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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)

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."

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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