CAIRO - Egypt's opposition groups fractured Saturday over an invitation from Vice President Omar Suleiman to begin talks on a government transition, as President Hosni Mubarak gave little indication that he is willing to cede the levers of power.
Suleiman met with representatives from several opposition parties. But both the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group, and Mohamed ElBaradei, the chosen spokesman of anti-Mubarak demonstrators, refused to attend.
A council of prominent Egyptian "wise men," respected leaders who the Obama administration had hoped would bless the talks, also stayed away after Mubarak held a morning cabinet meeting on the economy that they took as a signal he has no intention of relinquishing his job.
Administration officials expressed disappointment that the dialogue had failed to get off the ground. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking at a defense conference in Munich, urged opposition leaders not to reject talks out of hand and warned that the alternative could be a takeover by radicals.
Some opposition figures interpreted her comments as a step back from President Obama's call Tuesday for Mubarak to begin a transition from power "now."
"If the message coming now from Washington is that Mubarak can continue and his head of intelligence will lead the change, this will send the completely wrong message to the Egyptian people," ElBaradei said in an interview Saturday night. Suleiman served as Mubarak's intelligence chief for two decades before being named vice president as the crisis unfolded last week.
The exchange illustrated the delicacy of the U.S. position in the crisis. It was also the latest indication of the difficulty the administration has encountered in trying to guide the fast-moving events in Egypt toward a resolution that meets what Obama has called the legitimate reform demands of the protesters while not appearing to abruptly jettison a long-standing ally.
Obama and his top national security officials have been careful not to call directly for Mubarak to stand down - although they have made clear they would not object if he did, provided the transition is "orderly." But they have advised him to stand aside while government and opposition leaders negotiate a lifting of emergency laws and other restrictions on political freedoms and civil liberties and undertake constitutional reforms leading to free and fair elections.
In a speech Tuesday night following a telephone call to Mubarak, Obama praised the "passion and dignity" of the protesters, spoke of the "will of the people" and said the transition "must begin now." Many in Cairo interpreted those words as a thinly veiled invitation to Mubarak to resign.
After violent clashes between protesters and pro-Mubarak gangs on Wednesday and Thursday - and rising concern in Washington that radical elements in the Muslim Brotherhood were seeking advantage in the chaos - administration officials promoted the dialogue with Suleiman. Officials urged the "wise men" and the respected Egyptian army to serve as guarantors of the talks.