Rumblings Of A Deal Between Sisi And Muslim Brotherhood

Though both parties deny it, there have been rumors and a number of signs pointing to a possible reconciliation between the Egyptian government and the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Peace in Egypt, finally?
Peace in Egypt, finally?
Mai Shams el-Din

CAIRO — The political future of Egypt's Islamist groups is still uncertain, as rumors of closed-door meetings ahead of the parliamentary elections have prompted both Islamists and government officials to vigorously deny that their relationship is on the mend.

Since 2013, Muslim Brotherhood members and their allies have refused to engage in the military-engineered roadmap to a new democratic government, maintaining that any such engagement would be contingent on ousted President Mohamed Morsi's return to power. This position hardened against the backdrop of a harsh crackdown on Islamist groups over the past year, including the violent dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya and Nahda Square protest camps in August 2013, the December ban on the Muslim Brotherhood, and the more than 1,000 death sentences handed down against alleged Brotherhood members.

But with parliamentary elections approaching, various media reports have alluded to under-the-table negotiations between the military and the Brotherhood to reach some form of political reconciliation. Though the veracity of these reports remains contested, the question does seem to be on some players' minds.

The release of a few high-profile Brotherhood members from prison could indicate a potential accord, some analysts say. Former parliament member and adamant Brotherhood supporter Mohamed al-Omda was recently freed pending investigations into violence and terrorism charges, as was moderate Brotherhood leader Helmy al-Gazzar and former Prime Minister Hesham Qandil.

Speaking at a press expand=1] conference after his release, Omda outlined a reconciliation plan that he claimed had the approval of various imprisoned Brotherhood leaders. Omda's plan included acknowledging President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as a legitimate, if transitional, head of state until a new president is elected, in exchange for the release of all Brotherhood detainees and the inclusion of the outlawed group in the political process.

Omda's comments resonated with former parliament member, judge and Brotherhood supporter Mahmoud al-Khoudairy. While on trial alongside other senior Brotherhood members on charges of violent crimes, he told journalists that many imprisoned Islamist leaders believe that reconciliation with the state is necessary, and that reinstating Morsi is not the right demand to make. He declined to identify the leaders suporting this position.

Another purported sign of reconciliation is the Wasat Party and Watan Party's recent withdrawal from the National Alliance Supporting Legitimacy, a Brotherhood-led umbrella coalition composed of Islamist political allies. Media reports suggested this splintering off might show that Islamist forces are bracing for a new agreement with the Sisi administration ahead of parliamentary elections.

Trying to deal?

Gamal al-Melessy, personal assistant to Watan Party head Emad Abdel Ghaffour, told the privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm that Ghaffour led indirect negotiations between the Sisi administration and Brotherhood leaders in Turkey last month, but to avail. The government asked the party to withdraw from the legitimacy coalition as a condition for participating in the parliamentary elections, according to Melessy.

In addition, Jama'a al-Islamiya leader Aboud al-Zomor, who is also a major Brotherhood ally, wrote in an article that, for Islamists, the upcoming parliamentary elections represent one last chance "through which a unified front can defend the rights of the prisoners and the martyrs, and stand against the many evils of legislations." The Construction and Development Party, Jama'a al-Islamiya's political arm, said that it will look into Zomor's suggestion.

An article by Islamist preacher Ragheb al-Sirgany, who is also close to the Brotherhood, has been read as yet another sign of a growing desire for rapprochement. In a statement titled "God knows better about the unjust people," published on his website, Sirgany exhorted his followers to acknowledge the legitimacy of Sisi's presidency. There should be a distinction between oppressive Muslim rulers and oppressive non-Muslim rulers, Sirgany added, hinting that Sisi might be an oppressor, but he is still Muslim, and thus Muslims are obliged to acknowledge him.

But the preacher's article drew widespread condemnation from Brotherhood circles. Anger among Brotherhood youth against Sirgany has continued to mount, and many Brotherhood scholars and supporters have published retaliatory articles.

Working both ways

It's not just Brotherhood members holding out an olive branch. State officials have been trying to negotiate with Islamist forces over the past year, claims Khaled al-Sherif, spokesperson for the Egyptian Revolutionary Council umbrella group headed by Brotherhood members abroad.

"There have been no direct negotiations with the Brotherhood and the regime, but rather the regime had many mediators, including leaders in the Jama'a al-Islamiya, Political Science Professor Hassan Nafaa and Islamist thinker Ahmed Kamal Abul Magd," Sherif says, speaking by phone from Turkey.

Sisi is the one who holds the key to any reconciliation, he insists.

These talks seem to have cast a shadow on Brotherhood youth, judging from their statements on social media. Recently, a tug-of-war broke out between Brotherhood member Ahmed al-Moghier and Aisha al-Shater, daughter of imprisoned Brotherhood leader and business tycoon Khairat al-Shater.

Moghier, who has actively defended the Brotherhood on social media both during and after Morsi's rule, criticized the release of Islamist leaders from prison and Omda's reconciliation initiative as a strong sign of "deception" committed by Brotherhood leaders abroad. He accused self-exiled Brotherhood leaders Amr Darrag, Mohamed Ali Beshr, Yehia Hamed and Ibrahim Mounir as being involved in negotiations with the Sisi administration, talks that he claimed were sanctioned by Western powers.

Aisha al-Shater lambasted Moghier for his remarks, saying he knows nothing of the Brotherhood's internal affairs.

The denials

Meanwhile, Brotherhood leaders and other Islamist figures maintain that no reconciliation is on the horizon, denying that the recent developments are signs of changing relations.

Watan Party spokesperson Yousry Hammad, for instance, refutes reports that the party walked out of the National Alliance Supporting Legitimacy in order to take part in parliamentary elections and re-align itself with the current government.

"We would love to participate, but on what grounds? There are no signs that the regime is serious about democracy and accountability while blood continues to be spilled in the streets," Hammad asserts.

The party made a expand=1] statement after withdrawing from the alliance explaining that it is still committed to the coalition's core values.

Hammad also decries media reports of a possible reconciliation as state-authored fabrications.

The Wasat Party also emphasized that its withdrawal from the legitimacy alliance is not a part of a deal with the government, but rather an attempt to form a wider coalition with both Islamist and secular revolutionary voices opposing the Sisi administration. But the Islamist party, whose founders Essam Sultan and Abu al-Ela Mady are both incarcerated, declined to mention which forces with which it would ally.

A strongly worded statement issued by Muslim Brotherhood coordinator Mahmoud Hussein also refuted any reconciliation attempts.

"The group is not party of, and will never be a part of, any frivolity threatening the future of the people. The group is also not concerned by the suspicious media campaign that is only aimed at making criminals evade the justice they deserve," Hussein said.

But in the end, forging a path to reconciliation may not be in the hands of the Sisi administration or the Brotherhood, suggests London-based political commentator Mohamed Hany.

"Sisi built his legitimacy solely on ousting the Brotherhood and accusing them of terrorism," Hany says. "Any reconciliation means sacrificing this legitimacy. On the other hand, the Brotherhood's discourse and mobilization against the regime reached its peak. Reconciliation would threaten the unity of the organization, because the rank and file will not accept that."

Sisi would never initiate reconciliation, Hany says, unless his base of legitimacy shifted from ousting the Brotherhood to achieving significant social and economic goals.

On the other hand, Hany acknowledges that including the Brotherhood's allies in the political process ahead of parliamentary elections could be a useful strategy for the government to show the international community that Egypt is on the right democratic path.

"The regime aims to isolate the Brotherhood rather than negotiate with them," he says. "There is increasing international pressure on the Brotherhood to slow down on its mobilization, especially after the U.S. campaign to fight the Islamic State."

But Houzaifa Zobaa, son of Brotherhood leader Hamza Zobaa, contends that any talk of reconciliation is simply a test.

"Releasing some Brotherhood figures is an attempt of rapprochement from the state toward the Brotherhood, not the other way around," Zobaa says. "The state has 40,000 detainees. Only three were freed. What’s the advantage here?"

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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