Egyptian government offers concessions as street protests continue

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The Independent Online

The Egyptian government yesterday began to offer possible political concessions in an effort to control the crisis still engulfing the country, as tens of thousands of determined protesters rallied for a 13th day to demand the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.

The new promises of political reform were treated with caution by the opposition groups as they held the first of a series of meetings – including the first between the hitherto outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and the regime – to discuss their demands with Mr Mubarak's deputy, Omar Suleiman.

Traffic began to clog some of Cairo's main streets again as many businesses reopened for the first time since the crisis began. Troops manned main intersections and employees were bussed into their jobs at state banks. But tentative predictions that the return to work for Egyptians who were confined to their homes during the unrest would diminish the numbers of protesters were unfulfilled.

Protesters again poured into the city centre's Tahrir Square in the thousands for a further exuberant day of peaceful protest in which many taking part appeared to be encouraged by signs of what they saw as a gradual government retreat. Muslim prayers and a Coptic Christian mass were held in the square to commemorate the deaths of protesters during the demonstrations in Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere – a toll which the United Nations says may be as high as 300.

Hassan al-Roweny, head of the central command of the Army, which continues to play a key, if so far undetermined, role in helping to decide the outcome of the protest, toured Tahrir (Liberation) Square to try persuading the protesters – who were complaining about poverty, repression and corruption – to leave the usually busy intersection. "We want people to go back to work and to get paid, and life to get back to normal," he said.

But the Army again largely appeared to abide by its pledge last week not to use force against protesters, many of whom continue to declare their support for the military, as opposed to the police. There was a brief burst of gunfire last night, apparently warning shots fired by the Army as it attempted to tighten its control of the north side of the square, where many of the clashes between pro and anti-Mubarak demonstrators occurred last week.

The government showed no signs of varying the timetable laid down by the embattled President last week, in which he said he would stay for another six months to oversee reforms and elections. The government said that it had agreed to draft a "road map" for further talks. It would also take steps to release jailed activists, guarantee press freedom and lift emergency laws "according to the security conditions", Mr Suleiman said on state television in front of a picture of the 82-year-old Mr Mubarak.

Abdul Monem Aboul Fouteh, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, told the satellite channel Al Jazeera after the meeting with Mr Suleiman: "We cannot call it talks or negotiations. The Muslim Brotherhood went with a key condition that cannot be abandoned... that he [Mubarak] needs to step down in order to usher in a democratic phase."

Insisting that the Muslim Brotherhood did not intend to put up a candidate for future presidential elections, Mr Fouteh instead said that the government had not yet shown it was serious about the negotiating process and that it needed to take a series of steps, including the dissolution of parliament and the repeal of emergency powers, as a sign of good faith in the talks. He said that the Brotherhood would decide its stance on further talks today.

A member of the 25-man group of "wise men" whose existence was revealed by The Independent on Saturday, Ahmed Zewail, the Nobel prize winning Egyptian-American scientist, repeatedly praised the youth of Tahrir Square and said the group was seeking key changes on the constitution, an end to emergency laws, the release of all political prisoners, free elections, and freeing up media, which would including state television.

But he appeared to hold out the possibility of some compromise on Mr Mubarak's own position. While acknowledging that that there was a problem of trust, subject to guarantees, some members of the group might be inclined to accept Mr Mubarak's six-month timetable for departure, he said.

Another eminent member of the group, who did not want to be named, warned that "cast-iron" guarantees of reform were needed, including the dissolution of parliaments, a new constitution and an interim coalition government.

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