CAIRO -- A week before the Egyptian government ordered Wednesday's deadly clearing of two Muslim Brotherhood protest camps, military leaders and the Brotherhood very nearly came to an agreement that involved a prisoner release and other measures that might have averted the catastrophe, The Huffington Post has learned.
The notion of such a plan, mediated by a handful of diplomats from the U.S. and Europe -- including U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and EU Special Representative Bernardino Leon -- was first reported on Wednesday by Reuters. HuffPost has learned that the terms of the proposed deal would have seen the Muslim Brotherhood reduce the size of their protest camps by half, and the military release two notable prisoners: Saad El-Katatni, the chairman of the Brotherhood's political party who was arrested during the military takeover in July, and Abou Elela Mady, the chairman of the Islamist al-Wasat Party who was locked up in the aftermath.
Brotherhood leaders had agreed in principle to the plan, but in the end the military-backed government declined to take part, sources say.
"The deal fell apart last week, and that's when diplomatic mediators realized that the storming of the camps was probably inevitable," an outside adviser familiar with the negotiations said on Thursday. "Would the deal have worked in the end? I don't know, but the sides were definitely participating in the mediation efforts."
Leon, the EU envoy, had told Reuters, "We had a political plan that was on the table, that had been accepted by the other side" -- meaning the Muslim Brotherhood. "[The military] could have taken this option. So all that has happened today was unnecessary."
On Wednesday, the Egyptian leadership surprised most of the country when they ordered a forceful evacuation of the two Brotherhood protest camps, outside the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque and in Nahda Square -- something they had been threatening to do for weeks. The ensuing violence there was staggering and has led to further unrest elsewhere in the country. The Egyptian ministry of health has put the death toll so far at 638 people.
For weeks ahead of the clearings, diplomats from the U.S. and E.U. nations had worked hard to bring the Egyptian military and the Brotherhood into some sort of political agreement that might avert such a disaster. Both sides have proven difficult to move from their publicly stated positions, with the Brotherhood demanding the complete reinstatement of Mohammed Morsi's elected government, and the military demanding an end to all sit-ins and offering few if any concessions.
Burns, who arrived in Cairo at the beginning of August, worked closely with Leon and his boss, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, to prevent the military from taking action before the close of the Ramadan holiday, as had been threatened. When the end of the Islamic holy month came and went without an intervention at the sit-ins, American officials believed they saw a chance for a breakthrough, and on Monday, Aug. 5, Burns extended his stay in Cairo "indefinitely." Then two days later, he left the country, while the Egyptian government declared that negotiations had failed.
In a joint statement released that Aug. 7 night, Ashton and Secretary of State John Kerry urged the two sides in Egypt to pursue several "confidence building measures" in the near future, including ending incitement in the media, "beginning the process of releasing detained political figures," and taking "steps to scale down and ease tensions" at the protest sites. Each of those items, HuffPost was told, were steps to which the Muslim Brotherhood negotiating committee had previously committed.
An Egyptian military spokesman could not be reached on Thursday, but in the Reuters story, an unnamed military official said that the military declined to make the deal because they did not believe the Brotherhood would actually follow through. A spokesman for the Brotherhood did not respond to a request for comment.
One day before the talks fell apart, visiting U.S. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), had sparked a furious outcry among the Egyptian leadership and public, when they announced at a press conference that they believed the July military takeover was a coup. "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck," McCain said at the time.
An Egyptian military source told Reuters that the press conference had been a turning point, making it harder for the military to make concessions. A U.S. official, who declined to be identified by name, added to this, telling HuffPost Thursday that McCain and Graham's remarks had "muddied the waters."
"At a sensitive time when the U.S. government was going to great lengths to make its position clear in Egypt, having conflicting messages coming out on the ground there from two different branches of the U.S. government was frustrating and problematic," the official said.
Both the Egyptian military and the Obama administration, of course, have reasons to seek to direct the focus of the failed talks away from themselves and onto a third party, such as a pair of visiting Republican senators. An aide to McCain, speaking on the condition of anonymity, called the claims "total garbage."
Marie Harf, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, declined on Thursday to comment on the possibility of a military-Brotherhood deal or on the role played by Sens. McCain and Graham. "We provided constructive ideas and left them on the table during conversations our senior diplomats had in Cairo recently," she said. "Despite the deplorable violence we've seen over the past day, we still believe the time for dialogue has not passed. The United States remains ready to work with all of the parties in Egypt to help achieve a peaceful, democratic way forward."
In a blog post published on a personal page on Thursday, Sweden's foreign minister, Carl Bildt, discussed the failure of the talks in Egypt last week and said the "openings for dialogue" came "mainly from the Muslim Brotherhood's side." A "precondition" for the talks, Bildt added, was that the imprisoned political leaders who would conduct the talks be released.
President Barack Obama condemned the violence on all sides in Egypt, releasing a statement Thursday from his vacation on Martha's Vineyard. He also alluded to disappointment that negotiation efforts had failed to reach a compromise, seeming to suggest that the military-backed government may bear the preponderance of the blame.
"After the military's intervention several weeks ago, there remained a chance for reconciliation and an opportunity to pursue a democratic path," Obama said. "Instead, we've seen a more dangerous path taken through arbitrary arrests, a broad crackdown on [the Muslim Brotherhood's] associations and supporters, and now, tragically, violence that's taken the lives of hundreds of people and wounded thousands more."