Egypt's grand negotiation under way

CAIRO: Inside the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ali Mosaleem, a 29-year-old volunteer, told us: "I am ready to give my life at any moment."

Outside, the government on Wednesday decreed that this protest camp and another nearby constitute a threat to national security, and mandated the Interior Ministry to remove them both.

It sounds apocalyptic, particularly after the death of at least 70 people in the Rabaa area last weekend, but many here now suggest that the two sides are trying to negotiate a way out of the crisis caused by the toppling of President Mohammed Morsi one month ago, and that these latest threats, and indeed even the possibility of a bloody security operation to clear the protests, are all now part of a process of negotiation.

Can that really be true, given what has happened?

Talking to General Sameh Seif el-Yazal, a former head of Egyptian military intelligence who now runs the al-Gomhuria think tank on security and political studies, he insists that the security forces are mindful of the need to bring the stalemate to an end with as little bloodshed as possible, and that he would welcome the Brotherhood's participation in the parliamentary elections planned by the interim government for October or November.

"Why not?" he asked rhetorically.

He and his onetime colleagues who now hold the reins of power at the defence and interior ministries now talk about trying to end the stand-off by a phased process. Some have talked about cutting off power and water, but Gen Yazal says this has been rejected as inhumane, particularly during the fasting month of Ramadan.

Instead, there are predictions that the security forces will start to squeeze the perimeters of the two protest camps. There are also suggestions that they may begin to restrict entry, while allowing anyone who wishes to leave to do so.

Psychological warfare?

One thing is apparent, observing the daily routine around the mosque; the numbers who turn up there are down compared with a couple of weeks ago, according to journalists who have been going in throughout that period.

Perhaps the shocking events of last weekend were intended to intimidate people, and Wednesday's order for the square to be cleared was a further episode of psychological warfare. Perhaps some of the movement's followers have lost heart.

The Muslim Brotherhood's leaders insist meanwhile that they will hold fast to their position that the ousted president, now in detention, must be reinstated, as must the previously elected parliament, and a 2012 version of the constitution that the interim government has now set to work amending.

It hardly seems feasible. Indeed, as we were filming, a Brotherhood supporter approached me off camera and as we talked, confided that they hold out no hope of getting Mr Morsi back in office and now simply want to make sure that democracy is restored.

Finding a path back to elections is a key aspect of the grand negotiation that is under way. There are many bargaining chips, including the fate of Mr Morsi and other leaders from the organisation.

When I chatted at the mosque to Essam al-Arian, the Brotherhood's spokesman, he seemed to suggest the party might boycott elections but then, when challenged, would not take a stance one way or another. His readiness even to debate the issue suggested an implicit acknowledgement that it could be impossible to turn the clock back to before Mr Morsi's overthrow before any discussion of the way ahead.

Mr Arian and other senior party figures know only too well that the military and interim government would very much like to confront critics of their coup with an eventual announcement that the Brotherhood is ready to return to the electoral fray.

Conversely, if the party goes for a boycott, it could prolong the difficult atmosphere between the interim government and its US or European Union critics.

Thus the two sides circle one another, jockeying for advantage.

It is possible the attempt to reconcile those ousted from power with those who wish to reset Egyptian democracy will be impossible before the parliamentary elections. Violence might get out of hand and produce its own dynamic.

But the evidence now in this city, is that a period of intensified negotiation has begun.