Egypt VP meets opposition, offers new concessions

MAGGIE MICHAEL - Associated Press,SARAH EL DEEB - Associated Press
The Associated Press

Egypt's vice president reached out to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups Sunday as part of a new offer of sweeping concessions including press freedom and an eventual end to hated emergency laws that have been in place for decades, the latest attempt to try to calm an anti-government upheaval.

But the youthful protesters filling Cairo's main square said they were not represented and were united in rejecting any form of negotiations until President Hosni Mubarak steps down, raising questions about whether a rift might be developing that could undermine their campaign.

The protesters, skeptical the government will keep any promises to reform, said they will maintain their pressure.

Egypt's opposition has long been hampered by a lack of cohesiveness and Sunday's talks could be a sign the government is trying to divide and conquer as it tries to placate protesters without giving in to their chief demand for Mubarak to go now.

Khaled Abdul-Hamid, one leader of a new coalition representing at least five youth movements that organized the 13-day-old protests, said his coalition did not attend the meeting with Vice President Omar Suleiman, who is leading the government's management of the crisis.

"None of those who attended represent us," Abdul-Hamid told The Associated Press. "We are not and will not hold negotiations with Suleiman until the ouster of Mubarak," he added. "We are determined to press on until our number one demand is met. ... The regime is retreating. It is making more concessions every day."

The Brotherhood and another group that attended the talks both said afterward that this was only a first step in a dialogue which has yet to meet their central demand for Mubarak's immediate ouster, showing the two sides had not reached a concensus.

"I think Mubarak will have to stop being stubborn by the end of this week because the country cannot take more million strong protests," said Brotherhood representative Essam el-Erian.

Suleiman's invitation to the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in the meeting was the latest in a series of concessions that would have been unimaginable just a month ago in this tightly controlled country.

Since protests began on Jan. 25, Mubarak has pledged publicly for the first time that he will not seek re-election. The government promised his son Gamal, who had widely been expected to succeed him, would also not stand. Mubarak appointed a vice president for the first time since he took office three decades ago. He sacked his Cabinet, named a new one and promised reforms. And on Saturday, the top leaders of the ruling party, including Gamal Mubarak, were purged.

Suleiman, who the protesters consider tainted because he was chosen by Mubarak, said Sunday he did not want to seek the presidency.

Suleiman and Mubarak have both blamed the Islamic fundamentalist Brotherhood for fomenting the unrest and Mubarak is known to have little tolerance for Islamist groups. The Brotherhood, the country's largest opposition group, aims to create an Islamic state in Egypt. But it insists it would not force women to cover up in public in line with Islam's teachings and would not rescind Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

A key concern of the U.S. and its ally Israel, watching the events of the past 13 days unfold in Egypt, is that the Brotherhood will emerge as the dominant political force in a post-Mubarak Egypt.

Opening talks with the Brotherhood is a tacit recognition by the regime of its key role in the ongoing protests as well as their wide popular base.

Of all the opposition groups that met with Suleiman, the Brotherhood stands to gain the most. There have been no known discussions between the group and the regime at this level since Mubarak took power in 1981.

The Brotherhood has been outlawed since 1954 and denied legitimacy, only allowed to contest parliamentary elections by fielding candidates as independents.

The Brotherhood made a surprisingly strong showing in elections in 2005, winning 20 percent of parliament's seats. However, thousands of its members were arrested in crackdowns over the past decade and it failed to win a single seat in elections held late last year. The vote was heavily marred by fraud that allowed the ruling National Democratic Party to win all but a small number of the chamber's 518 seats.

The Brotherhood entered the talks without a single lawmaker in parliament and without any parliamentary representation, it leaves the group with a legitimate cover that allows its representatives to freely interact with the population without running the risk of police intimidation or worse.

The Brotherhood did not organize or lead the protests currently under way and only publicly threw its support behind them a few days into the movement. It only ordered its supporters to take part when it sensed that the protesters, mostly young men and women using social networks on the Internet to mobilize, were able to sustain their momentum.

However, the Brotherhood's followers appear to be growing in Tahrir Square.

If the Brotherhood wins legitimacy out of this revolution and nothing else, it would be enough of a prize.

Some prominent figures from Egypt's elite have suggested that there is a deliberate attempt by the regime to cling to power by offering just enough to satisfy some established opposition groups like the Brotherhood and splinter the protest movement.

Abouel Ela Madi, ex-Brotherhood member, said the regime hopes to attract the group away from the other protesters.

"If the regime manages to influence the Brotherhood, it will have a shattering effect. A bulk of the protesters belong to the Brotherhood and thus their talks might play a negative role in foiling the completion of the revolution," he said.

"I hope they don't make this mistake."

Suleiman offered a series of new concessions, saying the government would no longer hamper freedom of press and won't interfere with text messaging and Internet.

He also proposed setting up a committee of judiciary and political figures to study proposed constitutional reforms that would allow more candidates to run for president and impose term limits on the presidency, the state news agency reported. The committee was given until the first week of March to finish the tasks.

The offer included a pledge not to harass those participating in anti-government protests, which have drawn hundreds of thousands at the biggest rallies.

One of the biggest fears of protesters is that if Mubarak or his close confidant Suleiman remain in power, they will exact revenge for the humiliating demonstrations by rounding up protesters and torturing them. Many protesters have reported seeing undercover security forces in the crowds every day, photographing the demonstrators with cell phone cameras.

Suleiman's offer to eventually lift emergency laws with a major caveat — when security permits — would fulfill a longtime demand by the opposition. The laws were imposed by Mubarak when he took office in 1981 and they have been in force ever since. They give police far-reaching powers for detention and suppression of civil and human rights.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry hailed the talks with opposition groups and the promise to remove the emergency law as "frankly quite extraordinary." Kerry called on Mubarak to lay out a timetable for transition and new elections.

"He must step aside gracefully, and begin the process of transition to a caretaker government. I believe that is happening right now," Kerry told NBC's Meet the Press. "What's needed now is a clarity in this process."

Mubarak is insisting he cannot stand down now or it would only deepen the chaos in his country. The United States shifted signals and gave key backing to the regime's gradual changes on Saturday, warning of the dangers if Mubarak goes too quickly.

Suleiman also offered to open an office that would field complaints about political prisoners, according to the state news agency. He promised a commission judicial authorities to fight corruption and prosecute those behind it. In another concession, authorities promised to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the yet unexplained disappearance of police from Cairo's streets more than a week ago, which unleashed a wave of lawless looting and arson.

The government agreed to set up a committee that includes public and independent figures and specialists and representatives of youth movements to monitor the "honest implementation" of all the new agreements and to report back and give recommendations to Suleiman.

Along with the Muslim Brotherhood, a number of smaller leftist, liberal groups also attended, according to footage shown on state television. Most are little know groups that were around before the protests began.

Some of the youthful supporters of Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace laureate and one of the country's leading democracy advocates, were among those who participated. However, ElBaradei was not invited and his brother said the statement by those who did attend does not represent his personal view. ElBaradei is among those refusing to talk to representatives of Mubarak until he steps down.

"The process is opaque," ElBaradei told NBC's Meet the Press. "Nobody knows who is talking to whom at this stage."

The Brotherhood and the ElBaradei supporters both said afterward that this was only a first step in a dialogue which has yet to meet their central demand — Mubarak's immediate ouster.

Mohammed Mursi, one of the Brothers who attended the talks, said: "Unless he moves fast to meet people's demands there is no point in the dialogue."

Mursi said what was issued was a position in principle, "a first step."

"All those attending the meeting agreed the protesters have a right to stay where they are without anyone assaulting them," he said. "People want real change, a change that includes the president, his government, his party and his regime," Mursi added.

He also said the group was expecting a second round of talks within a few days.

Also Sunday, there were signs that the paralysis that has gripped the country since the crisis began was easing Sunday, the first day of the week in Egypt. Some schools reopened for the first time in more than a week, and banks did the same for only three hours with long lines outside.

However, there is still a night curfew, and tanks ringing the city's central square and guarding government buildings, embassies and other important institutions.

In the capital Cairo, home to some 18 million people, traffic was back to near regular levels and more stores reopened, including some on the streets leading to Tahrir Square. Protesters greeted some store owners and people returning to work with flowers.

In Zamalek, an affluent island in the middle of the Nile that is home to many foreign embassies, food outlets reopened and pizza delivery boys checked their motorbikes. Employees at a KFC restaurant wiped down tables. Hairdressers and beauty salons called their patrons to let them know they were reopening.

At the epicenter of the protests, Tahrir (Liberation) Square in central Cairo, some activists said they had slept under army tanks ringing the plaza for fear they would try to evict them or further confine the area for demonstrations. The crowd of thousands in the morning swelled steadily over the day to tens of thousands in the late afternoon. Many were exhausted and wounded from fighting to stand their ground for more than a week in the square.

Hundreds performed the noon prayers and later offered a prayer for the souls of protesters killed in clashes with security forces. Later, Christians held a Sunday Mass and thousands of Muslims joined in.

Some of the worshippers broke down and cried as the congregation sang: "Bless our country, listen to the screams of our hearts."

"In the name of Jesus and Muhammad we unify our ranks," Father Ihab al-Kharat said in his sermon. "We will keep protesting until the fall of the tyranny."


Associated Press reporter Salah Nasrawi contributed to this report from Cairo.