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Egypt opens talks with protesters as rallies go on


CHAOS: Egyptian tanks separate pro-government and anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, last week. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

CHAOS: Egyptian tanks separate pro-government and anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, last week. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

CHAOS: Egyptian tanks separate pro-government and anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, last week. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

THE leadership of Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party resigned yesterday, including Gamal Mubarak, the son of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose rule has been shaken by days of protests, state television said.

Al Arabiya TV reported that Hosni Mubarak had also resigned as head of the ruling party but later retracted their statement. However, a party official said that if Mr Mubarak were to resign from the party, it would not affect his position as president. "These are two different positions," the official said.

Meanwhile, leaders of Egypt's unprecedented wave of anti-government protests have held talks with the prime minister over ways to ease Mr Mubarak out of the president's office, but the government appeared to be digging in its heels yesterday, calculating that it can ride out street demonstrations.

Protesters have refused to end their mass rallies in downtown Tahrir Square until Mr Mubarak quits. Tens of thousands gathered in Tahrir yesterday, waving flags and chanting a day after some 100,000 massed there in an intensified demonstration labelled "the day of departure", in hopes it would have been the day Mr Mubarak left.

Their unprecedented 12-day movement has entered a delicate new phase. Organisers fear that without the pressure of protesters on the street, Mr Mubarak's regime will enact only cosmetic reforms and try to preserve its grip on power. So they are reluctant to lift their demonstrations without the concrete gain of Mr Mubarak's ouster and a transition mechanism that guarantees a real move to democracy afterwards.

From its side, the government has sought to draw opposition parties and the youth groups involved in the protests into immediate negotiations on constitutional reforms so presidential elections can be held in September to replace Mr Mubarak.

Protest organisers, wary of a trap, have refused until Mr Mubarak goes.

At a press conference aired on state TV, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq suggested that the government hoped to convince enough factions to enter talks that the others would be forced to join in. Asked whether the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, would enter talks, he said: "Once they find the others are negotiating, for sure they will or they will be left alone. . . The level of aspirations is going down day by day."

He noted that the protesters had changed their slogan from "day of departure" to a "week of steadfastness", saying that this was "because they failed on Friday" in forcing out Mr Mubarak. "All this leads to stability," he said.

Government officials, meanwhile, sought to depict that normalcy was returning to a capital that has been paralysed for nearly two weeks by the crisis.

State TV announced that banks and courts, closed for most of the turmoil, will reopen today, the start of Egypt's work week, though daily bank withdrawals will be limited to $15,000 and the stock market will remain shut at least through tomorrow.

Mr Shafiq's comments pointed to what could be the regime's strategy in the coming phase: isolate protests but let them go on in hopes they burn out while trying to keep the government Mr Mubarak installed last week in place to direct the reform process. Mr Shafiq and Vice President Omar Suleiman -- both military men like Mr Mubarak and regime stalwarts put in their posts last week -- have taken the lead in trying to arrange reform negotiations.

Egypt's top ally, the United States, has pressed Mr Mubarak, who has ruled for nearly three decades with an authoritarian hand, to launch a democratic transition immediately and step aside quickly.

The administration has held behind-the-scenes talks with Egyptian officials on a variety of ways to do that, including a proposal that Mr Mubarak step down now and hand power to Mr Suleiman.

US President Barack Obama stopped short of calling for Mr Mubarak's immediate resignation, but said on Friday that the Egyptian leader should think about his legacy and exit office in a way that ensures peace and democracy. "My hope is -- that he will end up making the right decision," Mr Obama said.

Friday saw tentative contacts between the government, protest organisers and independents trying to convince the leadership on a graceful way out for Mr Mubarak.

A self-declared group of Egypt's elite -- called the "group of wise men" -- has circulated ideas to try to break that deadlock. Among them is a proposal that Mr Mubarak "deputise" Mr Suleiman with his powers and step down in everything but name, perhaps keeping the presidency title for the time being at least.

The "wise men", who are separate from the protesters on the ground, have met twice in recent days with Mr Suleiman and Mr Shafiq, said Amr el-Shobaki, a member of the group. Their proposals also call for the dissolving of the parliament monopolised by the ruling party and the end of emergency laws that give security forces near-unlimited powers.

"The stumbling point remains that of the president stepping down," Mr El-Shobaki said.

The "wise men" are comprised of about a dozen prominent public figures and jurists, including former cabinet minister and lawyer Ahmed Kamal Aboul-Magd, businessman Naguib Sawiris and political scientist academics like Mr El-Shobaki.

"We don't represent the youth on the ground. We keep in touch with them," he said.

Late on Friday, a delegation from the protesters themselves met with Mr Shafiq to discuss ways out of the impasse, said Abdel-Rahman Youssef, a youth activist who participated in the meeting.

"It was a message to see how to resolve the crisis. The message is that they must recognise the legitimacy of the revolution and that president must leave one way or the other, either real or political departure," he said.

The protesters are looking into the proposal floated by the "wise men", said Mr Youssef, who is part of the youth movement connected to Nobel Peace laureate and prominent reform advocate Mohamed ElBaradei.

"It could be a way out of the crisis," Mr Youssef said.

"But the problem is in the president . . . he is not getting it that he has become a burden on everybody, psychologically, civilly and militarily."

Israa Abdel-Fattah, a member of the April 6 group, another of the youth movements driving the demonstrations, said there was support for the wise men's proposal among protesters.

Mr Youssef underlined that the 12-day-old protests would continue in Tahrir Square until Mr Mubarak goes in an acceptable way. "There is no force that can get the youth out of the square. Every means was used. Flexibility, violence, live ammunition, and even thugs, and the protesters are still steadfast," he said, referring to an assault by regime supporters last Wednesday that sparked 48 hours of heavy street fighting until protesters succeeded in driving off the attackers.

Sunday Independent