Pressure points (Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt))

Recent developments suggest the possibility of a thaw in relations between the state and political Islam. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi recently met with three members of the Dissident Muslim Brothers, a breakaway group from the Muslim Brotherhood.There is also a reconciliation initiative, proposed by Tarek Al-Bishri, between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood. The legal scholar, known to be close to the Islamist trend, hopes the initiatives will attract Saudi backing.
At the same time, however, heavy sentences have been handed down to Muslim Brotherhood leaders, most notably the group’s Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie and his deputy, Kheirat Al-Shater.
The developments happened against a backdrop of terrorist atrocities. On Monday a bomb was detonated beneath a vehicle parked close to the Higher Judiciary House building in downtown Cairo. It left two dead and nine injured.
On the same day, two bombs went off beneath a police vehicle parked beside the Zahraa Al-Maadi police station. The double explosion came hot on the heels of an explosion close to Nozha police station in Heliopolis, which damaged a police vehicle and two private cars.
On Tuesday morning two bombs, said to weigh ten kilos each, exploded in Matareya, destroying ten cars but causing no casualities.
Speaking to the press following the meeting between Al-Sisi and Dissident Muslim Brothers, Tharwat Al-Kharbawi said those attending agreed that a reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood is unrealistic.
Al-Kharbawi described the three-hour meeting as “an extraordinary meeting with an extraordinary man …You can rest assured that Egypt is in good hands. But we all have to work together to ensure he is not left alone.”
The two other Dissident Muslim Brother members present for the talks were Mukhtar Nuh and Kamal Al-Helbawi.
As for admissions of repentance on the part of young Muslim Brotherhood members, these would be welcome on the condition that they are issued publicly and that they had not engaged in any terrorist activities.
Observers viewed the president’s meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood dissidents as a reflection of his eagerness to communicate with all shades of public opinion in order to promote a climate of political consensus.
Brotherhood dissident Khaled Al-Zafrani notes that this was not the first meeting of its kind. Ten days earlier, Al-Sisi met with a group of different ex-Brothers within the framework of a series of meetings with representatives of different sectors of society.
Al-Zafrani told the press that the statements of repentance issued by some detainees was discussed. He said Al-Sisi welcomed the recantations. He quoted the president as saying that the principle of revision, admission of mistakes and repentance is acceptable as long as those issuing the declarations have not committed criminal acts.
Security sources report a growing number of imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood members are renouncing their membership of the group. Muslim Brotherhood leaders deny there is any such trend.
The president’s many meetings with members of the Dissident Muslim Brothers have addressed the need to bring religious rhetoric under control and to learn from the mistakes of the past, says Al-Zafrani, as well as discussing how young breakaway Muslim Brothers might help in these tasks.
The Tarek Al-Bishri initiative came to public attention when Al-Bishri was interviewed by the Anatolia news agency. During the interview Al-Bishri urged Saudi Arabi to intervene to alleviate political tensions in Egypt.
He also spoke of the January revolution, parliamentary elections and the importance of safeguarding the Egyptian state. “The continued existence of the state in Egypt is vital … we must preserve and perpetuate it through the participation of the people,” he said.
Al-Bishri argued that the ongoing conflict in Egypt is between three forces: the state and its backbone; the army’ Islamists and their grassroots organisations; and liberal elites who control the media. “The state, which is the strongest, should reach out to all,” he said.
Al-Bishri’s remarks to the Turkish news agency, which coincided with President Al-Sisi’s arrival in Saudi Arabia at the same time as his Turkish counterpart, raise several questions about the future of the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the government.
But many Dissident Muslim Brothers suspect Al-Bishri’s motives in encouraging Saudi Arabia to press for reconciliation. “There is no point whatsoever in peace initiatives. Al-Bishri’s intentions are not good,” said one.
Since the January Revolution, when Al-Bishri first became involved in the Constitutional Declaration, he has consistently tried to turn every development to the advantage of the Brotherhood, argues Al-Zafrani.
Meanwhile, 14 senior Brotherhood members have been sentenced to life imprisonment. Among them are Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie, his deputy Kheirat Al-Shater, former Supreme Guide Mahdi Akef, the Justice and Freedom Party’s former People’s Assembly speaker Saad Al-Katatni, Mohamed Al-Beltagui, Essam Al-Arian and Rashad Al-Bayoumi. The verdicts can be appealed.
The defendants faced charges of murder, incitement to murder, attempted murder, possession of firearms and incitement to violence. This is Badie’s fourth life sentence. He has also received a death sentence, which was later revoked and a retrial ordered.
Badie is awaiting verdicts in two further cases: one involving espionage, the other for breaking out of jail. Former president Mohamed Morsi is a co-defendant in both trials. Badie, Shater and 197 others also face a military trial on charges relating to violence that left 30 dead in the governorate of Suez.
In the confrontation between the state and political Islam, pressure is being sustained, on the one side, by long prison terms for Muslim Brotherhood leaders. On the other, there are bombings and violence being carried out by anti-state, pro-Islamist forces, considered by the state to be linked to the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.
It is a game of nerves in which each side is seeking to strengthen its hand for whatever negotiations eventually ensue.
Certainly, Al-Sisi’s meetings with leaders from breakaway Muslim Brothers and reports that the new Saudi monarch is eager to settle the situation in Egypt suggest some form of social, if not political, reconciliation is increasingly likely.