Three senior leaders of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, all of whom have suffered arbitrary imprisonment and torture at the hands of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, sat shoulder to shoulder at a press conference in what should have been a moment of great triumph.
Two Brothers had just come from the group's first formal talks ever with a government that has hounded the Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest and best-organized opposition group, for generations. Along with secular democracy activists and reform-minded tycoons, they sought to present a united front for reform to Vice President Omar Suleiman, the former spymaster whose career was largely built on crushing Islamist movements.
But the moment had a hint of anticlimax. The Brotherhood backed off its demand that Mr. Mubarak step down immediately and make other concessions, for apparently little concrete in return. Suddenly, the one clear demand uniting them with the youths in Cairo's Tahrir Square – Mubarak's resignation – was gone.
The Sunday afternoon talks drew outrage in the square, where protesters described the Brothers' concessions as helping the establishment buy time and find a way to preserve one-party rule here beyond September elections, in which Mubarak has promised not to run. They also expressed concern that Mr. Suleiman was leading the reform movement into a trap.
“I don’t know what [senior Brotherhood leader Esam el-] Erian is thinking, I really don’t,” said a secular protest leader, who has spent years trying to bring the Brotherhood into a broader reform camp. “We all know who Suleiman is and what he’s capable of. This is splitting the Brotherhood and could leave all of us isolated and in danger.”
The Brothers, ever-cautious and aware that they bear the brunt of regime repression when they join protests, were slow to participate in the demonstrations that broke out on Jan. 25 and have struggled to craft a united front ever since.
A split Brotherhood?
A sign of the split came soon after Mr. Erian, who has done at least eight stints in jail, and his two colleagues spoke. He declared the current parliament “illegitimate," but said that the Brotherhood will give negotiations a chance to work, particularly regarding Suleiman’s promise of constitutional reform.
“We wanted the president to step down, but for now we accept this arrangement,” said Mohamed Saad El-Katatni, a member of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Council. “It’s safer that the president stays until he makes these amendments to speed things up because of the constitutional powers he holds.”
An influential Brotherhood member of the reform camp then took to Al Jazeera and appeared to contradict the official line.
“The Muslim Brotherhood went with a key condition that cannot be abandoned ... [Mubarak] needs to step down in order to usher in a democratic phase," Brotherhood leader Abdel Moneim Aboul Futuh said on Al Jazeera. “If they were serious, the parliament would have been dissolved [and there would have been] a presidential decree ending the emergency law.”
Key demand: Lifting of emergency laws
Egypt’s emergency laws have been in place since Mubarak took power in the wake of Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981. Ostensibly designed to deal with the militant Islamist movements behind Sadat’s murder, they have been used ever since to extra-judicially detain tens of thousands of people, from peaceful Brotherhood members to labor activists to human rights workers, and to override the orders of the Egyptian courts.
Unlike the more complex question of constitutional reform, the emergency laws could be ended with the stroke of a pen. The fact that they remain, the core democracy activists say, hints at Suleiman’s ultimate intent.
Suleiman, who taken the lead in dealing with the opposition as Mubarak is relegated to lame-duck status, currently presides over security forces that continue to arbitrarily detain and torture activists from all sides.
He acknowledged last night that Wael Ghonim, a Google executive and a major online organizer of the protests who’s been missing for almost two weeks, has been in government detention. He was reportedly released today and joined protesters in Tahrir Square, according to Twitter updates.
Suleiman's vague promises
In his statement last night, Suleiman said “the state of emergency will be lifted based on the security situation and an end to the threats to the security of society.” That has essentially been the government’s position for the past 30 years, with new and vaguely defined threats to “security” found each year to maintain the supposedly temporary laws.
Suleiman’s statement also included vague promises of constitutional reform to allow for fair elections, a “peaceful transition of authority,” and investigations into the killings of activists.
In his statement, which was written as if fully supported by all of the opposition figures he met with, Suleiman praised Egypt’s democracy protesters while also ominously sticking with the government’s line of recent days that the uprising has somehow been stirred up by outside powers.
He referred to “foreign intervention into purely Egyptian affairs and breaches of security by foreign elements working to undermine stability in implementation of their plots.”
State television has been filled with warnings that Iranian, Palestinian, and Israeli plotters are behind Egypt’s largely spontaneous uprising, a message that has gained traction among large segments of Egyptian society.
Egyptians say protests fomented by outside powers
Outside Tahrir Square, a suspicious member of state intelligence stopped two journalists as they left. As he flipped through all 400 pictures on one of their cameras, he gestured towards the thousands of Egyptians massed yards away. “Those people aren’t Egyptians. They’re with foreigners sent here to destroy our country for money. The real Egyptians hate them,” he says.
Many who originally supported the uprising have been swayed by what they’ve seen on TV, says a member of a community watch group that sprang up in Shubra, a sprawling, working-class Cairo neighborhood, and now appears to be melting away as police return to work.
“They think all foreigners are spies now, and that the protesters are being used to destabilize Egypt,” he says by phone. “I can’t guarantee your safety or mine if you come over here.”