CAIRO (AFP) – Egypt’s influential Muslim Brotherhood agreed to join talks with President Hosni Mubarak’s embattled regime Sunday, a historic turning point in relations between the state and the banned group.
The army stepped up pressure overnight on the protesters who have occupied central Cairo’s Tahrir Square, tightening a cordon around the area, but on the political front new avenues of dialogue opened up.
Protesters celebrated a mass in the square — the epicentre and symbol of the revolt against the regime to remember the estimated 300 people who have been killed since demonstrations against Mubarak began.
“God bless the dead. God bless the dead,” recited a Coptic priest wearing a crucifix. By his side, a Muslim sheikh stood holding a Koran, as the faithful chanted “A single hand. A single hand” in inter-faith solidarity.
Meanwhile, a measure of normal life began to return to the biggest city in the Arab world, with queues forming in front of banks that had been shut for more than a week and workmen scrubbing down shop fronts.
The Brotherhood, a well-organised Islamist movement, has long been banned from Egyptian politics. That Mubarak’s camp has been forced to invite its bitter foe to talks is a sign of the opposition’s mounting strength.
“We will join the talks today,” senior Brotherhood official Essam el-Erian told AFP, adding that the meeting would begin before midday (1000 GMT).
Egypt’s newly-appointed vice president, former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, has agreed to meet opposition groups, including the Brothers, to discuss democratic reforms leading to elections to replace Mubarak.
Erian told AFP that the group would take part, but warned it would drop out if there is no one to represent the Tahrir Square protesters.
“We have been invited. We will go. But our participation is conditional on giving the youth representation,” he said. “If the demands of the youth are not met, we have the right to reconsider our position.”
The Brotherhood is officially banned in Egypt, but its vast social aid network is tolerated and serves as the basis of a well-organised opposition movement which fields parliamentary candidates as independents.
Negotiations were to begin amid high-level manoeuvres at the heart of Mubarak’s three-decades-old regime, where wealthy business leaders close to his son Gamal Mubarak appear to have been sidelined in favour of military figures.
The executive committee of the ruling National Democratic Party resigned en masse on Sunday, including Gamal, once viewed as Mubarak’s heir apparent.
Protesters rejected this as a meaningless gesture, insisting their goal is still to force Mubarak from office immediately, rather than wait for September, when the strongman has vowed to step aside for elections.
The crisis has given US President Barack Obama’s administration a policy headache, forcing it to confront the consequences of Washington’s long-term support for Middle East autocrats in exchange for security guarantees.
Obama spoke Saturday to several foreign leaders about the unrest in Egypt and underscored the need for “an orderly, peaceful transition, beginning now,” the White House said in a statement.
The US leader spoke to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, the statement said.
Cameron and Obama agreed that “real, visible and meaningful change needed to start now” in Egypt, a Downing Street spokesman said.
“The prime minister said that a clear and credible roadmap to change was needed as soon as possible, including a path to free and fair elections,” the spokesman added, but both capitals shied clear of calling for Mubarak to go.
Citing unnamed US and Egyptian officials, the New York Times reported that Suleiman and Egyptian military leaders want Mubarak to make a graceful exit.
Under the US-backed plan, Mubarak’s powers would be scaled back enabling the creation of a transitional government headed by Suleiman to negotiate reforms with the opposition, the paper reported.