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.
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.
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?"