CAIRO, Egypt – Opposition groups including the banned Muslim Brotherhood held landmark talks Sunday with Egypt’s vice president, but the two sides remained at apparent loggerheads over opponents’ principal demand: that President Hosni Mubarak step aside now.
The government offered up a number of new concessions that would have constituted an undreamed-of bonanza for the opposition only a few weeks ago. But demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square shrugged off the conciliatory steps, saying nothing less than Mubarak’s departure would satisfy them.
Protesters by the thousands continued their round-the-clock occupation of the sprawling plaza. However, revolutionary fervor was increasingly at odds with the urgent wishes of many Egyptians to resume their normal routines.
Banks, along with many shops and businesses, reopened Sunday, the first day of the Egyptian workweek. Traffic surged on previously empty roadways.
In talks with some opposition groups, Vice President Omar Suleiman dangled the possibility of abolishing Egypt’s state of emergency, a widely loathed 30-year-old decree that gives sweeping powers to the security establishment.
Suleiman also offered what amounted to an amnesty for nonviolent protesters, greater press freedoms, formal redress for those seized by the secret police, and the creation of a broadly representative committee to work on constitutional reforms. But most in the square expressed skepticism that there would be follow-through on such pledges.
Still, Suleiman’s face-to-face talks that included the Brotherhood, which has been outlawed since the 1950s, were momentous for a government that for decades has attempted to isolate that organization through intimidation and the arrests of thousands of its members. Inviting the nation’s largest opposition party – one that supports a constitution based on Islamic law – into negotiations reveals how much Egypt’s political landscape has changed in the last two weeks.
In Washington, political officials and diplomatic experts applauded the talks, saying they could represent a turning point in the crisis.
It’s “frankly quite extraordinary,” said Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He called progress on lifting the longtime emergency law a “major, major opening of the door to the democratic process.”
President Barack Obama, in a pre-Superbowl interview with Fox News, said that “Egypt is not going to go back to what it was.”
Obama described the Muslim Brotherhood as a well-organized group with anti-American rhetoric, but he downplayed the group’s size and influence in Egypt and as a potential part of any new governing coalition.
“I think the Muslim Brotherhood is one faction in Egypt,” he told Fox’s Bill O’Reilly. “They are “well-organized,” he said, and “there are strains of the ideology that are anti-U.S.”
“It’s important for us not to say our only two options are the Muslim Brotherhood or a suppressed Egyptian people,” Obama said.
As has been his practice in recent days, Obama avoided saying that Mubarak should resign immediately.
Opposition groups have said they have not abandoned their demands that Mubarak step down. Sunday’s talks, however, allowed the government to show it was attempting to meet protesters’ demands while granting opposition parties a rare seat at the center of power.
In an apparent bid to halt the protests, Mubarak recently promised that neither he nor his son Gamal would run in the presidential election scheduled for September. He shook up his Cabinet, and the leadership of the ruling party, including his son, resigned.
But the longtime leader has dug in his heels on the protesters’ demand that he leave office immediately, saying his abrupt departure would trigger chaos and pave the way for a takeover by Islamists.
In a communique issued after Sunday’s talks, endorsed by the opposition groups taking part, Suleiman promised a full investigation of the abrupt pullback of police in cities nine days ago – a move that triggered a wave of looting – and also a probe of last week’s violent and seemingly carefully choreographed attack on the square by groups supporting the regime.
The talks Sunday drew criticism from one key opposition leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who said he would not negotiate with the government until Mubarak stepped down.
“The whole idea was to move that regime to a new regime,” ElBaradei said on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.” “Mubarak continues to be a symbol of that old regime, and I will not give any legitimacy to that existing regime.”
He proposed the creation of a transitional presidential council, including Suleiman or an army representative along with civilians, that would prepare the country for free and fair elections. Any elections before “the right people establish parties and engage” would be “fake democracy,” he said.
Although ElBaradei did not join Sunday’s talks, a representative of his National Front for Change attended.
Soldiers, meanwhile, continued to tighten their cordon around Tahrir Square, though demonstrators were still permitted to come and go. On Sunday, the 13th day of the uprising, families were back out in force – unlike on some previous days when the crowd was dominated by men grimly making ready to fight off gangs of pro-Mubarak partisans.
Once more, all of Cairo society rubbed elbows in the square: corporate executives, students, Islamists and cab drivers. Flags waved. Vendors sold sandwiches and sweets. Crowds shouted, “The old glory of Egypt is coming back!”
Lamis Shams, 17, accompanied her mother to the square for the second time since Friday. “The whole thing must go – the parliament, the constitution, all of it,” she said.
Beside her, her mother, in white silver-studded sunglasses, waved two Egyptian flags; protesters are trying to counter the government’s accusations that the demonstrations amount to unpatriotic behavior.
Both women vowed to continue coming to the square. “We are staying here,” Lamis said, “until everything is done.”