Prior to the eruption of massive nationwide demonstrations on Sunday on the first anniversary of the inauguration of President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected civilian president, the Salafist Nour Party offered to try to bridge the gap between the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition, which includes both Islamist elements and Mubarak regime elements.
The initiative by the Nour Party, which has not joined other Islamist quarters in supporting Morsi, was snubbed by both the ruling regime and the non-Islamist opposition leadership, which told Nour Party leaders that time had run out for such initiatives. It would be presumptuous, the opposition leadership said, to claim that it had any control over the anti-Morsi demonstrators, whose anger is essentially socio-economically driven.
"We offered a deal that includes a change of the prime minister and the prosecutor-general in return for a delay of the demonstrations calling for early presidential elections; unfortunately, we did not have the support of the Muslim Brotherhood, which could have helped us pressure the opposition leadership," Nour Party Vice President Ashraf Thabet said.
The Nour Party has been generally supportive of Morsi as the "legitimate president." It has defied calls for early presidential polls and had taken up earlier invitations by Morsi for national dialogue – unlike opposition leaders who steadfastly boycotted these calls since a controversial presidential declaration in November that temporarily granted Morsi extra-judicial powers.
Nour later held meetings with leaders of the National Salvation Front, a loose umbrella of the non-Islamist anti-Morsi opposition.
"Throughout the past weeks we have been seeing the problem getting bigger and we have been trying over and over again; unfortunately, what could have been promoted as a good political deal a few days ago is no longer valid today," he said.
"I'm afraid that the opposition, or the street, will not settle for a change of government and prosecutor-general today," Thabet said. "It looks like a referendum on demands for snap presidential elections might be the only option if we are to avoid a serious political showdown."
Over the past few months, the opposition has demanded a new government to replace the current government of Prime Minister Hisham Qandil, which is widely considered inadequate in view of acute daily crises involving electricity, water and fuel.
Other demands had included the replacement of the prosecutor-general appointed through Morsi's extra-judicial powers in what prompted the fury even of those who had been firmly demanding the removal of the previous prosecutor-general for alleged ties to the ousted regime.
A third demand set by the opposition was the assignment of a committee to revisit controversial articles of a constitution passed by less than one fifth of eligible voters late last year.
Today, Thabet, like other opposition figures, admits that even if Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were to meet these demands, it would not be enough for the opposition.
"We believe that concessions have to be made by all parties," he said. The 'maximalist' demand for the president to immediately agree to demands for snap presidential polls, on which protestors have insisted during Sunday's demonstrations, could be reduced to an agreement on a referendum on early presidential elections, "but this must be agreed to first by the president and the ruling party; we aren't there yet," he lamented.
Thabet said that the Nour Party and others were looking into other options put forward by other mediators in recent days in hopes of coming up with an offer that might be accepted by all parties. "We are working against time and trying to prevent further tension that could lead to further bloodshed," he said.
On Sunday, 16 Egyptians died during demonstrations. A direct confrontation between Muslim Brotherhood members and opponents occurred around the group's headquarters in Cairo's Moqattem district, leading to the death of seven Egyptians as the building was set on fire.
According to informed sources who spoke to Ahram Online, six of those killed outside the building were shot dead by armed Muslim Brotherhood members defending their headquarters, while the seventh was a Brotherhood member killed by violent anti-Morsi protesters while trying to escape the building following the confrontation.
For Thabet, the attack on the Muslim Brotherhood building does not change the fact that "we have entered the phase of confrontation and bloodshed; we need to act soon and we need to be realistic."
Whether or not the current political crisis will leave the Muslim Brotherhood and the rest of Egypt's Islamist camp as "political pariahs" is for Thabet a matter "to worry about later." "What we have to worry about now is stopping further bloodshed and an escalation of the political crisis," he said.
This interview with Thabet was conducted shortly before the armed forces' statement on Monday afternoon, in which Egypt's military gave all political forces 48 hours to resolve the ongoing crisis. Otherwise, said a military spokesman, the armed forces would announce a new "roadmap" for Egypt's political future to include all political players.