Ikhwanul Muslemeen leader Saad el-Katatni, centre, gestures as other leaders Essam el-Erian, left, and Mohamed Morsi look on during a press conference in Cairo on February 6. Banner reads " Press conference for Ikhwanul Muslemeen
February 6, 2011 was a red letter day in the history of Egypt. After being shunned for decades, the 83-year old banned Ikhwanul Muslemeen came to the centre-stage to break the impasse between the rigid ruling group and the Opposition National Association for Change (NAC).
Acquiring an official legitimacy in Egypt with its representatives, the Ikhwan along with some others participated in the talks with the government on defining the ground rules for a political transition, which has become necessary in the wake of a pro-democracy revolt.
The dialogue apparently ended on a positive note, with the Egyptian government claiming that both sides had agreed to identify specific steps to be adopted to enable detailed talks to commence.
A statement after the talks signalled that at least formally, President Hosni Mubarak would not leave, despite his departure from office being a core unifying demand among the pro-democracy demonstrators. Ikhwan representative Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh, instead of focusing on the President's exit, said Mubarak must issue decrees “to change Articles 76, 77, dissolve Parliament, release all political detainees the government knows very well and end emergency status.”
Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh declared clearly: “Until then, the youth will remain on the streets and at the same time discussions will continue.” Fotouh was referring to constitutional provisions that allow Hosni Mubarak's ruling party to manipulate elections to choose a President, who could then run for unlimited terms.
While a convoluted dialogue appears to have begun, at the Tahrir (Liberation) Square, plans were afoot to mount a new cycle of protests to maintain pressure on the government.
It is to point out that ahead of talks with Vice President Omar Suleiman, who has emerged as the face of the Mubarak Government in its interaction with the Opposition, the Ikhwan signalled that February 6's talks could be exploratory. “We decided to take part in a round of negotiations in order to test the officials' seriousness about people's demands and their readiness to respond,” Mohamed Badie, Murshide A’am (Supreme Leader), Ikhwanul Muslemeen, said in a statement.
Nevertheless, the invitation for talks and its acceptance appear part of a larger regional shift in policy towards the organization with its nation-wide cadres and network. In the talks with Omar Suleiman, the Ikhwan representatives joined others from Opposition parties, as well as independent legal experts and a business tycoon Naguib Sawiris.
According to a report by David D Kirpatrick, Kareem Fahim and Alan Cowell on www.newyorktimes.com on February 6, 2011, the encounter though in a significant and limited way itself was remarkable, bringing together members of the Ikhwan — Egypt’s biggest Opposition movement — and the autocratic government that has for decades repressed it as an Islamist threat.
According to the report, while Omar Suleiman’s office issued a statement — widely reported on State television — saying that talks had produced a consensus on a number of topics, the list reflected promises the Egyptian government had already made. The government has consistently tried to woo moderate Egyptians away from the protesters by publicizing concessions that fall short of the demonstrators’ demands.
The Opposition groups, a disparate array that has no central leadership but has unified around the demand that Mubarak step down immediately, said that there were no new agreements or concessions.
Another Ikhwan leader Gamal Nassar said the huge and sometimes violent demonstrations that have paralyzed Cairo for 13 days, reverberating around the Middle East, would continue “until the political path can have a role in achieving the aspirations of the protesters” — an apparent reference to their goal of removing Mubarak.
Nassar said mediators had brokered the encounter with Suleiman, who on February 5 received public backing from the Obama administration and other Western governments that confirmed him as the West’s choice to guide any transfer of power.
“The Ikhwan decided to enter a round of dialogue to determine how serious the officials are achieving the demands of the people,” Nassar said. “The regime keeps saying we’re open to dialogue and the people are the ones refusing, so the Ikhwan decided to examine the situation from all different sides.”
“The Egyptian regime is stubborn, and cannot relinquish power easily,” he said. “In politics, you must hear everyone’s opinions.”
Another member of the Ikhwan, the former lawmaker Mohasen Rady, said the organization had not abandoned its demand for Mubarak’s ouster. “He can leave in any way the regime would accept him to leave, but it has to be that he is out,” he said.
Other members of the Brotherhood described its presence at the talks on February 6 as exploratory rather than part of a full negotiation. On February 6 — the first day of the working week — Cairo seemed to be assuming some of the trappings of normalcy.
It is to point out that in an interview broadcast on ABC “This Week with Christiane Amanpour” on February 6, Omar Suleiman repeated his insistence that Mubarak could not step down now. “We don’t want chaos in our country,” he said. If Mubarak would say I’m leaving now who would take over?”
Omar Suleiman, who is also in charge of Egyptian intelligence, said that under the Constitution the Speaker of Parliament would rule in the President’s absence, but he warned that “in this atmosphere the people who have their own agenda will make instability in our country.” He said he would not seek the presidency himself. “I became old now,” he said. “I did enough for this country,” he said, adding “when the President asked me to be Vice President I accepted just to help the President in this critical time.”
Asked who was behind the currents of political change sweeping across Tunisia, Yemen and much of the Middle East, he focused on Islamic extremism. It is “an Islamic current that pushes these people,” he said. Young people may be the face of protest, “but others are pushing them to do that,” adding that those spurs are coming from abroad.
According to the Associated Press, footage on state television showed youthful supporters of a leading democracy advocate, Mohamed El Baradei, and a number of smaller leftist, liberal group along with representatives of the Ikhwan meeting Suleiman.
The meeting with the Ikhwan seemed to reflect a wider regional acknowledgment of the its influence. On February 3, King Abdullah II of Jordan, struggling to stave off growing public discontent, also met with his own country’s representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood for the first time in nearly a decade. The development came a day after American officials said Suleiman had promised them an “orderly transition” that would include constitutional reform and outreach to opposition groups.
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