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

Egypt's Vice President Omar Suleiman holds talks with opposition groups including the officially banned Muslim Brotherhood to try and find a way out of the country's worst crisis in decades. (Feb. 6)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 6, 2011; 10:49 AM

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.

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