In Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood reverses course, agrees to talks on transition

February 5, 2011

CAIRO -- Egypt's new vice president announced a fresh list of political concessions Sunday after meeting with opposition groups, including a plan to amend the constitution and guarantees to honor freedom of the press and communications.

The agreements, which were reported by Egyptian state television, resulted from talks between Vice President Omar Suleiman and a variety of opposition factions, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that is officially banned in Egypt.

It remained unclear, however, whether the concessions would win favor in Tahrir Square, the plaza in the heart of Cairo where tens of thousands of demonstrators have gathered for nearly two weeks to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

Many of the protesters there have insisted that Mubarak quit before they will agree to stand down. They have also distanced themselves from the political party leaders and intellectuals that have negotiated with Suleiman over the past two days, saying that 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, "the people on Tahrir Square either wouldn't recognize them, or else would barely give them the time of day."

According to the agreement announced on state television, Suleiman and the opposition groups will establish a committee to recommend constitutional amendments that would widen the field on who can run for president, among other changes. In response to the protests, Mubarak said last week that he would not run again in September -- after 30 years in charge -- but has refused to step down before then. Current law essentially prohibits anyone from seeking the presidency except for members of Mubarak's party.

The government also said it agreed to allow unhindered Internet access and to stop interfering with journalists who have converged on Cairo from around the world to report on the political crisis. Mubarak's government cut off Egypt from the Internet soon after protests erupted Jan. 25, shut down cell phone networks and later detained scores of journalists. 

The participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in the talks with Suleiman represented a shift that would have been unthinkable in Egypt even a few weeks ago. The group, which says it favors democracy and civil rights, wants to establish a government based on religious law. Mubarak has repressed the movement for decades, arguing that it has a secret agenda to turn Egypt into a theocracy, not unlike Iran.

The Brotherhood had refused to join talks Saturday, insisting that Mubarak leave first. But leaders of the movement changed their minds Sunday, saying they wanted to play a role in shaping a transition of power and organizing free elections.

While Suleiman was meeting with a succession of opposition leaders, other groups continued to reject any talks with the government as long as Mubarak remained in office. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former U.N. nuclear official who has become a spokesman for several opposition groups, vowed again to boycott talks with a government that he said lacked legitimacy or credibility.

"I would not talk to these people until Mubarak steps down," ElBaradei told the CNN news program "Fareed Zakaria GPS."

ElBaradei also rejected the idea of a transitional government led by Suleiman alone. Instead, there should be a three-member presidential council of which only one would be Suleiman or another military official. He called for a year of transition under a unity government, one that would not be controlled by the army alone.

"I think any election in the next couple of months--before the right people establish parties and engage -- it will be again a fake democracy," he said.

The negotiations led by Suleiman have been endorsed by the Obama administration, which has stopped short of pushing for Mubarak to leave immediately and has instead called for "an orderly transition." Suleiman, Egypt's longtime spy chief, has close relationships with the CIA and many other U.S. officials.

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.

In her remarks in Munich, Clinton called on the government to take further steps. But she also warned that if the transition is not carried out in an orderly, deliberate way, there are forces "that will try to derail or overtake the process, to pursue their own specific agenda" - an apparent reference to the Muslim Brotherhood - "which is why I think it's important to support the transition process announced by the Egyptian government, actually headed now by Vice President Omar Suleiman."

In addition to Clinton's remarks, the perceived dissonance in the administration's message Saturday was exacerbated when Frank Wisner, a former diplomat dispatched by Obama last week to help ease Mubarak from power, said that the Egyptian president should stay in his post for the near future.

"President Mubarak remains utterly critical in the days ahead as we sort our way toward the future," Wisner told the Munich conference via video link from New York.

A senior administration official expressed chagrin at Wisner's comments, which he said were "self-evidently divergent from our public message" and "not coordinated with the United States" government. "He's a delightful man," the official said. "But he's doing his own thing."

But the official acknowledged that the administration may quickly face a new dilemma if talks remain at a standstill and it is called on to choose sides between the adamant opposition and a dug-in Mubarak.

"If a dialogue is not going to happen, either because the government is not going to come through, or the people on the other side are not going to participate," the administration official said, the Egyptians "need to come up with another mechanism to arrive at the same outcome."

In Cairo's Tahrir Square, where thousands of demonstrators remained Saturday under a light drizzle, there were signs that some have begun to blame the United States for Mubarak's intransigence. Protesters were flanked by a large banner that read: "No Mubarak, no Suleiman. Both are American Agents." Referring to Mubarak, they chanted, "No negotiations before he leaves."

The White House indicated that it has not given up hope for the dialogue. In a call Saturday to Suleiman, Vice President Biden "asked about progress" in the talks and "stressed the need for a concrete reform agenda, a clear timeline, and immediate steps that demonstrate to the public and the opposition that the Egyptian government is committed to reform," a White House statement said.

Obama, in calls to the leaders of the United Arab Emirates, Britain and Germany, "emphasized the importance of an orderly, peaceful transition, beginning now, to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people, including credible, inclusive negotiations between the government and the opposition," according to a separate statement.

The White House welcomed an announcement on Egyptian state television that the top leadership of the ruling National Democratic Party, including the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, had resigned.

Those Egyptian leaders who were willing to talk to Suleiman on Saturday said that the dialogue appeared the only viable way out of the crisis short of an army takeover. Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, secretary general of the liberal Wafd Party, said they had presented the vice president with proposals for constitutional change.

He said that Suleiman mostly listened but at one point told the Wafd officials that "we need to go ahead with this as soon as possible." Suleiman also ruled out Mubarak's resignation from the presidency, however. "Not only will he not resign, he will not cede or delegate his powers," Nour said.

Some of the 30 or so "wise men," who include intellectuals and civil society leaders, said Suleiman had not responded to a proposal that would allow Mubarak to remain in office as a figurehead until September elections, while delegating most of his powers to Suleiman.

But others were adamant that the Egyptian leader's departure was the only possible solution. "Mubarak needs to go as a precondition of talks," ElBaradei said. "If you really want change," he said, "you have to depart completely from this pseudo-democracy. And that's not happening. It's not only that Mubarak isn't leaving. It's that he and his vice president have been making only peanut concessions."

The army continued efforts Sunday to get protesters in Tahrir Square go home. At the checkpoint over the Kasr al-Nil bridge, the army told demonstrators that they - but not the food they were carrying -- could enter the plaza. In response, demonstrators staged a sit-in, chanting in Arabic "sit in, sit in, until they let the food in." After several hundred joined in the protest, the army relented.

On Saturday, troops began corralling the protesters - who continued building makeshift barricades to hold their ground - into a smaller portion of the square Saturday, arguing that traffic has to begin flowing through central Cairo streets that have been blocked since the demonstrations began 12 days ago. But any effort to remove the thousands who remain was likely to result in a major clash.

Both Obama and Biden, in their calls Saturday, sharply warned the government against a repeat of the pro-Mubarak attacks on the demonstrators. U.S. defense chiefs, who have publicly praised the army's protective and apolitical stance, have reinforced that message in repeated calls to their Egyptian counterparts.

Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and a member of the "wise men" group, said that "very hard negotiations are going on" between Mubarak and his military leaders.

"The army," he said, "cannot stand for long this pressure that has been building on the streets, this loss of life and lack of security."

witteg@washpost.com sheridanm@washpost.com deyoungk@washpost.com

Sheridan reported from Munich, DeYoung from Washington. Correspondents Michael Birnbaum in Munich and Ernesto Londono, Will Englund, Joby Warrick and Craig Whitlock in Cairo and special correspondents Samuel Sockol and Sherine Bayoumi in Cairo also contributed to this report.

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