A leaderless uprising in Egypt rallied Sunday around Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, with the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition group, saying it will support him in negotiations with President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
“Political groups support ElBaradei to negotiate with the regime,” Essam el-Eryan, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, told Al Jazeera television as anti-government protests entered their sixth day on Sunday. The Muslim Brotherhood, which joined the protests after they were well under way, has begun to take a more active role.
Mr. ElBaradei, who had been placed under house arrest since his return to Egypt last week, joined thousands of protesters who defied a government curfew in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Sunday. “What we started can never be pushed back,” he told them.
Egypt is the United States’ closest Arab ally, and the threat to Mr. Mubarak’s regime has created unease in Washington and other world capitals over what will take its place if it falls.
“The presumption is that the strongest opposition group is the Muslim Brotherhood … and that is something to be concerned about,” said Wayne White, a former deputy director of the Near East and South Asia office in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
“Washington has to expect that if there is a successor regime in Egypt because Mubarak has been forced out, it cannot count on that regime to be as friendly and supportive as Mubarak was,” he added.
In an interview Sunday with CNN, Mr. ElBaradei, a former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Mr. Mubarak “should leave today and save the country.”
Mr. Mubarak, 82, has ruled Egypt for almost 30 years and shows no sign of heeding that call. Military jets screeched over Tahrir Square, and tanks rumbled through the streets.
The regime, which has shut down the Internet, social networks and cell phone service, extended its information blackout Sunday by blocking Al Jazeera news network’s coverage and closing its Cairo bureau.
Joining the bandwagon
The Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks to implement Islamic law in Egypt, has been formally banned since 1954. Even as its members have run for office as independents, the absence of fair elections has made it difficult to gauge the group’s popularity.
Mr. Mubarak’s regime has effectively weakened all opposition except the Islamists, who have an agenda that the majority of Egypt’s secular public does not support.
Michael Collins Dunn, an Egypt analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said the Brotherhood has not been a driving force behind the unrest.
“They didn’t join the bandwagon until after the bandwagon was clearly rolling,” said Mr. Dunn.
Steven A. Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the protesting is not an Islamist uprising.
“Egyptians are not in the streets calling for Islamic theocracy. They are calling for democracy and freedom … and a mechanism by which to hold their leaders accountable,” said Mr. Cook, who was in Cairo at the start of the protests.
Analysts say it would be hard to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood from a genuine coalition, but that the Islamists would have a lot less support than they do now in a truly fair political system.
The group, which has the well-known slogan “Islam is the solution,” rejects the use of violence and supports democratic principles. It is viewed as an extremist group by some Egyptians largely as a consequence of the Mubarak regime’s efforts to demonize the Islamists.
“They are no way extremists. They are no way using violence,” Mr. ElBaradei told ABC’s “This Week” program.
“This is what the regime … sold to the West and to the U.S.: ‘It’s either us, repression or al Qaeda-type Islamists,’” he added.
Mr. Dunn said the Mubarak regime has shrewdly controlled the Muslim Brotherhood’s political fortunes by allowing it to win a significant number of seats in a 2005 election because it wanted to neutralize U.S. pressure to reform.
“[The Mubarak regime] used that election as a way to tell the U.S.: ‘Don’t push us on reform or these guys will win,’” Mr. Dunn said.
The Mubarak regime has routinely blamed unrest in the country on the Muslim Brotherhood and imprisoned its leaders.
According to a Reuters news agency report, 34 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including seven members of the leadership, walked out of a prison 80 miles northwest of Cairo on Sunday after their relatives overcame the guards.
Mr. Mubarak has responded to the crisis by firing his Cabinet and naming key members of his regime to top posts. He appointed intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as the country’s first vice president in nearly three decades and Aviation Minister Ahmed Shafiq as prime minister.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Fox News that the Obama administration wants to see an “orderly transition” to democracy.
“We also don’t want to see some takeover that would lead not to democracy, but to oppression and the end of the aspirations of the Egyptian people,” Mrs. Clinton said.
Mr. ElBaradei told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the Obama administration “cannot ask the Egyptian people to believe that a dictator who has been in power for 30 years would be the one to implement democracy. This is a farce.”
Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland in College Park, said the Obama administration would clearly like to support reform in Egypt but finds itself in a bind.
“[The Obama administration is] frustrated that many of America’s allies remain largely autocratic, but they are also so dependent on them in all of their daily strategic planning,” Mr. Telhami said.
‘No going back’
Egypt backed the U.S. war in Iraq and continues to support its effort against al Qaeda. It also has been instrumental in maintaining a fragile Arab-Israeli peace.
Since, 1979, the U.S. has provided Egypt with about $1.3 billion in annual aid, much of it for the military.
Mr. Mubarak’s handling of the crisis likely will have a detrimental effect on his relationship with the U.S.
“The drift in American rhetoric to a more demanding posture reflects the Obama administration’s knowledge that there is no going back to the relationship we had with Egypt until last Monday,” said Mr. White.
On Sunday, the State Department advised U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Egypt and said U.S. citizens in Egypt should consider leaving as soon as they can do so safely.
Mr. Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have urged Mr. Mubarak to refrain from any violence against the protesters and called on demonstrators to protest peacefully.
According to agency reports, the death toll in the Egyptian unrest has surpassed 100.
Mr. Mubarak’s decision to insert the military into the crisis could turn into a double-edged sword because many of the troops share the civilians’ grievances, especially about skyrocketing food prices.
Signs of military sympathy for the protesters were evident in many instances, as soldiers waved to cheering crowds from atop their armored vehicles.