CAIRO — Two former militant groups offered to call off street protests if the government agrees to ease its pressure on Islamists, a move that underscores how a onetime strong Islamist movement is now bowing to an unprecedented crackdown by security authorities.
The proposal comes after the military rounded up hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and other Islamists in the wake of the country’s worst bout of violence, which followed the Aug. 14 clearing of two sprawling sit-in camps housing protesters calling for the reinstatement of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected leader.
Trial opened for the Brotherhood’s supreme leader Mohammed Badie and two other senior officials on Sunday on charges of inciting the murder of anti-Morsi protesters on June 30, the anniversary of his inauguration when millions took to the street to call on him to step down. The first day of their trial coincided with the retrial of ex-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in a popular uprising in 2011, over similar charges.
Critics say the truce proposal reflects cracks within the Islamist alliance led by the Brotherhood, with much of its leadership either imprisoned or on the run.
“They want to lift pressure on their groups and jump off the Muslim Brotherhood boat that is sinking right now,” said veteran journalist and analyst Makram Mohammed Ahmed. “Everyone is searching for a way out but this too late.”
Morsi supporters previously have insisted on the reversal of three moves by the military — Morsi’s return to power, the lifting of the suspension of Islamist-drafted constitution and the restoration of the only legislative council under Morsi, as three preconditions to talks.
However Islamic Jihad leader Mohammed Abu Samra told The Associated Press that the proposed truce has no “red lines.”
“We are paving the way for talks,” Abu Samra said by telephone. “We can’t hold talks while we are at the points of swords in the midst of killings and crackdowns.” He said the groups were “extending their hands” to avoid a bloodier confrontation with the military, which he accuses of “defaming” the Brotherhood in the media and mosques.
Asked about Morsi’s return to power, he said, “blood is more treasured than seats of power … we are no long upholding return of the constitutional legitimacy.”
Top Brotherhood negotiator Amr Darrag also said his group is open to talks but needs “confidence-building measures,” such as an investigation into the killings of hundreds of Morsi supporters over the past month. However, he added, “the other side didn’t show a single gesture or any sign that it is ready for dialogue. It only talks about it.”
The interim president’s office could not immediately be reached for comment. But on Saturday, Egypt’s Interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi told reporters that security measures will not be enough on their own and that Egypt “must go down the political path” to work out a democratic transition through reconciliation.
He ruled out talks with anyone who had committed acts of violence, however.
Members of the Brotherhood lashed out after Morsi’s July 3 ouster in a military coup, which came as millions of Egyptians called on him to step down because of his alleged abuse of power. In the largely lawless northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, security forces have been attacked almost daily as towns near the border with Israel and the Gaza Strip have become hideouts and strongholds of Islamic extremists.
The current bout of violence was set off when security forces backed by snipers and armored vehicles broke up two sprawling pro-Morsi protest camps on Aug. 14. More than 1,000 people, most Morsi supporters, were killed in the raids and other violence over the next several days. Morsi’s supporters retaliated by attacking dozens of police stations, torching churches and government buildings.
Authorities declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew in Cairo and several other areas to try to quell the violence.
The crackdown continued Monday, as the state news agency announced the arrest of former youth minister and senior Brotherhood member Osama Yassin. Several of the group’s leaders are still on the run, including Mohammed el-Beltagy, Essam el-Erian and one of Gamaa Islamiyah’s leaders Assem Abdel-Maged.
Meanwhile, scattered anti-military protests took place across the country with Muslim Brotherhood supporters raising yellow signs depicting “four fingers,” the symbol that has been adopted to commemorate Rabaah el-Adawiya, the name of the main encampment that was dispersed violently by security forces.
The Gamaa Islamiya and Islamic Jihad movements both led an anti-government insurgency in 1990s that led to killings of hundreds of tourists, Christians and policemen. In return, three generations of the groups were jailed and spent decades in prison during which they renounced violence.
The groups’ top leaders also were at the forefront of pro-Morsi’s street demonstrations, aimed at showing magnitude of the president’s influence, but now leaders say the bid aims to break the cycle of violence after thousands were killed, injured and rounded up in arrests nationwide.
The Brotherhood has lost much public support and is now largely resented by the general population. Its offices and Brotherhood-owned businesses have been attacked, while Egypt’s media — almost uniformly against it since the closure of Islamist TV stations — describes the group as “terrorist.”
In one incident Monday, authorities arrested the head of a kindergarten in the Nile Delta city of Kafr el-Zayat after parents complained she was teaching children pro-Morsi songs and anti-military chants, a security official said. Hours later, the head was released.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
The military-backed government is pushing with fast track transition plan to return to democratic rule. The plan includes a 10-member-panel of legal experts appointed by the interim government to propose changes to the 2012 constitution. It will then be approved by a 50-member panel of public figures before going to a vote. Presidential and parliamentary elections are expected early next year.
Meanwhile, the ultraconservative al-Nour party which was the only Islamist political faction to support Morsi’s ouster, said it will join a 50-member panel tasked to review the charter, saying it hopes to defend key Islamic references added to the text, which was approved in a in public referendum under Morsi.