By Marwa Awad and Yasmine Saleh
CAIRO, Dec 13 (Reuters) - Caught up in clashes between rival demonstrators in Cairo, Oula Shahba says she was dragged off by loyalists from the Muslim Brotherhood, beaten and accused of stirring up trouble against President Mohamed Mursi.
The Brotherhood, which propelled Mursi into office, denies forming militias that take the law into their own hands, but the main opposition coalition says the movement's tactics show the Islamist leader is relying on Brotherhood "thugs" to defend him.
"I was kidnapped and abused by Brotherhood youth," said Shahba, describing the incident last week that left both her eyes blackened and bruised during a rally near the presidential palace against a decision by Mursi to expand his powers.
The accounts she and others gave at an opposition news conference on Wednesday highlighted the mistrust festering in the Arab world's biggest nation over the Brotherhood's role.
The movement in turn blames violence on "thugs" bent on ousting Egypt's first freely elected leader. Yet the group also says its supporters must counter violence when the police fail, revealing the Brotherhood's suspicions of a state security service that is largely unreformed since Hosni Mubarak fell.
The Brotherhood's use of squads of young members to protect its leaders risks fuelling the unrest. "It is one thing to be the people against the regime, but when it is the people against the people then you really have a recipe for sustained civil conflict," said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center.
Mursi, whose election win in June gave the Brotherhood its first taste of high office, is battling a crisis sparked when he awarded himself extra powers on Nov. 22 and then pressed on with a referendum and a constitution shaped by Islamists. That vote, which the opposition wanted delayed, begins on Saturday.
How the president handles the crisis may influence the way the world views the rise of Islamists in the Arab world, where proponents of political Islam have been the biggest beneficiaries of revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.
Shoved to the sidelines of politics for decades, Egypt's Brotherhood says even after the revolution it still faces a recalcitrant state and opponents with no respect for democracy.
"There is a clear intentional laxity on part of the Interior Ministry and police force who seem to want the president to fail," said Mohamed Beltagy, a senior Brotherhood member who coordinated the group's street committees during 2011 uprising.
He and other Brotherhood officials denied any notion of their running "militias", but Beltagy also said Egyptians had to fill the vacuum when police failed to do their work.
"In the face of ongoing security impediments from the state, the people need an organised civilian force during clashes," Beltagy said. "Some civilian groups are more trained and aware of how to fend off danger than others."
State security officials barely disguise their distrust of Islamists, after being ordered to hound them down for years.
"No matter what the Brotherhood say, I have no doubt from my work that they do have a special armed force," said one senior officer, who under Mubarak was responsible, by his own account, for combatting what he called the "Brotherhood militia".
The main opposition coalition of liberals, leftists and others, the National Salvation Front, has publicly demanded Mursi "dissolve all militias" inside the Brotherhood.
Many independent experts dismiss the idea that the long suppressed Brotherhood, set up in the 1920s and which renounced violence against the state decades ago, has turned to arm force to shape Egypt after Mubarak's overthrow in February 2011.
But Islamist expert Khalil al-Anani said the Brotherhood had trained up loyal supporters, part of a tradition built up after years of official persecution. "The purpose of these groups is to protect the survival of the Muslim Brotherhood," he said.
Such cadres came out to support Mursi last week.
During rallies when protesters broke through security cordons around the presidential palace and sprayed anti-Mursi graffiti on the walls, disciplined groups of Brotherhood members appeared swiftly to paint over the slogans.
ARMED WITH PAINT AND BRUSH
One who took part, who gave his name only as Mosaab and who was armed with paint and brush, said he had responded to a call from the leader of his "division" in the Brotherhood ranks.
"We want state institutions to do their job. If they do not, we will not sit idle and watch the elected president fall," he said as he briskly whitewashed the walls.
The perimeter has since been daubed again by protesters.
Brotherhood youths and experts described a hierarchical structure in the Islamist group. Groups ranged from dozens to smaller cells that could be quickly called up.
Though training involved physical exercise and skills to work in a crowd, the experts and youths dismissed the notion that they conducted any kind of weapons drills.
"We take Koran lessons, run around the track for physical fitness and learn how to organise and stick together as a group at any public event or situation," said Ali Abdel Moti, 25, a loyalist who went to the palace when clashes erupted.
Responding to charges that they came armed, Brotherhood supporters who were at the palace last week when at least eight people were killed say all the dead were their own Islamist colleagues, some of whom were killed by gunfire.
Rivals at the scene last week give a different account, describing how a protest at the palace walls turned violent when ranks of stone-throwing Brotherhood loyalists descended on the area, driving away others.
Pitched street battles followed, with petrol bombs flying and gunshots heard. Some protesters, like Oula Shahba, say they were detained by groups of Brotherhood loyalists.
Brotherhood officials acknowledge their members held people they accused of inciting violence, but insist that these were swiftly handed over to state security officers.
Senior Brotherhood member Mahmoud Ghozlan told Reuters he was aware some of the group's members "caught thugs and detained them". But, he added, they "gave them to police at the end".
Islamists also say some of these "thugs" were in league with the police, although that is a charge police routinely deny.
Yahya Negm, a former diplomat and previously an opponent of Mubarak, said he had been protesting peacefully when he was grabbed and beaten, showing off his bruises.
"We have seen since the Brotherhood have come to power that they work independently of the rest of society," he told Wednesday's opposition news conference.
"They used to complain about the Interior Ministry and its thugs," he said. "But now they have become thugs themselves." (Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Giles Elgood and Alastair Macdonald)