CAIRO — The Muslim Brotherhood joined other opposition groups Sunday in talks with Vice President Omar Suleiman on ways to end Egypt's anti-government revolt, a landmark meeting that could pave the way for official recognition of the Islamist group but also could damage its credibility among its supporters.
The Egyptian government has long used the specter of a Brotherhood takeover to influence its U.S and Israeli allies who fear a new Egypt that is hostile to American interests and is unwilling to honor the country's long-time peace accord with Israel.
Political analysts say the organization's support and influence is greatly exaggerated, especially in light of the nescient grassroots movement that continues to mobilize anti-government protesters throughout Egypt.
The Brotherhood, which is composed of conservatives, is keenly aware of its pariah status with the regime and with the West, has kept a low profile in the rebellion and initially was reticent to join the massive protests.
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Now, however, the group appears willing to engage its age-old foes in the regime of embattled President Hosni Mubarak — though it took pains to reassure its followers that the president's ouster remains a precondition for any real negotiations.
"We have decided to enter a round of talks to find out whether the officials are serious about the people's demands and how prepared they are to meet them," the Brotherhood said in a statement posted on the Internet.
Officially banned, the Muslim Brotherhood has weathered mass arrests and violent crackdowns to become Egypt's largest and most organized opposition movement. Brotherhood members are permitted to run for elected office as independent candidates although monitoring groups have noted widespread election fraud to keep the Islamists from power.
Many Egyptians were stunned to see the Brotherhood meet with Suleiman, who just days ago accused the group of fomenting unrest and linked them to widespread looting after Egyptian police abandoned their posts amid the protests.
Suleiman, the powerful former spy chief who was named vice president last month, led the private talks Sunday that included the conservative Brotherhood as well as leftists, a billionaire businessman and other opposition factions.
According to a state news release, the talks hinged on constitutional amendments that would change Egypt's current system that basically enshrines one party rule.
Suleiman, who is said to be favored by the Obama administration as a transitional figure, has dismissed the opposition's demands that Mubarak resign and that he become head of state.
Suleiman reiterated that stance in an interview with ABC's "This Week with Christiane Amanpour," on Sunday, saying he was an old man and was not interested in the presidency. He also told the network that Mubarak's concessions, which included appointing a new cabinet and promising to open the political arena to opposition groups, were all that can be achieved before he steps down in time for elections this fall.
"I want the opposition to understand that, in this limited time, we can do what President Mubarak...has said, and we cannot do more," said Suleiman. "When a new president will come, you will have more time to make any changes you want."
Under a constitution that has been carved and amended to keep Mubarak in power, the dissolution of parliament and the call for new elections must come from an elected president, which would not include Suleiman who was only appointed to the post of vice president.
Most opposition leaders insist that they will not negotiate with a Mubarak-led government. Others however, have begun touting a more pragmatic approach: Open negotiations while Mubarak is in place and use international pressure and street protests to ensure his government meets the promises of reform in a timely manner.
Such an approach effectively means trusting the executive branch to strip away many of its own broad powers.
"You don't want to have a president elected until the presidency has been defanged," said Tarek Masoud, an assistant professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Boston, who is closely monitoring the situation in Egypt.
While opposition leaders were meeting with Suleiman, the foot soldiers of the protest movement mourned Egyptians who were killed in recent violence.
Thousands gathered for a 13th straight day in downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square where Muslims and Coptic Christians joined in a unity prayer.
The government says 11 people have died and thousands were injured in clashes since Jan 25, the day of the first large scale protest. International human rights groups put the death toll at 300.
(El Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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