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CAIRO – There is a gaping hole in the center of next week's presidential election in Egypt: The space once filled by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The former political powerhouse that won election after election the past three years has been decimated by a crackdown since the military last summer ousted President Mohammed Morsi, a veteran Brotherhood figure. The Islamist group has been declared a terrorist organization, hundreds of its supporters have been killed and thousands arrested.
And the man who removed Morsi — the now retired army chief, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi — is a near certainty to win the election, taking place Monday and Tuesday.
The election could seal the group's expulsion from political life: If turnout is strong among Egypt's 53 million voters, authorities could present that as a solid evidence that the public rejects the Brotherhood and supports Morsi's ouster, which Islamists brand a coup against the popular will.
The Brotherhood's only tool now has been to declare a boycott of the election, branding it a farce, and try to escalate the street protests it has been holding since Morsi's July 3 ouster.
The goal is to dent the legitimacy of the election and keep Islamists' voice alive, hoping to draw supporters if el-Sissi's popularity collapses.
"The street movement may have thinned, but everyone is still charged up and that will be manifested in the future," Ashraf Abdel-Wahab, a doctoral student from the Brotherhood, told The Associated Press.
Diaa el-Sawy, a spokesman for the Islamist-led Youths Against the Coup, said he expects the crackdown after the election will "become bloodier because el-Sissi will want to establish his regime."
But, he said, people will turn against the retired field marshal when he fails to resolve the country's many problems. "We are betting that we will be joined by others," he said. "They will abandon their support for el-Sissi. They will not necessarily be with us, but they will be against el-Sissi."
So far, 10 months of protests have failed to rally non-Islamists to the cause amid public resentment over Morsi's year in office and a media-fueled perception that the group is behind a wave of terror attacks. The group denies the claim, but some members warn that young Islamists are turning to militancy — a trend that would deepen public opposition to it.
In 2012, Morsi became Egypt's first democratically elected president after the toppling of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. But by last summer, he faced massive protests by millions demanding he step down, prompting the military's move.
A Brotherhood-led alliance of Islamists last week called for the "third revolutionary wave" of protests against the presidential election.
"Step up your efforts to win over new sectors of society for the boycott of the sham elections, so we may regain our freedom," the alliance said Wednesday.
This week saw a marked escalation in protests by university students loyal to Morsi in Cairo, the southern city of Assiut and a string of other localities north of the capital.
The crackdown is the worst trauma the 85-year-old Brotherhood has suffered. Still, its members pride themselves on enduring suppression. For most of its existence, it was a banned underground organization. Still, it built up a grassroots network of charities, businesses and mosques that generated public support, and it ran candidates in parliamentary elections.
After Mubarak's fall, it formed a political party and burst openly onto the scene. It and its ultraconservative allies won every election that followed — parliamentary elections in the winter of 2011-2012, the June 2012 presidential election, and a December 2012 referendum that passed a constitution drafted largely by Islamists.
Brotherhood supporters said the votes proved Egypt wants Islamists in power. But its detractors insist the wins spoke more of the weakness of its opponents and the allure of its charity networks for poor voters.
In the end, both sides will count turnout and raw numbers of voters as a gauge of popularity.
In the 2011-2012 parliamentary elections, around 18.4 million Egyptians voted for candidates from the Brotherhood party and its Islamist allies, largely competing against newly formed and little known liberal parties.
Morsi garnered 13.2 million votes in the 2012 presidential election — including many who backed him to prevent victory by his rival, Mubarak's last prime minister Ahmed Shafiq. Turnout was just under 52 percent.
In the following referendum, 10.7 million Egyptians voted in favor of the constitution, considered a vote for Islamists. Turnout was a lowly 32 percent.
El-Sissi's camp is looking to decisively top those numbers. One early sign was a referendum in December 2013 for a new, post-Morsi constitution in which a yes vote was seen as support for el-Sissi. It received 19.9 million yes votes — but with Islamists boycotting, turnout was a low 39 percent.
No matter the outcome, the Brotherhood has been transformed by the crackdown. Its networks have been devastated, though it has retained a low level of organization and moved what it can abroad. A generation of its leadership — including Morsi — are in prison and facing trials that could imprison them for years or lead to their execution.
El-Sawy, the youth organizer, said young people keeping the cause alive will play a greater role for now on in the Islamist movement, long dominated by the Brotherhood's aged leaders.
"The young people are now convinced that leadership must be in the hands of the youth," he said.
He insisted the movement's strategy is peaceful protest. But provincial Brotherhood leaders warn of rising militancy among younger members in response to killings by police, random arrests and abuse of detainees.
"They see what happened as a war against Islam that needs to be countered with jihad," said one leader in Assiut, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared arrest.
"They have given up on peaceful protests and want to avenge the martyrs and those in jail."