- Associated Press - Thursday, November 28, 2013

CAIRO (AP) - The three women are among Egypt’s most active democracy campaigners, the faces of its revolution. Through a string of rulers the past three years- autocrat Hosni Mubarak, the military, the Islamists - they have been at the forefront of protests, chronicled police abuses and struggled to limit the power of the military.

A harrowing night this week underscored for them how little has changed - and why they and other activists are opening a new, non-Islamist protest front against the military-backed government installed after the July 3 coup that ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

The three - Rasha Azab, Mona Seif and Nazly Hussein - and 11 other women were beaten and dragged off by police during a Cairo protest. In the middle of the night, the women were piled into a police truck and driven through the desert outside Cairo, with no idea where they were going or what police intended to do. Then the police abandoned them on a dark, remote highway.

It’s an intimidation tactic straight out of the playbook of Mubarak, who ruled for 29 years until his 2011 ouster.

Azab tasted it in 2010. That time she was alone, beaten by police, driven through the desert and dumped.

Her experience made her a reassuring presence this time for the other women, some of whom had never been in a police truck before.

“The girls were shaken,” the 31-year old journalist said. “Some cried as soon as they got out of the car.”

Secular activists have largely been muted since the ouster of Morsi, whom they opposed. Since the coup, Islamists have held near daily protests against the military in the face of a bloody police crackdown.

Now the secular camp is revving up, saying Egypt’s new leadership is trampling on democratic ambitions by giving free rein to police abuse and military power that revolutionaries had hoped to get rid of with Mubarak’s ouster. This week saw a series of small rallies by activists, fueled by anger over a draconian law issued Monday banning protests without a police permit.

Bruised and tired, the three women spoke to The Associated Press before dawn Wednesday, just after friends retrieved them from the desert.

Azab was still in pain from being beaten by police on the back. Seif was limping from blows to her leg. Hussein said she was beaten in the police station before the desert drive when she tried to help a woman being dragged down the stairs by her hair.

“Our beating is nothing,” said Azab. “Today we will go to sleep, wake up and continue our fight with authorities again.”

In Egyptian media, security officials denied any women were beaten or dumped in the desert - despite amateur footage of beatings. Pro-military TV stations, which praised activists and protesters who rose up against Morsi, now dismiss the same protesters as troublemakers.

“The same repressive state is here,” said Hussein. “Everyone who comes to the chair wants first thing to stop protests.”

The problem for her camp is that much of the public supports the military and is weary of constant unrest. Hussein noted that during his year in office, Morsi tried but failed to pass a law restricting protests, but the new government felt confident enough to issue one.

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