Egyptian opposition softens demand for Mubarak’s immediate exit-Washington Post

Egyptian opposition softens demand for Mubarak’s immediate exit

By Craig Whitlock and Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 6, 2011; 4:08 PM

CAIRO – The main Egyptian opposition groups eased up on their insistence that President Hosni Mubarak step down immediately, agreeing instead on Sunday to join in talks toward overhauling the country’s political system at a more gradual pace while Mubarak remains in office.

The shift suggested that Mubarak and his allies may have succeeded in defusing the fiercest of cries from opponents who had insisted that the president resign as a precondition for any talks. It followed the clearest signals yet from the Obama administration that its call for a quick transition in Egypt did not include a demand that Mubarak step aside before elections this fall.

Among those who joined for the first time in talks with Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s newly appointed vice president, were leaders from the banned Muslim Brotherhood movement, along with a loose coalition of political parties, intellectuals and protest organizers. Suleiman said the government will agree to consider sweeping changes, including constitutional amendments and a possible end to Egypt’s three-decade-old state of emergency.

While the meeting itself was a concession to opposition groups, the setting underscored who remains in charge. The parties gathered around a formal, oval-shaped dais as a portrait of Mubarak gazed down on them.

In a television interview, Suleiman made it clear that the government’s willingness to consider the changes was based on an expectation that Mubarak would stay in charge during a drawn-out transition to a new government. Mubarak has insisted that he will not leave before his term ends in September.

“If President Mubarak would say that ‘I’m leaving now,’ who would take over?” Suleiman told ABC. “I think with this atmosphere, that means that the other people who have their own agenda will make instability in our country.”

The developments did not appear to satisfy the crowds of protesters who have packed Tahrir Square in the heart of the capital for two weeks. Thousands continued to occupy the plaza on Sunday, even as banks, schools and shops reopened across Egypt and traffic jams returned to Cairo’s normally anarchic streets.

Many among the protesters said they had no choice but to hold firm. If the demonstrations were to end prematurely, they said, Mubarak and Suleiman would renege on their promises and deploy the feared secret police to round up dissenters.

“All these attempts at putting people to sleep by responding to very marginal demands is just a tactic to gain time,” said Hafez Moussa, 36, a Muslim cleric from the al-Azhar district in Cairo. “As soon as people leave the square, he will take his revenge on all of them.”

More tanks on the streets

Army units have increased their presence in and around Tahrir Square, parking tanks on every street. Although they have allowed the protests to unfold, military officials have gradually imposed obstacles – more checkpoints, more coils of razor wire, limitations on television cameras – and urged demonstrators to go home.

Sunday’s talks were the first that the Mubarak government has held with the Muslim Brotherhood, the fundamentalist movement that has battled with the military strongmen who have ruled Egypt since 1952.

In a statement, the Brotherhood said it agreed to join the talks in “the best interests of Egypt.” Mohammed Mursi, a leader who attended, called the meeting an exploratory “first step” but warned that negotiations would be pointless unless Mubarak and his allies moved quickly “to meet people’s demands.”

After weathering an unexpectedly fierce public revolt, including a mass rally on Friday that drew more than 100,000 people, Mubarak and his allies appear to have concluded that the protests have crested and that time will now work in his favor.

The reopening of Egypt’s banks on Sunday for the first time in a week generated long lines of customers in need of cash, but no sign of broad panic. The Central Bank of Egypt limited withdrawals to 52,000 Egyptian pounds and capped foreign-currency withdrawals at $10,000 – steps that helped limit the immediate impact. The Egyptian pound dropped in value by less than 2 percent in relation to the dollar.

The reopening of the Egyptian stock market, expected this week, and upcoming bond sales will also function as barometers of how the economy has been affected by the unrest.

“All things considered, Sunday has run pretty smoothly,” said Anthony Skinner, an analyst with the Maplecroft consulting firm in Britain. “We see a concerted attempt by the authorities at damage limitation.”

An eased U.S. stance

The Obama administration has also given Mubarak more breathing room. After prodding him last week to step down – the White House insisted that the transition to a new government begin “now” – U.S. officials have since said they could live with Mubarak as a lame duck as long as negotiations for democratic reforms proceed.

“We are putting a lot into making sure the dialogue process that has begun is meaningful and transparent and leads to concrete actions,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in an interview Sunday with NPR.

Osama Al Ghazali Harb, a political scientist and writer who has been active in the demonstrations, said that if the gestures offered by Suleiman on Sunday had been declared a month ago, they would have been perceived as monumental concessions from an autorcratic government. But he said they may not satisfy those whose aspirations for democracy have grown bolder in the days since the protests began.

“These were very important targets in the past. But what we want now is a totally different regime,” he said. “All of these concessions are good, but no one will dare go to the millions who have taken to the streets and tell them it’s enough.”

In interviews, protesters still in the square distanced themselves from the political figures who have begun negotiations with Suleiman, 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 that “the people on Tahrir Square either wouldn’t recognize them, or else would barely give them the time of day.”

whitlockc@washpost.com

Correspondent Will Englund in Cairo and staff writer Howard Schneider in Washington contributed to this report.

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