CAIRO - Egypt's opposition groups fractured Saturday over an invitation from Vice President Omar Suleiman to begin talks on a government transition, as President Hosni Mubarak gave little indication that he is willing to cede the levers of power.
Suleiman met with representatives from several opposition parties. But both the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group, and Mohamed ElBaradei, the chosen spokesman of anti-Mubarak demonstrators, refused to attend.
A council of prominent Egyptian "wise men," respected leaders who the Obama administration had hoped would bless the talks, also stayed away after Mubarak held a morning cabinet meeting on the economy that they took as a signal he has no intention of relinquishing his job.
Administration officials expressed disappointment that the dialogue had failed to get off the ground. 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 roads leading to Tahrir Square remained under tight security Saturday as the army tried to persuade demonstrators - who continued building makeshift barricades to hold their ground - to go home.
Troops began corralling the protesters into a smaller portion of the square, 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 today, 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."
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Sheridan reported from Munich, DeYoung from Washington. Correspondents Michael Birnbaum in Munich and Ernesto Londono and Craig Whitlock in Cairo and special correspondents Samuel Sockol and Sherine Bayoumi in Cairo also contributed to this report.