CAIRO (Reuters) - President Hosni Mubarak was playing a familiar card when he claimed this week that the Muslim Brotherhood has orchestrated the mass protests that have brought his rule to the brink of collapse.
Mubarak said in an interview with ABC on Thursday that the Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and most influential opposition movement, was behind attacks by his supporters on protesters in central Cairo this week that left 11 people dead.
He also said that if he resigned now, then the group he has depicted as the bogeyman to Western governments over the years would surely take over — an argument that seems to have run out of steam as foreign leaders push for a transfer for power.
While Mubarak was attacking the group to U.S. media, his vice president Omar Suleiman made an unprecedented offer of talks, saying it was a “valuable opportunity” the group should not pass up.
“The Muslim Brotherhood was used by the regime (to frighten) the West) and Mubarak wasn’t the only one doing this,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi commentator, referring to ousted Tunisian ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Run out of power on January 14 in an uprising, Ben Ali crushed the Islamist Ennahda group in the 1990s and exploited Western fear of political Islam to secure support for his police state.
The Brotherhood has served a further purpose in justifying heavy-handed security policies at home, Khashoggi said.
The group champions Islamic sharia law in a country Mubarak has kept mainly secular with concessions to religion. Mubarak has played on Western and Arab liberal fears it would install an anti-Western Islamic state similar to Iran. Washington fears for the future of Egypt’s pioneering peace treaty with Israel.
The Brothers have been careful not to appear in the driving seat in early contacts between the government and opposition but could well emerge as the strongest force in Egypt.
The group has backed the idea of an interim presidency headed by Mohamed ElBaradei, a secular politician known to Western powers, and said it does not seek the presidency.
But Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies, said Mubarak and his advisers had made a mistake in presenting the Brotherhood as the prime mover behind the protest movement since January 15.
The uprising was partly the result of mobilization through social media by young Egyptians without a political agenda beyond removing Mubarak’s ruling clique and bringing in democracy.
“It was a large popular movement in which the Brotherhood role was small. It included leftists, anarchists and nationalists, groups who are against the Brotherhood,” he said.
The government began to blame the Brotherhood for the massive demonstrations only a few days after they began.
Some members were detained on January 28, a turning-point for the uprising when security forces were unable to disperse hundreds of thousands of protesters around the country.
As if to drive home Mubarak’s new line that the Brotherhood could benefit if he quits, state television has begun running old sermons by Ayatollah Khomeini, the Shi’ite cleric who came to power during the Iranian revolution in 1979.
Security has been a paramount concern for the former air force commander since he came to power in 1981 after Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamist militants.
Human rights activist Hisham Kassem said Mubarak first turned his attention to the Brotherhood in the mid-1990s after crushing militant Islamist groups.
“After finishing off radical Islam he asked himself who else is still around. He felt indignant about the most vocal voice on the street during his reign,” Kassem said. “This is a general who suddenly found himself in politics. Any dissent for him is questioning the commander’s ability.”
The group was repressed by President Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the 1950s and 60s, then rehabilitated by his successor Anwar Sadat, but Mubarak began military trials and a revolving door of detention-then-release for Brotherhood cadres in the 1990s.
Still the group made impressive gains in 2005 parliamentary elections that were a rude awakening for Mubarak but old tricks of intimidation and fraud eliminated all their seats in 2010.
“He has a personal obsession with them. He hates their guts and blames them for many things,” said Khashoggi.
Editing by Samia Nakhoul