Egypt's popular uprising against Hosni Mubarak faltered yesterday as opposition leaders, including the Muslim Brotherhood, embarked on negotiations and the ranks of street protesters was reduced by the arrest of key ringleaders.
As the veteran president regained some of the initiative lost during nearly a fortnight of demonstrations, the Brotherhood, Egypt's popular but banned opposition, dropped its refusal to join talks.
Mr Mubarak was also boosted by a return to relative normality in the city, which was clogged by familiar traffic jams for the first time in days.
Tens of thousands of protesters thronged Cairo's Tahrir Square, but for the first time there was serious tension with the army, whose role in tightening security in the city and in arresting activists has dashed hopes that it was turning against the regime.
Omar Suleiman, the vice-president overseeing talks for the regime, offered leaders of the Brotherhood and other opposition parties a string of concessions, albeit often vague.
They included a promise to move towards releasing political prisoners, a pledge to take steps to guarantee press freedom and an offer to lift emergency laws in place for decades, but only when the security situation improves.
An agreement was also reached to form a committee that will recommend constitutional reforms to ensure that presidential elections in September -- in which Mr Mubarak has promised not to run -- will be free and fair.
It will not report until March, allowing Mr Mubarak time to manoeuvre while acceding to US President Barack Obama's demand that a transition of power gets under way.
While insisting that it expected more to be done, the group represented by Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Laureate and leading Egyptian dissident, cautiously welcomed the initiative.
"The meeting was positive in general but it is only the beginning," said Mustafa Naggar, coordinator for Mr ElBaradei's National Association for Change.
The Muslim Brotherhood denounced the concessions as "insufficient", but said talks would continue.
Many demonstrators on Tahrir Square said they felt betrayed by the compromises on the table. "Executive authority is still in Mubarak's hands," said Yusuf Abdul, an engineer.
Human rights groups claimed that military police were involved in the arrests of thousands of people, including activists and foreign journalists in recent days.
Ahmed Saif al-Islam Hafez, a prominent lawyer, was one of 30 people rounded up at the Hisham Mubarak Legal Centre, which has played a key role in documenting the protests.
He said he was told by a senior officer that Mr Mubarak had "made mistakes" but the army would never let a former leader face "this kind of end". (© Daily Telegraph, London)