CAIRO — Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful political force, say they want to offer the country’s ruling generals immunity from prosecution for alleged crimes committed since they took power in February, an attempt to ensure that the military returns to its barracks and allows a peaceful transition to democratic rule.
The tactic is part of a bid by the Brotherhood, the country’s largest Islamist group, to use its success in ongoing parliamentary elections to offer some compromises to help ease the military out of power.
In interviews this week, Brotherhood officials said they intend to pass legislation that will curb the military’s powers to arrest and try civilians, authority that critics say the generals have used to excess in the past 11 months. But the Brotherhood will also try to reassure them that they will not end up on trial like their former boss, Hosni Mubarak, the officials said.
It’s a high-risk strategy that could backfire, jeopardizing the Brotherhood’s electoral gains and allowing critics to cast its leaders as pawns of the military. And Brotherhood officials said they would offer immunity only if they receive the consent of the families of about 100 protesters killed since February, a step they acknowledge will be difficult.
Secular political activists, who didn’t fare as well in the elections, pointed to the suggestion of immunity as evidence of a deal between the Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling military council and proof that the Brotherhood had turned on Egypt’s revolutionaries.
“The military will have a secure exit and a guarantee of autonomy in exchange for handing over the country to the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Hala Mustapha, a spokeswoman for the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.
For decades, the military has been a central pillar of Egypt’s society and economy. But the brutal security crackdowns that have scarred the post-revolution transition have chipped away at the generals’ popularity. And the Brotherhood, which was hesitant to join the 18-day revolution last winter, has drawn scorn from some Egyptians for being slow to condemn abuses by the military.
But Mahmoud Ghozlan, the Brotherhood’s top spokesman and a member of its executive office, made clear that the group is determined to put an end to the generals’ leadership of the country.
“When the military interferes in matters of politics, dictatorship takes deeper root,” he said in a wide-ranging interview Tuesday. “For Egypt, we want military rule that started in 1952 to end and for power to be transferred to an elected civilian authority so we can enjoy freedom, democracy and human rights.”
The U.S. government shunned the Brotherhood for decades. But on Wednesday, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns met with the head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, Mohammed Morsi, in the highest-level meeting of a U.S. official with the Islamist powerhouse.
During the meeting, Morsi told Burns that the party was committed to human rights, and that, in the wake of the Arab Spring revolts, the United States must change its position on “Arab and Islamic issues,” a statement from the party said.
The military rulers’ tough response to protesters who have accused them of clinging to power suggests that any direct conflict with the generals would lead to chaos and make it more difficult to force them from power, Ghozlan said.
Instead, giving immunity to the top generals, once part of Mubarak’s ruling elite, could reassure them and encourage them to step down rather than fight to preserve their political and economic interests, Ghozlan said in the Brotherhood’s new headquarters in southern Cairo.
In a separate interview, Mohammed Beltagy, a leading member of the Freedom and Justice Party who is set to serve in the next parliament, said the matter of immunity must be discussed with the families of slain protesters and would be pursued only if they agree. “This is up to the families of the martyrs to decide,” he said.
The Brotherhood was the most formidable opposition force in Mubarak’s Egypt, though the autocratic ruler kept tight control over the movement and thousands of its members, including Ghozlan, were arrested and tortured.
Despite that uneasy status, the Brotherhood has often tried to work from within the system to forge change rather than confront the establishment, and its dealings with the military, including the immunity proposal, reflect that, said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements at Durham University in England.
Election results this week are expected to confirm that the group’s political wing won nearly half of the seats in the lower house of parliament, known as the People’s Assembly, and analysts say the Brotherhood’s members won’t let anything jeopardize their long fight to attain power.
“They will not sacrifice their historical interests to appease or satisfy the public,” Anani said. “The Brotherhood believes they paid the price over the last few decades to gain this moment.”
But its dominant role in the first post-revolution parliament will also make the Brotherhood accountable during a difficult period of uncertainty, instability and a faltering economy.
“We are entering an important test,” Beltagy said, acknowledging that Egyptians are expecting rapid change.
“This leaves us with burdens that are greater than our resources,” Beltagy said in his Cairo office. “Maybe people’s faith in us will buy us time.
The party recently backed off demands that the new parliament, scheduled to be seated Jan. 23, be allowed to appoint a prime minister. Instead, party officials said they would work within the military’s timeline, with political power to be handed off to an elected president by June 30. But the Brotherhood is holding firm on its demand that Egypt’s new constitution be written once the president is elected and the army cedes power.
“We believe in having presidential elections before the constitution is drafted, so that the constitution is drafted under the authority of an elected civilian power rather than under the authority of the military council,” Beltagy said.
The military rulers have made clear that they want a role in drafting the constitution.
“The military has one job, and it is protecting national security,” Ghozlan said. “It should not interfere in politics, not up close and not from afar.”
He also denied allegations that the Brotherhood and the military had struck a deal.
“There are no deals between us and them,” Ghozlan said.
Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.