Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam el-Eryan said today that Egyptian opposition groups have agreed to back former IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei to negotiate with the government, Al Jazeera reports:
Egypt's opposition groups have agreed to support opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei to negotiate with the government, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood said on Sunday.
"Political groups support ElBaradei to negotiate with the regime," Essam el-Eryan told Al Jazeera.
This move by Egyptian opposition groups potentially offers a peaceful path out of the crisis not only for the Egyptian government, but also for the United States government, which is finding itself the object of increasingly bitter criticism from Egyptians who back the protesters' call for Mubarak to step down and see the policy of the United States of backing Mubarak as a key obstacle to the realization of their aspirations for free and fair elections. Failure to take advantage of this opportunity could lead to a bloody showdown in the streets - even worse than what we have seen already - for which the U.S. would bear significant responsibility.
One path to the holding of free and fair elections would be the establishment of a transitional government to prepare the elections. Yesterday, US officials seemed to indicate support for this possibility. The New York Times reported:
Another possibility, American officials say, would be a transitional government led by an outsider, perhaps Mohamed ElBaradei, the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who flew back to Cairo several days ago. [...]
A frequent critic of United States policy, he could form a caretaker government in preparation for an election. As one American official said, "He's shown an independence from us that will squelch any argument that he's doing our bidding."
U.S. officials have said that the Egyptian government should engage in dialogue with the opposition. Now, apparently, there's a proposal on the table from opposition parties for such dialogue. What the opposition parties want to talk about is establishing a path to free and fair elections - the same thing they have been demanding for months.
The proposal from the opposition parties for negotiations with the government is an opportunity for the U.S. to "put its money where its mouth is." The US could publicly call on, and privately pressure, the Egyptian government to respond to the opposition parties' call for negotiations.
Of course, many want the US government to do much more than this. They want the US and other Western allies of the Egyptian government to publicly condemn Mubarak, publicly call on Mubarak to step down, and indeed to try to force Mubarak out; and many are increasingly frustrated that the U.S. is not even willing to condemn Mubarak.
The Washington Post reports today:
In the streets of Cairo, many protesters are now openly denouncing the United States for supporting President Hosni Mubarak, saying the price has been their freedom. They say the Obama administration has offered only tepid criticism of a regime that has received billions of dollars in U.S. aid.
The New York Times reported yesterday that the U.S. says it does not want to call for Mubarak to step down because 1) it fears losing all leverage with Mubarak 2) it fears creating a power vacuum in Egypt 3) it wants to avoid the perception that the U.S. was "once again" engineering the ouster of a Middle East leader.
Regardless of whether one believes that these stated reasons are the full story, or whether they are also a cover for other U.S. motivations - the Times acknowledges that the administration's "restraint" is also driven by lack of enthusiasm for "dealing with an Egypt without Mubarak" - these are the stated reasons of the U.S. for not responding to the protesters' call.
But publicly and privately backing the opposition parties' call for negotiations would not, on the face of it, trigger any of the stated U.S. objections. It is a very modest demand, totally consistent with previous U.S. statements, which would not plausibly lead to "losing all leverage" with Mubarak; it would not create a "power vacuum"; it would not reasonably lead to a perception that the U.S. was "engineering" Mubarak's ouster. On the contrary: the U.S. would be raising the profile of a particular proposal for negotiations as a way out of the crisis, and increasing pressure on the Egyptian government to respond to it.
No doubt some folks who subscribe to the "cooties" school of international diplomacy may object to any U.S. endorsement of a process that involves the Muslim Brotherhood. But refusing to support this reasonable, pragmatic, and moderate proposal, just because the Muslim Brotherhood also supports it, would be extremely short-sighted. The Brotherhood brings a lot to the table in its potential to help peacefully establish a consensus government that could supervise elections that the majority of Egyptians would see as legitimate.
And the fact that the Brotherhood is endorsing ElBaradei to negotiate with the Egyptian government on its behalf indicates a key thing that ElBaradei brings to the table: since his return to Egyptian politics, ElBaradei has established a relationship of trust with the Brotherhood. This is a key asset for ElBaradei, the Brotherhood, and all Egyptians going forward towards the establishment of free and fair elections and of a government that the majority of Egyptians will see as legitimate.
The U.S. should take advantage of this asset, and of this proposal for negotiations, and act decisively to forestall a bloody confrontation between protesters and forces loyal to Mubarak which could be significantly worse than what we have seen already, and for which the U.S. would bear substantial responsibility.