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.
Moreover, Seif added, young activists feel let down by liberal politicians uncritically backing the government who have been willing to "give up rights of citizens they have no right to give up."
The three believe police targeted them because of their prominence to signal they are prepared to go after anyone in enforcing the new law.
Azab is well known from protests even before Mubarak's fall. Standing out with her bun of curly hair, she has tangled in arguments and even shoving matches with thugs trying to shut down rallies.
The 30-year-old Hussein has focused on documenting police brutality the past three years, particularly on verifying names of hundreds killed and arrested in protests. She remains haunted by images of dead young protesters she has seen at morgues and funerals.
"Some died for their dream," she said. "This dream is my compass and until it comes true, I will stay on the streets."
Seif, a 27-year-old biology graduate student, emerged as a thorn in authorities' side by leading a campaign against military trials of civilians, a tactic used against protesters since Mubarak's fall. Her campaign forced the military to release details of thousands of cases.
Seif's group organized Tuesday's protest outside parliament to denounce an article in a revised constitution allowing military trials of civilians, even on charges as vague as "endangering public property."
With the protest break-up, Seif believes, the police wanted to send a message: "This is how I do business, and if you don't like it, beat your head against the wall. And if you think a known activist or a known media person will help, no one will."
On Wednesday evening, the 14 women turned themselves in to police, arguing that since 24 male protesters arrested Tuesday are still in custody, they should be arrested too.
The police refused to arrest the women.
"If they want to try someone, it has to be me and us," Seif said.