Opposition Groups Meet Egyptian Vice President

Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman held talks Sunday with opposition groups, including the controversial Muslim Brotherhood, and agreed to set up a committee to study constitutional reforms, but most of the groups said the talks fell far short and the youth movement that has led street protests against the regime said it did not recognize the meeting.

Leading political opposition figures said the meeting with Suleiman was positive, but that the two sides were still far apart on the issue of broad political reform. But a coalition of groups representing Egyptian youth who have helped organize the daily protests in Tahrir Square did not attend the meeting. They said the gathering did not represent them.

"Any young people now talking with Omar Suleiman or anyone else in the government does not represent the youth groups that called for the January 25th revolt," said youth leader Ahmed Mahar said. "They have no power over us or over the groups in Tharir Square.

We all are united on this, he said, "no negotiations before [President Hosni] Mubarak's departure."

The youth movement also called for an end to the state of emergency, the dissolution of parliament and creation of an interim national unity government.

"The demonstration in Tahrir Square seems as big and almost jubilant as it was yesterday," NPR's Corey Flintoff told Weekend All Things Considered host Linda Wertheimer on Sunday.

Egypt's opposition has long been hampered by a lack of cohesiveness and Sunday's talks could be a sign the government is trying to divide and conquer as it tries to placate protesters without giving in to their chief demand for Mubarak to go now.

The Brotherhood and another group that attended the talks both said afterward that this was only a first step in a dialogue which has yet to meet their central demand for Mubarak's immediate ouster, showing the two sides had not reached a concensus.

"I think Mubarak will have to stop being stubborn by the end of this week because the country cannot take more million strong protests," said Brotherhood representative Essam el-Erian.

Suleiman's invitation to the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in the meeting was the latest in a series of concessions that would have been unimaginable just a month ago in this tightly controlled country.

Since protests began on Jan. 25, Mubarak has pledged publicly for the first time that he will not seek re-election. The government promised his son Gamal, who had widely been expected to succeed him, would also not stand. Mubarak appointed a vice president for the first time since he took office three decades ago. He sacked his Cabinet, named a new one and promised reforms. And on Saturday, the top leaders of the ruling party, including Gamal Mubarak, were purged.

Suleiman, who the protesters consider tainted because he was chosen by Mubarak, said Sunday he did not want to seek the presidency.

Suleiman and Mubarak have both blamed the Islamic fundamentalist Brotherhood for fomenting the unrest and Mubarak is known to have little tolerance for Islamist groups. The Brotherhood, the country's largest opposition group, aims to create an Islamic state in Egypt. But it insists it would not force women to cover up in public in line with Islam's teachings and would not rescind Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

In an interview with Fox News, President Obama called the Brotherhood a well-organized movement with some strains of anti-U.S. ideology.

"It's important for us not to say that our only two options are the Muslim Brotherhood or a suppressed Egyptian people," he told Fox's Bill O'Reilly. "What I want is a representative government in Egypt."

Some prominent figures from Egypt's elite have suggested that there is a deliberate attempt by the regime to cling to power by offering just enough to satisfy some established opposition groups like the Brotherhood and splinter the protest movement.

Abouel Ela Madi, ex-Brotherhood member, said the regime hopes to attract the group away from the other protesters.

"If the regime manages to influence the Brotherhood, it will have a shattering effect. A bulk of the protesters belong to the Brotherhood and thus their talks might play a negative role in foiling the completion of the revolution," he said. "I hope they don't make this mistake."

Suleiman offered a series of new concessions, saying the government would no longer hamper freedom of press and won't interfere with text messaging and Internet.

He also proposed setting up a committee of judiciary and political figures to study proposed constitutional reforms that would allow more candidates to run for president and impose term limits on the presidency, the state news agency reported. The committee was given until the first week of March to finish the tasks.

"That's key because regime opponents have feared that if the current constitutional restrictions remain in place, it meant that nobody could really challenge the political establishment in the elections," NPR's Flintoff said.

The offer included a pledge not to harass those participating in anti-government protests, which have drawn hundreds of thousands at the biggest rallies.

One of the biggest fears of protesters is that if Mubarak or his close confidant Suleiman remain in power, they will exact revenge for the humiliating demonstrations by rounding up protesters and torturing them. Many protesters have reported seeing undercover security forces in the crowds every day, photographing the demonstrators with cell phone cameras.

Suleiman's offer to eventually lift emergency laws with a major caveat — when security permits — would fulfill a longtime demand by the opposition. The laws were imposed by Mubarak when he took office in 1981 and they have been in force ever since. They give police far-reaching powers for detention and suppression of civil and human rights.

Mubarak is insisting he cannot stand down now or it would only deepen the chaos in his country. The United States shifted signals and gave key backing to the regime's gradual changes on Saturday, warning of the dangers if Mubarak goes too quickly.

Suleiman also offered to open an office that would field complaints about political prisoners, according to the state news agency. He promised a commission of judicial authorities to fight corruption and prosecute those behind it. In another concession, authorities promised to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the yet unexplained disappearance of police from Cairo's streets more than a week ago, which unleashed a wave of lawless looting and arson.

The government agreed to set up a committee that includes public and independent figures and specialists and representatives of youth movements to monitor the "honest implementation" of all the new agreements and to report back and give recommendations to Suleiman.

Along with the Muslim Brotherhood, a number of smaller leftist, liberal groups also attended, according to footage shown on state television. Most are little know groups that were around before the protests began.

Some of the youthful supporters of Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace laureate and one of the country's leading democracy advocates, were among those who participated. However, ElBaradei was not invited and his brother said the statement by those who did attend does not represent his personal view. ElBaradei is among those refusing to talk to representatives of Mubarak until he steps down.

"The process is opaque," ElBaradei told NBC's Meet the Press. "Nobody knows who is talking to whom at this stage."

The Brotherhood and the ElBaradei supporters both said afterward that this was only a first step in a dialogue which has yet to meet their central demand: Mubarak's immediate ouster.

Also Sunday, there were signs that the paralysis that has gripped the country since the crisis began was easing. Some schools reopened for the first time in more than a week, and banks did the same for only three hours with long lines outside.

However, there is still a night curfew, and tanks ringing the city's central square and guarding government buildings, embassies and other important institutions.

NPR's Eric Westervelt contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press

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