Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, slow to join pro-democracy protests and wary of a government that has banned it for 56 years, says it will enter direct talks with President Hosni Mubarak's government. The move is a sharp reversal of course for Egypt's best-organized opposition group, which two days ago insisted it wouldn't negotiate with the government until Mr. Mubarak steps down.
The decision also bolsters the likelihood of a compromise end to the political impasse. But any deal that leaves major elements of the current government in place will severely disappoint both secular and Islamist protesters who have flooded Cairo's central Tahrir Square in recent days to call for Mubarak's immediate departure.
Many Egyptian activists also say they worry that the Brotherhood's elderly leadership, who have become increasingly inward-looking in the face of government repression, are no match for the old-guard members of Mubarak's regime, who will use them to split the forces pushing for democratic change and avoid meaningful reform.
"This is a bad idea," says Ibrahim al-Houdaiby, a former Brotherhood youth leader who left the group two years ago. "The compromises are going to be too great."
Compromise talks begin
Al Arabiya reported in the early afternoon in Cairo that talks had begun between Vice President Omar Suleiman, Brotherhood representatives, Coptic Christian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, and a representative of Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian Nobel Prizewinner who has been pushing for democratic reform in Egypt in the past two years. They are presenting themselves as a broad front representing multiple streams in Egyptian society, but ground-level democracy demonstrators are suspicious that a group of elites without true grass-roots support is about to cut a back-room deal.
"The protesters know that if we withdraw before our demands are met, the government will hunt us down and try to crush us," says Khaled Abol Naga, an Egyptian film star who has joined the protests. "There is no trust of anyone from the regime, not just Mubarak."
Vice President Suleiman's key role
Over the weekend, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton strongly supported Vice President Suleiman -- a former general and longtime intelligence chief until Mubarak named him vice president in late January -- as the focal point for efforts to open up Egyptian politics. Mubarak appears to have handed off all responsibility for dealing with the protesters to Suleiman and other members of the military establishment.
Suleiman is a devout Muslim himself and is also deeply suspicious of the Brotherhood, a longtime enemy of the Mubarak government. Though the movement eschewed violence decades ago and has hewed to a gradualist course, men like Suleiman -- not to mention much of the foreign policy establishment in the US and Europe -- view them as a threat to stability.
Suleiman's place in Egyptian politics was secured in 1995, when he insisted that Mubarak use an armored car on a trip to the Sudan. While both men drove through the streets of Khartoum, they were ambushed by members of the Gamaa Islamiyah, a group of violent Islamists that split from the Brotherhood in disgust over the group's refusal to use violence in the 1970s. Mubarak credited Suleiman's advice, and the two men spent the next decade working in concert to wipe out the group.
Now he's at the forefront of the old military elite, which appears likely to shed Mubarak in elections scheduled for September but do what it can to maintain its position (the 82-year-old Mubarak promised last week that he won't run).
Muslim Brotherhood makes its move
Blake Hounshell, the managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine who's in Cairo following the uprising, says it appears the Brothers are turning their back on the protesters at Tahrir and attending to their own interests.
"They see they're losing leverage, and they want to get the best deal possible they can, now," he says. "The longer this thing draws out, the more it goes against the protesters, and the Brotherhood knows that."
At Tahrir Square, which has been turned into an encampment for democracy protesters over the past 12 days, many today were suspicious of the Brotherhood.The group is clearly popular in Egypt, but without free elections or decent polling, their true support is impossible to gauge. Many Egyptians argue that the group wouldn't be able to take clear power in fair elections, and may see a deal now that allows it to legally participate in politics and give it a voice in some political reforms as its best chance at short-term influence.
"The Muslim Brotherhood wants to steal the success of this revolution. They are welcome to play a part, but they're not the leaders," says Samie el-Shafie, a woman who holds a senior position at the Ministry of Health and has just joined the protests at Tahrir Square. "They don't represent us."
-- Ann Hermes contributed to this report.