As the dust begins to settle, Brotherhood and authorities could compromise

Dina Ezzat, Monday 26 Aug 2013

While a government official says that ‘outlawing’ the Muslim Brotherhood ‘somehow’ is still being debated in official and legal circles, other ways of living with the group are beginning to seem possible

Muslim Brotherhood
A looter stands near a broken window at the Muslim Brotherhood's headquarters after it was burned down by protesters opposing Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo's Moqattam district - July 1, 2013 (Photo: reuters)

Notwithstanding its continued security, media and diplomatic offensive against the Muslim Brotherhood, the state -- presidency, army and cabinet -- is looking at ways to "reduce the level of tension and shorten the expected period of violence that could continue for one or two years," according to an official source.

According to the same source, who spoke to Ahram Online following "a relatively contained Friday" of Brotherhood protests on 24 August, "We could say the Muslim Brotherhood is taking a step back."

The source elaborated that "while this might be because it has sustained considerable losses reducing its ability to garner support, it is also true, at least from what I can see, that wisdom is slowly reaching the leaders – of course it is far too late but better late than never."

Numerous officials, albeit indirectly and mincing their words shrouded in scepticism, are referring to the idea of starting negotiations with the Brotherhood.

"Let us face it, there were some serious attempts [at mediation] before the 30 June demonstrations and before the 3 July [removal of Morsi] but they did not work," said an independent political source involved in discussions between Brotherhood leaders and state bodies, especially the armed forces and leading political figures.

Before the storm

The nationwide 30 June demonstrations were designed to demand early presidential elections, only one year after the Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi was inaugurated as president.

"From what I know, the army, [especially Defence Minister and Army Chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi] was hoping the mediation [before Morsi's removal] would work," the source added.

The core of the mediation then, according to sources, including some from the Brotherhood who are now unavailable for press comments, was for the suspension of demonstrations in return for an agreement from the president to hold a referendum on whether or not he should complete his four-year term.

Several European foreign ministers and ambassadors in Cairo supported the mediation efforts but they failed. This failure, in the words of one Cairo-based European diplomat, was “because the Brotherhood leaders and president Morsi himself did not believe there would be big demonstrations.”

After the storm

After 30 June, the Brotherhood continued to insist that Morsi would finish his four-year term.

It is these experiences of failed mediation that are prompting considerable doubts in official quarters over a possible deal with the Brotherhood.

The deal, which is being contemplated rather than fully proposed, would include an end to both anti-state and anti-Islamist incitement; the release of all arrested Brotherhood members who are proven innocent of inciting or committing acts of violence; the suspension of anti-military attacks in Sinai; and a reconsideration of what a week ago seemed like a final decision to dissolve the Brotherhood.

"To be honest I cannot say that all concerned sides decided that legal action should be pursued to outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood," said the official source.

The source added that the majority of voices seem in favour of dissolving the group, but others suggest that its existence should be tolerated in favour of complete transparency regarding its membership, financial resources and activities.

Several legal motions, including a lawsuit by former leftist presidential candidate Abul-Ezz El-Hariri, demand the Islamist group be outlawed. Other motions demand the Brotherhood's political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, also be banned, along with other ‘religious-based’ political parties and entities, in order to maintain a separation between politics and religion.

For most of its history since its establishment in 1928 by Hassan El-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed and its members persecuted by legal and security measures.

"Since the state decided to firmly apply the rule of law and disperse the sit-ins, the focus has been on security operations. But the debate now seems about whether the time has come to slowly re-introduce politics – and how. This is all on the basis that nothing, and I mean nothing, will interrupt the largely successful security operations," the same official said.

Change of heart

The statements of this official came in parallel with the government's sudden change of heart regarding a political initiative, proposed by cabinet member Ziad Baheddine, for negotiations and a political settlement allowing the Brotherhood to survive.

Baheddine's initiative came over a week ago despite resistance from what is now dubbed the “security over politics camp in the cabinet” essentially led by the interior minister. According to Ahram Online sources, the initiative received very little support at first, but a change of tune became increasingly evident over the past three days.

Some sources attribute this turn to continued international pressure on the Egyptian state to move towards a reconciliation scheme allowing the Brotherhood to continue to exist.

Other sources hint that the change of heart was prompted by El-Sisi, either out of an assessment that the security approach had largely served its purpose, heralding the time for a more integrated style of crisis management, or on the basis of conclusions he made through his talks with his US counterpart Chuck Hagel – or maybe both.

"One thing is certain, the Muslim Brotherhood are now sending different messages," said another independent political source who was heavily involved in pre-30 June mediation efforts. This, she said, is largely due to the widespread arrest of radical leaders on serious criminal charges and the consequent realisation of those yet to be arrested that the time has come to compromise.

State officials are also demonstrating a new realisation, reflected this week in the statements of interim Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi, that continued tension is taking a serious economic toll.

The current reconnaissance mediation is orchestrated mostly through Egyptian go-betweens who are trying to convince Brotherhood leaders not wanted by the police that they need to cut their losses, not just for them but also for the Islamist trend in general.

The ultra-conservative Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya has been taking part in mediation efforts and is making almost daily press statements calling for reconciliation.

While the state -- presidency, government and army -- is showing an initial willingness to open up, it insists any deal would have to acknowledge the legitimacy of ‘the 30 June Revolution’ and abandon any demands to release top Brotherhood leaders, including Mohamed Morsi, Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie and deputy leader Khairat El-Shater.

"It is still too early to predict the result of the talks, which are largely informal, but one thing is certain: the state will continue with its operation to prevent any group from attacking public property and to eliminate terror spots in Sinai,” said the state official.

He added that while the state of emergency is expected to be removed on schedule, it might be maintained in Sinai, where Islamist militants are battling the state, as well as a couple of other governorates where "security threats" are still "very real."

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