After days of violence, anti-government protesters bolstered by 'Day of Departure' rallies

Protesters are again filling Cairo's Tahrir Square in what is expected to be the climax of the recent anti-Mubarak movement. Elizabeth Palmer reports from a nearby hotel overlooking the Tahrir Square.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 12:35 AM

CAIRO - Tentative signs of a possible solution to Egypt's crisis began to emerge Friday, with leading pro-democracy figures surfacing to claim a role in a transition process as tens of thousands of protesters again flooded central Cairo.

The largely peaceful rally in Tahrir Square provided a much-needed burst of momentum for democracy advocates seeking to drive President Hosni Mubarak from power. Following two days of violent attacks by pro-government gangs, the demonstrators gathered unmolested for a "day of departure" under the watchful eye of army troops.

By the end of the day, Mubarak was still here. But the ruling clique appeared confused over how to respond to the grass-roots movement - which only seems to grow with each attempt to snuff it out - and there were indications that support for the president was wavering.

A group of about 30 Egyptian intellectuals, writers, business leaders and legal experts has met with Vice President Omar Suleiman and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq in recent days. Members of the group have demanded that Mubarak turn over his authority to Suleiman, who would use it to manage a transition to democracy while Mubarak remains as a figurehead president until new elections.

"It's basically a face-saving solution," said Amr Hamzawy, research director for the Carnegie Middle East Center and one of the participants. Suleiman and Shafiq have been receptive, he said, and there have been "encouraging signs" from Mubarak.

Hamzawy said the government was divided and in disarray. "There's confusion everywhere," he said.

In Washington, the Obama administration launched an urgent effort to persuade opposition groups to participate in talks with Suleiman in a meeting scheduled for Saturday morning, and called on the army and respected leaders from across Egyptian society to step forward and bless the dialogue.

"Discussions have begun," President Obama said at a news conference. But he insisted that any solution must be determined by Egyptians themselves.

Obama, who took questions from reporters following a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said the United States is "consulting widely within Egypt and the international community," and repeated his insistence that Mubarak must submit to a transition "now." He said he was "encouraged by the restraint" shown by government forces in Cairo on Friday.

At Saturday's meeting, the administration hopes government and opposition leaders will begin to draw the contours of a multi-step transition, including the immediate suspension of harsh emergency laws and establishment of a road map for constitutional change and free and fair elections.

Reform protesters have continued to insist that no dialogue can begin until Mubarak leaves office. Administration officials said that Vice President Biden and others did not directly address Mubarak's departure in their conversations with Suleiman, nor did Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, raise the issue in talks with their Egyptian counterparts.

But, the officials said, Suleiman was increasingly aware that his own credibility was diminishing the longer he remained tethered to Mubarak, as was the likelihood that he could serve as an acceptable alternative.

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