Egypt's powerful Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, said Friday it is willing to hold talks with the United States, taking up an offer of dialogue seen as an implicit recognition by Washington that the group will likely hold significant political power in Egypt's post-Hosni Mubarak era.
The Brotherhood's bid for prominence comes at a time of growing discontent by pro-democracy protesters toward the military council that took power in Egypt after Mubarak's ouster in February.
Thousands of pro-democracy protesters waving Egyptian flags and banners rallied Friday in Tahrir Square, demanding speedy trials for former regime figures and policemen accused of killing protesters during the 18-day revolt that claimed 846 lives.
The demonstration came after clashes broke out earlier this week between police and protesters pushing for faster reforms. More than 1,000 people were injured and more than 30 arrested in the melees.
The Brotherhood has largely stayed clear from the recent protests, denouncing most of them as unfocused and unnecessary.
Brotherhood spokesman Mohammed Ghozlan was responding to comments by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday that the Obama administration is reaching out to the fundamentalist group in a "limited" effort to build ties and promote democratic principles.
"We welcome dialogue with America to remove any misunderstandings and bridge gaps," Ghozlan told The Associated Press.
He said it would be the first time the Brotherhood holds talks with the United States. However, there were reports of indirect and informal contacts between Brotherhood and U.S. officials several years ago_ particularly when the group was represented in Egypt's former parliament.
Neither side gave any indication of when the talks would take place.
The Brotherhood was banned for decades and was heavily suppressed by Mubarak's regime, which was closely allied to the United States. But the ban was lifted after Mubarak's ouster, and the Brotherhood is campaigning hard for upcoming parliamentary elections.
Since it is the country's most organized political force, it is expected to make a strong showing and is very likely to be a member in the next government. Saying the U.S. seeks a real democracy in Egypt, President Barack Obama has acknowledged the Brotherhood should be allowed to operate freely in politics.
In her comments Thursday, Clinton said the outreach to the Brotherhood was part of a general desire in the administration to engage all Egyptian groups as long as they espouse nonviolence.
Ammar Ali Hassan, expert in Islamic groups, said that the Brotherhood will likely try to float "conditions" or "reservations" on any dialogue to avoid a perception that it is allowing the U.S. to meddle in Egypt's internal affairs. But in the end, the talks will give a boost the group, he said, by easing worries some in the Brotherhood and the public have of a backlash if the Brotherhood becomes the dominant player in Egypt.
"Now the Muslim Brotherhood will not have to worry of moving forward toward taking over power," Hassan said. "For decades, the United States has been eying this possibility and ready to open channels with whoever is the leading force in the country," he added.
The Brotherhood has taken a pragmatic stance in the country's new political situation, praising the military rulers and avoiding participation in new protests.
Protesters are calling for faster reforms from the ruling military council, led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, which has been accused of collaborating with remnants from the former regime.
"My feeling is that Mubarak has taken off his robe and given it to Tantawi. There is no difference between the two," 62-year-old Ismail al-Husseini said. "We get out of one trap to fall into the next one. Every Friday, we hold a protest but it's no use."
Riot police sealed off the street leading up to the Interior Ministry building, which has been the site of some of the fiercest fighting, with barricades and military police at checkpoints.
Several tents were set up in the middle of Tahrir Square _ the epicenter of the 18-day uprising _ with many protesters promising to continue their sit-in until their demands are met.
"We had a revolution that is now incomplete. We removed the head of the regime, but the regime is still here," said Yasser Gomaa, 39. He said protesters want to see those responsible for the death of protesters in public, speedy and fair trials.
As a sign of the security problems still facing Egypt's police, a group of armed men besieged a local police station in a low-income suburb east of Cairo, and freed more than 40 detainees, a security official said. Those freed were common criminals, including drug dealers.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the police, said those in the jail started in a fire inside their cell to distract the police, while the gunmen fired in the air to cause mayhem. The head of the police station was briefly held by the gunmen before the escape.