PARIS European attempts to broker a resolution to Egypt's bloody political stand-off hinge on finding a way for ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi to step down with dignity in return for a role for his Muslim Brotherhood in the country's future.
But it is far from clear that the resurgent military and security establishment which overthrew the elected president a month ago is willing to end a crackdown on the Brotherhood, or even suspend it long enough to permit talks on a settlement.
Brotherhood leaders may still be too angry at being ousted from power to lend any legitimacy to the new authorities.
This account of European efforts to find an "inclusive" political solution is based on conversations with diplomats, officials and politicians involved in the contacts, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
The army-installed government's decision on Wednesday to declare two pro-Mursi sit-ins in Cairo a threat to national security and empower the interior ministry to put an end to the vigils leaves little time for a negotiated outcome.
"The authorities want this sorted out before the Eid on August 8," said a Cairo-based diplomat, referring to the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
Egypt's new military strongman, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is under strong pressure from the United States and Europe to avoid further use of force that would entail massive bloodshed and risk making his country an international pariah.
Diplomats said U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had telephoned Sisi repeatedly to press for restraint, warning that Congressional support for continued U.S. military aid is at risk.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton explored the space for a deal when she became the first foreign official to meet Mursi in detention this week as part of wide-ranging talks with the military, the interim civilian government and the Brotherhood's political arm. Her special envoy, Bernardino Leon, is back in Cairo continuing the talks.
The EU mediation, which diplomats say has strong behind-the-scenes support from Washington, may be the only chance of averting a bloodbath but it faces high hurdles.
The Europeans tried in vain to broker a power-sharing deal between Mursi and secular and liberal opposition parties in the months before his overthrow. Conditions have become more difficult since then because of the bloodshed that followed the military takeover and the entrenched positions on all sides.
The Brotherhood say Mursi was a democratically elected president ousted in a military coup and should be restored to office. The military say they intervened with mass public support to save Egypt from potential civil war.
Army commander Sisi, who is also deputy prime minister, says he has a popular mandate to fight what he calls the Brotherhood's "violence and terrorism".
A growing crackdown by security forces, including the killing of dozens of pro-Mursi protesters last Saturday, has hardened the Islamists' defiance, although heat and exhaustion pose a challenge to morale at their sit-ins.
Hundreds of arrests and the announced return of the feared political police officially abolished after the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011 have made Ashton's call for an "inclusive" transition process sound to some like wishful thinking.
Unlike the United States, the EU has no direct leverage over the Egyptian military, nor does it wield a giant check book like Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states. But it does have the ability to talk to all sides, while all are suspicious of Washington.
"The EU initiative seems very sensible but it may not yield immediate results," said Eberhard Kienle, an expert on Middle East politics at Grenoble University in France.
"This sort of historic compromise is the only possibility if the Egyptians want to avoid increasing violence and perhaps even civil war in the long term," he said. "But people may not be ready for compromise yet."
ELEMENTS OF OUTCOME
Keen to preserve the EU's position as an honest broker, Ashton and her staff declined to comment on the substance of their meetings in Egypt.
However, Western diplomats say any negotiated outcome would likely need to include the following elements:
- the release of Brotherhood political detainees;
- the dropping of legal proceedings against Mursi and other Islamist leaders;
- the ending of Brotherhood protest sit-ins;
- an end to violence against the security forces, including in the strategic Sinai peninsula bordering on Israel and Gaza, although analysts say the Brotherhood does not control Islamist militants who have stepped up attacks since Mursi's removal;
- the resignation of the ousted president;
- an agreement to amend but not scrap the constitution drafted under Mursi's rule, probably leaving in place the articles about the role of Islamic law;
- and the right for his Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) to contest elections promised for next year.
To agree to any such deal, the Brotherhood's key leaders who are currently dispersed - in prison, in hiding or holed up at the protest sit-ins - would have to be able to confer and take a decision, diplomats said. EU negotiators have so far talked mostly to middle-ranking FJP figures.
Khalil al-Anani, an expert on the Brotherhood at Durham University in England, said: "They are open to moving forward, but they want things: stopping the current crackdown on them, the oppression, (and) to be included through the political process, but not through fake offers."
In her public remarks in Cairo, Ashton stressed the need for confidence-building measures. Diplomats said one such step could be to release a senior figure such as Saad El-Katatni, leader of the FJP, to take part in the negotiations.
The most powerful Brotherhood member in detention is Khairat El-Shater, the movement's deputy leader. But officials have said he is being investigated for murder over the shooting of anti-Mursi protesters in June, so he is the least likely to be freed.
Ashton said she was ready to return to Cairo but had no master plan as it was up to Egyptians to decide on their country's future. In her choice of words and of interlocutors, she dropped some hints as to the avenues she was pursuing.
Reporting on her two-hour meeting with Mursi, she avoided using the term "president". Asked whether she had offered him a safe exit, she said: "I did nothing of the kind."
Egyptian security sources, skeptical of the negotiating effort, said Mursi had insisted on returning to power and had said he needed to confer with the Brotherhood's general guide, Mohamed Badie. They said Ashton had told top military officials that the ousted president "was not committed to finding a practical solution to the crisis".
A European source cast doubt on that account, saying Ashton had briefed no one on their meeting.
One figure whom she has met twice is former Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, who was widely criticized as ineffectual during Mursi's year-long administration and whose dismissal was a key opposition demand in the previous negotiations.
Diplomats said Kandil, though not a Brotherhood member, was important now partly because he had tendered his resignation to the interim head of state after the military takeover and before the appointment of interim Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi.
"Kandil's resignation is a bridge from the past legitimacy under Mursi to the new legitimacy of the interim authorities," one European diplomat said.
The ex-premier has put forward his own peace plan that calls for an initial truce and notably omits any explicit mention of restoring Mursi to office, acknowledging the scale of anti-Mursi protests on June 30 that led to the military intervention.
Even if the Brotherhood leadership were willing to accept a deal, it remains unclear whether the military is prepared to accept an outcome some would see as too soft on the Islamists.
"In their minds, this battle may be over, but the war is not," said Florence Gaub, an expert on the Egyptian military at the EU Institute of Security Studies, saying Sisi faced pressure from army colonels not to make concessions to the Brotherhood.
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Maggie Fick and Yasmine Saleh in Cairo; Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Giles Elgood)