blood. They will not repeat those mistakes. We as youth will not allow it."