CAIRO // The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group, offered its support yesterday to the political reform campaign of Mohammed ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and possible presidential hopeful.
Mr ElBaradei yesterday met Mohammed Said al Katatni, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood's bloc in parliament, to discuss co-operation between the Islamist group and Mr ElBaradei's National Association for Change, which is pushing for political reforms ahead of the presidential election next year. If such co-operation succeeds, it could defy generations of mutual suspicion between secular campaigns for liberal political reform and the powerful Islamist group. Egypt's more established opposition parties have long kept the Brotherhood and its relatively conservative Islamist ideology at arm's length.
While the meeting followed a failed bid by Brotherhood members this week to win a single seat in the Shura Council election, Egypt's upper house of parliament, Mr al Katatni said his group's poor showing was not the impetus behind yesterday's meeting, which he described as part of a continuing dialogue between his organisation and the National Association for Change. Both Mr ElBaradei and Mr al Katatni said the election results were further proof of the regime's continued corruption and its stranglehold on power.
Brotherhood members said the two groups decided to meet again on Thursday to discuss future co-ordination, which could see Egyptian Islamists collect signatures in support of Mr ElBaradei's campaign to open Egypt's autocratic political system. In statements to the media after the meeting, Mr al Katatni was careful to say that while the Brotherhood would support Mr ElBaradei's movement to reform the constitution and open Egyptian politics to genuine competition, they will not necessarily back his potential candidacy in the 2011 presidential elections. Mr al Katatni said talk of elections were premature.
"First of all we are not supporting a man, we are supporting the institution," said Essam el Erian, a leading member of the Brotherhood, in a telephone interview yesterday. "[Mr ElBaradei] is not looking to the presidency now. He's looking to change the rules and principles of participation and democratic rules. We are all supporting such change. The way has been blocked for any independent [candidate] until now."
After 12 years as the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mr ElBaradei returned to Egypt in February to a groundswell of popular support for his reform demands, which include ending Egypt's nearly 30-year emergency law, inviting foreign observers to monitor elections and amending the constitution to allow political independents to run in presidential elections. In the months following his return, some of Egypt's more established but under-represented secular political opposition parties expressed disappointment at Mr ElBaradei's reluctance to fully engage them in his campaign.
The Muslim Brotherhood is officially illegal despite its members holding one-fifth of the seats in Egypt's People's Assembly, the lower house of parliament, as independents. Like Egypt's secular opposition, the Brotherhood has long campaigned for political reforms that would allow them to compete openly in elections against the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which has dominated Egyptian politics for more than 30 years.
Some analysts said the importance of yesterday's meeting should not be overstated. Diaa Rashwan, a political expert with Egypt's semi-official Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said the meeting demonstrated the Brotherhood's political, but not ideological, support for Mr ElBaradei and his campaign. The fact that the conference took place in the Brotherhood's parliamentary headquarters - instead of in the main guidance bureau offices several blocks away - reveals that the organisation's top leaders have yet to throw their full support behind Mr ElBaradei's campaign.
"You have real differences between [Brotherhood] leaders and members of parliament despite that Mohammed al Katatni is a member of the guidance bureau," said Mr Rashwan. "But the leader, the general guide, was not at the meeting. All those are symbols that we are not seeing a real agreement between the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohammed ElBaradei." On one level, he said, Mr ElBaradei may be attempting to atone for initially overlooking Egypt's more secular opposition groups, which together claim only nine seats in a parliament dominated by the NDP.
Mr ElBaradei "despised their weaknesses", he said of the groups whose negligible political representation amounts to a sort of loyal opposition to the NDP. "Perhaps he discovered his faults and is trying to correct some of them," Mr Rashwan said of Mr ElBaradei's lack of engagement with the opposition. "Twenty or 25 years ago, we had real representation from the Tagammu, Al Wafd and Nasserist parties in Egyptian political life. They are the sons and the extension of a real political force that existed in this country throughout the 20th century. You cannot ignore these people. He made a mistake."