CAIRO // The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's strongest opposition group, is reportedly seeking to make a deal with the government in a bid to bring an end to recent efforts to dismantle the group. News reports last week said there were secretive talks between the two sides, with the government demanding the Brotherhood stop opposing local and regional policies and not run in next year's legislative elections, in exchange for a halt to the recent campaign against the group and the release of its senior leaders.
Analysts say the approach indicates the Brotherhood is on the defensive and the government, led by President Hosni Mubarak, might be winning the battle. "The Muslim Brotherhood are ready for dialogue even with those who are oppressing them," said Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the group's supreme leader, in his weekly message which was posted on the group's website on Thursday. "We believe that the wise men in the [ruling] National [Democratic] Party and the government must have a role in halting the rush toward the fall and abyss that the nation has been dragged in to. We will continue to extend our hand to all, pray to God to keep our country, to guide our leader to what's good," the message read.
Khalil al Anani, an Egyptian expert on the Muslim Brotherhood, said: "The group's appealing to the regime like this proves that their persecution and isolation have reached an alarming level. Just for the regime to ease its crackdown against them shows that the regime's strategy is winning, so why would they enter a dialogue with a them?" Mr Akef also hinted that the group might not put candidates forward for next year's legislative elections.
"This is one of the most serious issues in this message, why the group is giving up cards and making concessions to a regime that is suppressing them, not recognising them and most probably won't sit down with them. This reveals the group's weakness and confusion and will backfire," said Mr al Anani. However, both sides have denied the existence of any talks or deals. "The Brotherhood's method doesn't have the so called deals and bargains on principles and goals," reads a statement on the group's website. "This has never happened and the group has never accepted something like this no matter what the circumstances or the sacrifices."
Ali Eddin Helal, chairman of the media committee with the ruling National Democratic Party, said: "We can never strike deals with them [the Brotherhood]." He added that the party, as part of its policy, does not make any secret deals, with the Brotherhood or anybody else, and blamed the latest reports on the Islamist group, "which is trying to distract public opinion about their violation of law".
However, Mr Akef said Ahmad Raef, a former Brotherhood member, told him a few months ago that senior members of the government wanted to make an offer that would stop the Brotherhood running in the 2010 elections in exchange for releasing some of their members. "I, as the leader of the group, told him I agree in principle, but we have to sit and talk with these officials, in exchange for releasing our prisoners, not to send them to military trials, and to recognise us as a legitimate organisation and to discuss Egypt's interests," Mr Akef said. "I never heard back from him again."
Moves against the group have increased since May and a showdown has been looming. Thirty-three senior members of the group have been detained in the past three months. They face serious charges, which include money laundering, attempts to revive the group's international network and spying for foreign organisations. The Brotherhood and some analysts believe the main reason for the latest clampdown is because of the group's support for Hamas and Hizbollah.
The Brotherhood, which was founded in 1928, has been banned since 1954. Egyptian officials refer to them as "gamaa mahzoura" or "banned group" without referring to their name. Many young members of the Brotherhood are frustrated by what they perceive to be their leaders' acceptance of official repression. "Hypothetical question: what would happen if Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Mahdi Akef was arrested? Hypothetical answer: nothing," Mr al Anani wrote in a recent article in the Daily News Egypt titled Mubarak Regime and Brotherhood: Zero-Sum Game.
"Over the past few weeks about five members of the group's Guidance Office have been arrested - the first time since 1954, when the group was accused of attempting to assassinate president GamalAbdel Nasser," he wrote. The Brotherhood renounced violence in the 1970s and members contest elections as independents in order to get around the official ban on the group. In 2005 the Brotherhood shocked the government by winning 20 per cent of the seats in parliament.
The government started moving against the group in December 2006 and culminated last year in the arrest of several senior leaders. Now there are fears the same fate awaits those arrested this year. "Nobody knows what will happen exactly as the whole case and charges against them are political not legal," said Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, the group's main lawyer. "It's a very tense and complicated situation to predict or analyse," he added.
Mr al Anani said the problem the regime has with the Brotherhood is no longer electoral bickering or a media battle "but rather a problem of survival". Rafik Habib, a sociologist, yesterday wrote in Al Destour newspaper that the conflict between the two sides had a regional dimension. "The confrontation between the ruling regime and the Brotherhood is no longer over the group's political role or as a possible alternative to the regime, but because the group plays an important role in most Arab and Islamic countries through its agenda, which opposes the [official] Egyptian agenda in all the region, and which has led to the open war between the two."
email@example.com * With additional reporting by the Associated Press