Egyptian opposition softens demand for Mubarak's immediate exit

February 7, 2011

CAIRO - The main Egyptian opposition groups eased up on their insistence that President Hosni Mubarak step down immediately, agreeing instead on Sunday to join in talks toward overhauling the country's political system at a more gradual pace while Mubarak remains in office.

The shift suggested that Mubarak and his allies may have succeeded in defusing the fiercest of cries from opponents who had insisted that the president resign as a precondition for any talks. It followed the clearest signals yet from the Obama administration that its call for a quick transition in Egypt did not include a demand that Mubarak step aside before elections this fall.

Among those who joined for the first time in talks with Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's newly appointed vice president, were leaders from the banned Muslim Brotherhood movement, along with a loose coalition of political parties, intellectuals and protest organizers. Suleiman said the government would agree to consider broad changes, including constitutional amendments and a possible end to Egypt's three-decade-old state of emergency.

While the meeting itself was a concession to opposition groups, the setting underscored who remains in charge. The parties gathered around a formal, oval-shaped table as a portrait of Mubarak gazed down on them.

In a television interview, Suleiman made it clear that the government's willingness to consider the changes was based on an expectation that Mubarak would stay in charge during a drawn-out transition to a new government. Mubarak has insisted that he will not leave before his term ends in September.

"If President Mubarak would say that 'I'm leaving now,' who would take over?" Suleiman said on ABC. "I think with this atmosphere, that means that the other people who have their own agenda will make instability in our country."

More tanks on the streets

The developments did not appear to satisfy the protesters who have packed Tahrir Square in the heart of the capital for two weeks. Thousands continued to occupy the plaza Sunday, even as banks, schools and shops reopened across Egypt and traffic jams returned to Cairo's normally anarchic streets.

Many among the protesters said they had no choice but to hold firm. If the demonstrations were to end prematurely, they said, Mubarak and Suleiman would renege on their promises and deploy the feared secret police to round up dissenters.

"All these attempts at putting people to sleep by responding to very marginal demands is just a tactic to gain time," said Hafez Moussa, 36, a Muslim cleric from Cairo's al-Azhar district. "As soon as people leave the square, he will take his revenge on all of them."

Army units have increased their presence in and around Tahrir Square, parking tanks on every street. Although they have allowed the protests to unfold, military officials have gradually imposed obstacles - more checkpoints, more coils of razor wire, limitations on television cameras - and urged demonstrators to go home.

Sunday's talks were the first the Mubarak government has held with the Muslim Brotherhood, the fundamentalist movement that has battled with the military strongmen who have ruled Egypt since 1952.

In a statement, the Brotherhood said it agreed to join the talks in "the best interests of Egypt." Mohammed Mursi, a leader who attended, described the meeting as an exploratory "first step'' but warned that negotiations would be pointless unless Mubarak and his allies moved quickly "to meet people's demands."

After weathering an unexpectedly fierce public revolt, including a mass rally Friday that drew more than 100,000 people, Mubarak and his allies appear to have concluded that the protests have crested and that time will work in his favor.

The reopening of Egypt's banks Sunday, for the first time in a week, generated long lines of customers in need of cash, but no sign of broad panic. The Central Bank of Egypt limited withdrawals to 52,000 Egyptian pounds and capped foreign-currency withdrawals at $10,000 - steps that helped limit the immediate impact. The Egyptian pound dropped in value by less than 2 percent in relation to the dollar.

The reopening of the Egyptian stock market, expected this week, and upcoming bond sales will also function as barometers of how the economy has been affected by the unrest.

"All things considered, Sunday has run pretty smoothly," said Anthony Skinner, an analyst with the Maplecroft consulting firm in Britain. "We see a concerted attempt by the authorities at damage limitation."

Slight shift for U.S.

The nascent talks also gave the Obama administration more breathing room. After calling last week for transition to a new government "now," the administration shifted its message slightly, asking opposition leaders to consider that they might be able to achieve democratic reforms more quickly by relenting in their insistence that Mubarak resign immediately. Administration officials, whose hopes plunged Saturday when opposition figures refused Suleiman's invitation to join talks, were encouraged Sunday when many of the anti-Mubarak groups changed course.

"We are putting a lot into making sure the dialogue process that has begun is meaningful and transparent and leads to concrete actions," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in an interview Sunday with NPR.

Osama al-Ghazali Harb, a political scientist and writer who has been active in the demonstrations, said that if the gestures offered by Suleiman on Sunday had been declared a month ago, they would have been perceived as monumental concessions from an autocratic government. But he said they may not satisfy those whose aspirations for democracy have grown in the days since the protests began.

"These were very important targets in the past. But what we want now is a totally different regime," he said. "All of these concessions are good, but no one will dare go to the millions who have taken to the streets and tell them it's enough."

In interviews, protesters still in the square distanced themselves from the political figures who have begun negotiations with Suleiman, saying they do not adequately represent the grass-roots uprising that has pushed Egypt to the brink of revolution.

"My bet is, the crowd is not going away," said Hisham Kassem, a political analyst and journalist who has opposed Mubarak's rule for years. He said the parties that have been in talks with Suleiman "are all completely irrelevant," adding that "the people on Tahrir Square either wouldn't recognize them or else would barely give them the time of day."

Correspondent Will Englund in Cairo and staff writer Howard Schneider in Washington contributed to this report.

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