Abdel Fattah el Sisi, the president of Egypt, has imprisoned most of his opponents and won a new presidential term in a rigged poll. But Sisi still feels political insecurity, which might force him to reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Muslim Brotherhood was quick to deny reports that emerged in February that some of its imprisoned leaders had been in talks with the government of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el Sisi for a possible reconciliation.
Sisi, the former military chief, had toppled the popular government of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi five years ago, launched a brutal crackdown against its activists and jailed tens of thousands of them.
There have been no negotiations with the “fascist military regime,” the movement said in a statement, but at the same time they did not strike down the possibility of such negotiations taking place in future, placing Morsi as the ultimate interlocutor for future talks.
“... Mohamed Morsi will be in charge of any contacts or negotiations of any kind ...”
It has slowly become obvious that the two sides did establish contact at some point over the past year. However, the negotiations didn’t work out because Sisi was trying to bypass Morsi, something unacceptable to Morsi’s loyal supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Sisi sent emissaries to a prison to talk to some Muslim Brotherhood leaders. One of the envoys was an Egyptian ex-general. We can’t name him,” Hamza Zawba, a former spokesman of the Freedom and Justice Party, which was the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, told TRT World.
Egypt’s regime wanted to extract a commitment from the leaders that they give some kind of recognition to Sisi's government. But the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood had a unanimous response, says Zawba.
“Go talk to the president, Morsi.”
From behind bars, Morsi has persistently insisted that he is still the democratically elected leader of the country and has refused to recognise Sisi’s government, which Morsi’s followers continue to resist in spite of facing threats.
On the other hand, Sisi has consolidated his hold over the country especially by winning a controversial presidential election earlier this year — making it anyone’s guess whether the two political heavyweights can negotiate.
This is not the first time a dictatorial regime in Egypt has approached the embattled Muslim Brotherhood for legitimising its rule over the country.
Egypt’s autocratic leaders from Gamal Abdul Nasser and Enver Sadat to Hosni Mubarak all sought reconciliation with the group at one point or another as a hedge against growing social unrest.
“There are signs about ongoing talks,” between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood, says Mehmet Bulovali, an Iraqi political analyst, who has long been a member of the movement's Iraqi branch.
According to Zawba, the former spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, Sisi is trying to use jailed activists as a bargaining chip to get maximum concessions.
One of Egypt’s most powerful businessmen, who owns an Egyptian TV channel, also visited the movement’s former senior leader, late Mohammed Mahdi Akef, in a prison hospital, according to Zawba.
“They discussed the possibility of some kind of reconciliation,” said Zawba without naming the businessman.
The coup, led by Sisi, resulted in the death of more than 1,150 people, most of whom were Brotherhood supporters.
The August 14, 2013, killings are now known as the Rabaa Massacre. The regime has also jailed tens of thousands of people, most of whom are Muslim Brotherhood supporters and suppressed any dissent using extreme measures.
By sending his envoys to Muslim Brotherhood leadership, Sisi could also possibly be seeking to exploit internal disagreements within the movement, experts say.
“While the Muslim Brotherhood is a disciplined group, it has always contained factions that differ on policy issues. Some of these factions were active even after the July 3 coup [that removed Morsi],” said Ismail Yaylaci, a political science professor at Istanbul Sehir University, who studies Muslim political movements in the Islamic world.
“[One of the main factions said] it was a mistake for us to be involved in politics; let’s go make a deal with the regime. They say, ‘Let’s be a community that invites people, who have nothing to do with politics, to the ways of God.’ This is a group of old members who have spent time with Sayyid Qutb in jails in the 1970s,” Yaylaci told TRT World.
Qutb was one of the most influential thinkers of political Islam and a prominent leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 60s before he was executed by Nasser, who cooperated with the movement in his early political career.
But another faction dominated by a younger generation insists that the movement should remain involved with democratic politics, says Yaylaci. They argue for a political vision which is “the voice of the opposition” in Egypt.
There are also those in the Muslim Brotherhood among the youth who advocate picking up arms against the regime’s brutality, Yaylaci said.
“Maybe it was the members of this older generation who were involved in these [reconciliation] talks,” Yaylaci says.
The Sisi regime will also likely be inclined to negotiate with a Muslim Brotherhood faction that wants to steer clear of politics and not pose any challenge to the status quo.
Akef, the Brotherhood leader, who had personally met Hasan al Banna, the founder of the movement, also belongs to its older cadre.
Yaylaci says the Sisi government would be more keen on negotiating with the faction that wants to give up politics. “If you say you will exist in the political arena as well, then negotiations would be harsher and harder.”
Through negotiations and by applying the playbook of his autocratic predecessors, Sisi might play one faction against another.
A compromise with the Egyptian state might have a demoralising effect on the Muslim Brotherhood social base and might even deepen its divisions, experts say.
What will the movement do?
Bulovali, an Iraqi Kurdish Brotherhood member, criticises the movement’s decades-old two-headed leadership, and says the Brotherhood should adopt a complete political agenda identical to Turkey’s AK Party, which has won back-to-back elections since 2002.
“A movement like the Muslim Brotherhood can not vocally defend two opposing views at the same time. Either you will advocate a full political agenda or withdraw from the political arena entirely. That’s the way it is,” Bulovali said.
“If the movement wants to come to power (or at least wants to be relevant in politics), it needs to fix ordinary people’s problems.” The masses care more about economics and social policies than ideological fights, Bulovali says.
“If you do not have a unified leadership, you will easily be divided and manipulated when powers that be hit you hard [as it has happened since the Egyptian coup].”
Zawba, the former spokesman of the Freedom and Justice Party, also advocates that political parties should not depend on a particular community whether it’s an organisation like the Muslim Brotherhood or a religious institution like the Coptic church.
“Jemaats [assemblies] should not play a direct political role. They should not form parties. My party should not be dependent on the Muslim Brotherhood,” Zawba says.
“Everybody makes mistakes, and we made mistakes. But at the time, we had no other option.”
Last year in an interview with TRT World , Talaat Fehmi, the spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood, took pains in discussing the group’s current stance on the Egyptian regime. He was more eager to discuss the group’s ideology.
“The first thing we need to do is the right thing, which can not have a time limit. The right will follow its own course no matter what time it is,” Fehmi said in a classic Brotherhood rhetoric.
But when approached for this article, Fehmi sounded more reconciliatory, despite strongly denying that any talks had taken place between Sisi and the movement.
“The Muslim Brotherhood has said this before that it is ready for a solution that would get the country out of this crisis but that it also respects and is not against the Egyptian constitution,” Fehmi told TRT World.
The country’s secular constitution was introduced by Sisi in early 2014 after the military coup.
Two months ago, Yusuf Neda, the Brotherhood’s former top diplomat, told Anadolu Agency that the movement is ready for talks with Sisi.
"We are ready and open to deal with anyone. This does not mean we have to surrender," said Neda, who also belongs to the movement’s older generation.
Long before the recent reconciliation reports, Sisi has given indications for a possible reconciliation.
“This country is big enough to accommodate all of us. They are part of Egypt, so the Egyptian people must decide what role they can play,” Sisi said in November 2015.
In last year’s interview, Fehmi pointed out an important Brotherhood rule regarding Egyptian politics. “The nation is more important than the party [Muslim Brotherhood],” he said.
But he also emphasised that the country’s political leadership can not disregard a countrywide reality that the Muslim political movement, the country’s biggest social force, is powerfully “embedded” in Egyptian society.
While this is happening Sisi is confronted with a struggling economy and persistent militant attacks, which some experts say might explain why the regime is intent on wooing some part of the movement.
Under Sisi’s leadership, ordinary Egyptians have been suffering from high inflation, increasing food prices and high youth unemployment.
Sisi’s infamous mega projects are not doing well either. In 2015, Sisi announced a new capital city, which was supposed to provide housing to millions, in the middle of Egypt’s eastern desert. But the project is faltering and is well behind its planned schedule.
“The more he [Sisi] fails, the more he will try to develop an understanding with the Brotherhood,” Zawba said.
Melis Alemdar, Sabrien Amrov and Tahir Erzak contributed to this story.