Muslim Brotherhood Join Egypt Talks as Mubarak Allies Make Concessions
Sunday 06 February 2011
by: David D. Kirkpatrick, Kareem Fahim and Alan Cowell, The New York Times News Service | Report
An Egyptian anti-government protester prays in front of Egyptian soldiers during ongoing protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square. (Photo: Scott Nelson / the New York Times)
Cairo — Members of the Muslim Brotherhood joined other opposition groups meeting with Vice President Omar Suleiman on Sunday in what seemed a significant departure in the nation’s uprising and political history.
The Brotherhood is an outlawed Islamist organization often depicted by the authorities as committed to the overthrow of the secular order in the heart of the Middle East. Official attitudes toward it here have swung between outright repression and reluctant tolerance. But it has remained Egypt’s biggest opposition force against the autocratic rule of President Hosni Mubarak.
After the meeting had started, The Associated Press said that talks included some of the top issues for the opposition — including freedom of the press and the release of those detained since anti-government protests started — as well as agreement to begin setting up a structure to study amending the country’s constitution.
A spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, 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 Mr. Mubarak.
Mr. Nassar said mediators had brokered the encounter with Mr. Suleiman, who Saturday 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 brothers decided to enter a round of dialogue to determine how serious the officials are achieving the demands of the people,” Mr. Nassar said. “The regime keeps saying we’re open to dialogue and the people are the ones refusing, so the Brotherhood 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 Brotherhood, the former lawmaker Mohasen Rady, said the organization had not abandoned its demand for Mr. 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 Sunday as exploratory rather than part of a full negotiation.
According to The Associated Press, footage on state television showed youthful supporters of a leading democracy advocate, Mohamed ElBaradei, and a number of smaller leftist, liberal group along with representatives of the Brotherhood meeting Mr. Suleiman.
The move in Egypt seemed to reflect a wider regional acknowledgment of the Brotherhood’s influence. On Thursday, 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 Mr. Suleiman had promised them an “orderly transition” that would include constitutional reform and outreach to opposition groups.
“That takes some time,” Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton said, speaking at a Munich security conference. “There are certain things that have to be done in order to prepare.”
But the formal endorsement came as Mr. Suleiman appeared to reject the protesters’ main demands, including the immediate resignation of Mr. Mubarak and the dismantling of a political system built around one-party rule, according to leaders of a small, officially authorized opposition party who spoke with Mr. Suleiman on Saturday. Instead of loosening its grip, moreover, the authorities appeared to be consolidating their power: The prime minister said police forces were returning to the streets, and an army general urged protesters to scale back their occupation of Tahrir Square.
Protesters interpreted the simultaneous moves by the Western leaders and Mr. Suleiman as a rebuff to their demands for an end to the dictatorship led for almost three decades by Mr. Mubarak, a pivotal American ally and pillar of the existing order in the Middle East.
“What they are saying behind closed doors, they are backing Mubarak,” said Noha el-Shakawy, 52, a pharmacist with dual Egyptian and American citizenship. “We are nothing to them. The United States wants to sacrifice all of our lives, 85 million people.”
On Sunday — the first day of the working week — Cairo seemed to be re-assuming some of the trappings of normalcy.
Some banks reopened for several hours after a week of closures, with limits on withdrawals by customers who stood in line to access their accounts. The city’s notoriously rambunctious traffic began to rebuild across bridges over the Nile that had been access routes to Tahrir Square for pro-democracy protesters and their adversaries.
But tanks remained in position on the square itself, and an overnight curfew was still technically in force. Reporters in the city said foreigners risked being stopped at night-time road-blocks and some had been threatened with arrest as spies.
On Sunday — the Christian holy day — Muslim and Coptic prayers resounded over Tahrir Square in what seemed a show of interfaith harmony just weeks after a suicide bomber killed at least 21 people as a New Year’s Eve Mass was ending in Alexandria. In the past, some members of the Coptic minority have accused their leaders of reluctance to confront the state.
Tens of thousands of protesters milled again in the square, which seemed to be taking on an air of semi-permanency with tents, food stalls, worship and music. Vendors offered dates. On the perimeters, a Bahrain airline office had reopened, as had a store called “Hana Eastern Gifts.”
The numbers seemed initially to be slightly fewer than on Saturday. But as the day wore on thousands of people headed to the square, so that the city offered rival visions — one promoted by footage on state television of a capital returning to its normal ways; and another, in Tahrir Square, of continued defiance.
Just days after President Obama demanded publicly that change in Egypt must begin right away, many in the streets accused the Obama administration on Saturday of sacrificing concrete steps toward genuine change in favor of a familiar stability.
“America doesn’t understand,” said Ibrahim Mustafa, 42, who was waiting to enter Tahrir Square. “The people know it is supporting an illegitimate regime.”
Leaders of the Egyptian opposition and rank-and-file protesters had earlier rejected any negotiations with Mr. Suleiman until after the ouster of Mr. Mubarak, arguing that moving toward democracy will require ridding the country of not only its dictator but also his rubber-stamp Parliament and a Constitution designed for one-party rule.
On Saturday, Mr. Mubarak’s party announced a shake-up that removed its old guard, including his son Gamal, from the party’s leadership while installing younger, more reform-minded figures. But such gestures were quickly dismissed as cosmetic by analysts and opposition figures.
Mrs. Clinton’s message, echoed by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, and reinforced in a flurry of calls by President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to Egyptian and regional leaders, appears to reflect an attempt at balancing calls for systemic change with some semblance of legal order and stability.
Mrs. Clinton said Mr. Mubarak, having taken himself and Gamal out of the September elections, was already effectively sidelined. She emphasized the need for Egypt to reform its Constitution to make a vote credible. “That is what the government has said it is trying to do,” she said.
She also stressed the dangers of holding elections without adequate preparation and highlighted fears about deteriorating security inside Egypt, noting an explosion at a gas pipeline in the Sinai Peninsula, and uncorroborated news reports of an earlier assassination attempt on Mr. Suleiman.
In a statement, the Egyptian government said there had been no assassination attempt, but added that on Jan. 28 a car in Mr. Suleiman’s motorcade was struck by a bullet fired by “criminal elements.”
Protesters noted that Western worries about security and orderly transitions sounded remarkably like Mr. Mubarak’s age-old excuses for postponing change. And they said they had waited long enough.
“We don’t want Omar Suleiman to take Mubarak’s place. We are not O.K. with this regime at all,” said Omar el-Shawy, a young online activist. “We want a president who is a civilian.”
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