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

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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)

"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.


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