CAIRO, Egypt – The leadership of Egypt’s ruling party resigned Saturday, a purge that would have been beyond Egyptians’ imaginations a few short weeks ago but was unlikely to placate a hard-core opposition frustrated with what it sees as costume changes in the government of President Hosni Mubarak.
The dismantling of the National Democratic Party’s power structure is a dramatic indication of the pressure on new Vice President Omar Suleiman to remove the vestiges of Mubarak’s power and snip the ambitions of his son Gamal, a deeply unpopular figure who was among those resigning their posts.
At the same time, however, the Egyptian army began to reassert control around Cairo’s Tahrir Square, with hundreds of soldiers moving into streets around the downtown plaza that has been the epicenter of the anti-Mubarak protests.
Control of the square, or even a return to normal traffic of the area around it, would reinforce the government’s message that it will remain in control of the country for the seven months leading to elections – and that Mubarak need not resign, as the opposition demands.
And as the government fights to stay in power, it has found itself dealing with a fractured opposition that appears unable to agree on how to proceed, and keep the momentum of history-making protests on its side.
After key opposition leaders failed to show up Saturday for a bargaining session with Suleiman, the Obama administration expressed disappointment, and called on them to begin discussions immediately.
A senior administration official said opposition groups continued to hold back, apparently fearful they would lose leverage if they began talks before Mubarak surrendered power.
“The major players still haven’t shown up,” the official said. “But they need to test the government’s willingness to make major change. … The onus is on the opposition.”
Long harassed, divided and co-opted by the Mubarak government, the opposition is a disparate collection of voices that has been viewed with suspicion by the public, raising questions as to whether it really speaks for the protesters who have filled the streets of Cairo.
Ahmed Magib, a youth movement protest organizer, said young organizers were worried that their voices weren’t being heard as the government and traditional opposition parties, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood and Ayman Nour’s El Ghad Party, look for ways to nudge Mubarak aside and form a transitional government.
“The old opposition parties don’t represent the young people,” he said. “Everyone needs to realize that it was the young people who brought about this change. We need to be heard.”
But Magib made it clear that he and his friends would not be mollified by half steps such as changes to the ruling-party leadership and would settle for nothing less than Mubarak’s immediate removal.
New Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik said on state television that stability was returning to the country and that large demonstrations such as the one that took place in Tahrir Square on Friday would not succeed in forcing a change of regime.
“We haven’t been affected and, God willing, next Friday we won’t be affected,” Shafik said. “All this leads to stability.”
At a security conference in the German city of Munich, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signaled confidence that Egyptian officials around Mubarak were moving toward reform and expressed support for Suleiman as the leader of an orderly transition.
“That is what the government is trying to do; that is what we are supporting, and hope to see it move as orderly and expeditiously as possible under the circumstances,” she said.
The Obama administration backed away from comments by Frank Wisner, the former diplomat who served last week as a special emissary, in which he suggested that Mubarak should remain in office temporarily.
Two senior administration officials said Saturday that Wisner was speaking entirely for himself, and not for the U.S. government.
American officials have been careful to stop short of calling for Mubarak to resign, using instead the phrase “step aside,” and acknowledge that his outright resignation could create legal complications that would hamper the transition and political reforms.
In the party shuffle, the National Democratic Party’s secretary-general, Safwat Sharif, was replaced by Hossam Badrawi, a doctor and member of parliament who is an advocate for human rights.
Over the years, even as poverty widened and government social services failed, it was the National Democratic Party, not Mubarak, that was often seen as the villain by the public. It was viewed as a politically connected rich man’s club aloof from the concerns of the nation yet protected by the power of the state.
Two cases over the years highlighted the crisscrossing interests between the party and the government. In 2006, an unseaworthy ferry owned by Mamdouh Ismail, a Mubarak appointee to the upper house of parliament, capsized in the Red Sea, killing 1,029 passengers.
Ismail was charged with manslaughter but fled to London, taking his bank accounts with him. He was initially found not guilty in absentia, but after the prosecution appealed, was sentenced to seven years. He remains at large.
In 2008, Hisham Talaat Mustafa, a billionaire construction magnate and a prominent member of the ruling party, was arrested in the killing of his former girlfriend Suzanne Tamim, a Lebanese pop diva. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. The ruling was overturned on appeal and he was granted a new trial. He was then sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The party was further identified with Gamal Mubarak, who represented a young, business-oriented wing that pushed through economic reforms. The result has been impressive economic gains that in recent years have helped lift the nation in the eyes of foreign investors but have failed to stem inflation or the poverty besetting the more than 40 percent of Egyptians living on $2 a day or less.
In Tahrir Square on Saturday, Fatima Khalid, a 29-year-old in a head scarf, said government calls for a return to normality might foreshadow a crackdown.
“But they need to understand: For us, this is normal now,” she said. “We will never stop asking for our rights.”