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West Backs Gradual Egyptian Transition

By Kareem Fahim, Mark Landler and Anthony Shadid (*)
New York Times, February 5, 2011

Cairo — The United States and leading European nations on Saturday threw their weight behind Egypt’s vice president, Omar Suleiman, backing his attempt to defuse a popular uprising without immediately removing President Hosni Mubarak from power.

American officials said Mr. Suleiman had promised them an “orderly transition” that would include constitutional reform and outreach to opposition groups.

“That takes some time,” Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton said, speaking at a Munich security conference. “There are certain things that have to be done in order to prepare.”

But the formal endorsement came as Mr. Suleiman appeared to reject the protesters’ main demands, including the immediate resignation of Mr. Mubarak and the dismantling of a political system built around one-party rule, according to leaders of a small, officially authorized opposition party who spoke with Mr. Suleiman on Saturday.

Nor has Mr. Suleiman, a former general, former intelligence chief and Mr. Mubarak’s longtime confidant, yet reached out to the leaders designated by the protesters to negotiate with the government, opposition groups said.

Instead of loosening its grip, the existing government appeared to be consolidating its power: The prime minister said police forces were returning to the streets, and an army general urged protesters to scale back their occupation of Tahrir Square.

Protesters interpreted the simultaneous moves by the Western leaders and Mr. Suleiman as a rebuff to their demands for an end to the dictatorship led for almost three decades by Mr. Mubarak, a pivotal American ally and pillar of the existing order in the Middle East.

Just days after President Obama demanded publicly that change in Egypt must begin right away, many in the streets accused the Obama administration of sacrificing concrete steps toward genuine change in favor of a familiar stability.

“America doesn’t understand,” said Ibrahim Mustafa, 42, who was waiting to enter Tahrir Square. “The people know it is supporting an illegitimate regime.”

Leaders of the Egyptian opposition and rank-and-file protesters have steadfastly rejected any negotiations with Mr. Suleiman until after the ouster of Mr. Mubarak, arguing that moving toward democracy will require ridding the country of not only its dictator but also his rubber-stamp Parliament and a Constitution designed for one-party rule.

On Saturday, Mr. Mubarak’s party announced a shake-up that removed its old guard, including his son Gamal, from the party’s leadership while installing younger, more reform-minded figures. But such gestures were quickly dismissed as cosmetic by analysts and opposition figures.

Mr. Mubarak and Mr. Suleiman “are trying to kill what has happened and to contain and abort the revolution,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University. “They want to continue to manage the country like they did while making some concessions.”

Mrs. Clinton’s message, echoed by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, and reinforced in a flurry of calls by President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to Egyptian and regional leaders, appears to reflect an attempt at balancing calls for systemic change with some semblance of legal order and stability.

Mrs. Clinton said Mr. Mubarak, having taken himself and Gamal out of the September elections, was already effectively sidelined. She emphasized the need for Egypt to reform its Constitution to make a vote credible. “That is what the government has said it is trying to do,” she said.

She also stressed the dangers of holding elections without adequate preparation. “Revolutions have overthrown dictators in the name of democracy, only to see the process hijacked by new autocrats who use violence, deception and rigged elections to stay in power,” she said.

Her emphasis on a deliberate process was repeated by Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Cameron. Mrs. Merkel mentioned her past as a democracy activist in East Germany, recalling the impatience of protesters after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, to immediately join democratic West Germany. But the process took a year, and it was time well spent, she said.

“There will be a change in Egypt,” Mrs. Merkel said, “but clearly, the change has to be shaped in a way that it is a peaceful, a sensible way forward.”

Mrs. Clinton highlighted fears about deteriorating security inside Egypt, noting the explosion at a gas pipeline in the Sinai Peninsula, and uncorroborated news reports of an earlier assassination attempt on Mr. Suleiman.

American officials did not confirm that an assassination attempt had taken place. But Mrs. Clinton referred to reports of the attempt and said it “certainly brings into sharp relief the challenges we are facing as we navigate through this period.”

In a statement, the Egyptian government said there had been no assassination attempt, but added that on Jan. 28 a car in Mr. Suleiman’s motorcade was struck by a bullet fired by “criminal elements.”

At the same Munich meeting on Saturday, Frank G. Wisner, the former ambassador President Obama sent to Cairo to negotiate with Mr. Mubarak, appeared to take an even softer line on the existing government, saying that the United States should not rush to push Mr. Mubarak out the door. He said Mr. Mubarak had a critical role to play through the end of his presidential term in September.

“You need to get a national consensus around the preconditions of the next step forward, and the president must stay in office in order to steer those changes through,” Mr. Wisner said.

The administration later said Mr. Wisner’s comments did not reflect official policy. “The views he expressed today are his own. He did not coordinate his comments with the U.S. government,” said Philip J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman.

White House officials said Friday that they were privately pushing Mr. Suleiman to sideline Mr. Mubarak and eliminate his executive role well before the September elections.

But the mixed signals fueled concerns in Egypt that the administration, which has tried to juggle endorsement of change and continued order, had effectively turned its back on the core demands of those involved in the protest movement.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate who has been chosen to negotiate on behalf of the protesters and other opposition groups, said the American-backed plan for a gradual transition with Mr. Mubarak remaining in power was a nonstarter. “I do not think it’s adequate,” he said in an interview. “I’m not talking about myself. It’s not adequate for the people.

“Mubarak needs to go,” he said. “It has become an emotional issue. They need to see his back, there’s no question about it.”

Protesters also said that Western worries about security and orderly transitions sounded remarkably like Mr. Mubarak’s age-old excuses for postponing change. And they said they had waited long enough.

“We don’t want Omar Suleiman to take Mubarak’s place. We are not O.K. with this regime at all,” said Omar el-Shawy, a young online activist. “We want a president who is a civilian.”

There were few indications that Mr. Suleiman and other officials were making much progress in addressing concerns of opposition groups.

Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour, the secretary general of the opposition Wafd Party, said that in a meeting with Mr. Suleiman on Saturday, the vice president told him that Mr. Mubarak’s leaving early “was out of the question.” He also ruled out any transfer of Mr. Mubarak’s responsibilities.

Mr. Abdel-Nour said that he brought up the possibility of repealing Egypt’s emergency law, which allows the authorities to arrest people without charges. According to Mr. Abdel-Nour, Mr. Suleiman responded: “At a time like this?”

Negotiations between Mr. Suleiman and a group of self-appointed “wise men” who are acting as intermediaries between the vice president and the protesters, and trying to find a way around limits on succession in the Constitution, did not advance significantly.

Amr Hamzawy, one of the intermediaries, said the negotiations were “gaining traction,” but added that his group did not meet with Mr. Suleiman on Saturday. The intermediaries, whose efforts have received the tacit encouragement of Western governments, have forwarded a plan that would see Mr. Mubarak transfer his powers to Mr. Suleiman and perhaps move to his home in Sharm el-Sheik or embark on one of his annual medical leaves to Germany.

In Tahrir Square, meanwhile, the military tightened its cordon around the protesters by reinforcing security checks at all the entrances. An army officer, Brig. Gen. Hassan al-Rawaini, negotiated with protesters outside a barricade near the Egyptian Museum, urging them to bring down the fortifications, allow traffic to return and move their protest to the heart of Tahrir Square.

In contrast to the pitched clashes of just days ago, General Rawaini offered a microphone to protesters so that they could air their complaints. He tried to reason, kissing some on the head and pinching others’ cheeks. Occasionally, he winked.

Eventually, he and his soldiers moved past the makeshift barricade, knocking part of it down, though protesters quickly put back up the sheets of corrugated tin, barrels, metal rebar and parts of fences. He then toured an area strewn with rocks from the clashes and incinerated vehicles that served as barricades. Some protesters thought he was preparing for the army to enter and began forming human chains across the streets. Others chanted “Peaceful!” and formed a bodyguard around the general.

“He wants to tear down these barricades, so that the tanks can come through!” shouted Sayyid Eid, a 20-year-old protester, as he tried to block his way.

“We’re going to die here!” yelled Magdi Abdel-Rahman, another protester.

“Listen to him! Listen to him!” others shouted back.

Tempers cooled and General Rawaini made a leisurely stroll to a makeshift health clinic, then visited knots of protesters across the square with a retinue of soldiers.

“We’re trying to remove the barricades and return the streets to normal,” General Rawaini said. “If you want to protest, you can go back to the square.”

A protester shouted back, “General, we’re not going to walk away from here until Hosni Mubarak leaves!”

(*) Kareem Fahim and Anthony Shadid reported from Cairo, and Mark Landler from Munich. Reporting was contributed by Steven Erlanger from Munich, and David D. Kirkpatrick, Mona El-Naggar and Robert F. Worth from Cairo.

After First Talks, Egypt Opposition Vows New Protest

By David D. Kirkpatrick and David E. Sanger (*)
New York Times, February 6, 2011

Cairo — Leaders of the Egyptian democracy movement vowed Sunday to escalate their pressure for the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, even as his government portrayed itself as already in the midst of American-approved negotiations to end the uprising, now in its 13th day.

The government announced that the transition had begun with a meeting between Vice President Omar Suleiman and two representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed Islamist group the Egyptian government has sought to repress for many years as a threat to stability. They met as part of a group of about 50 prominent Egyptians and opposition figures, including officials of the small, recognized opposition parties, as well as a handful of young people who helped start the protest movement.

While both sides acknowledged the meeting as unprecedented, its significance quickly became another skirmish in the battle between the president and the protesters. Mr. Suleiman released a statement — widely reported on state television and instantly a focal point in Washington — declaring that the meeting had produced a “consensus” about a path to reform, including the promise to form a committee to recommend constitutional changes by early March. The other elements echoed pledges Mr. Mubarak had already made, including a limit on how many terms a president can serve.

Leaders of the protest movement, including both its youthful members and Brotherhood officials, denounced Mr. Suleiman’s portrayal of the meeting as a political ploy intended to suggest that some in their ranks were collaborating.

Though the movement has only a loose leadership, it has coalesced around a unified set of demands, centered on Mr. Mubarak’s resignation, but also including the dissolution of one-party rule and revamping the Constitution that protected it, and Mr. Suleiman gave no ground on any of those demands.

“We did not come out with results,” said Mohamed Morsy, a Brotherhood leader who attended, while others explained that the Brotherhood had attended only to reiterate its demands and show openness to dialogue.

The standoff over the meeting underscored the conflicting narratives about the next chapter of the revolt that has shaken Egypt and the wider Arab world.

Each side claimed that it had emerged from the last 12 days as a survivor — unarmed protesters repulsed assaults first by police officers in riot gear and then by pro-Mubarak gangs in plain clothes, but Mr. Mubarak still emerged from a week of demonstrations that brought hundreds of thousands into the streets with his position and his Western support still intact. And while the government hailed what it called a return to normalcy, the protesters vowed that there was no turning back.

To rebut Mr. Suleiman’s claims of consensus, a group of young organizers whose Facebook page fomented the revolt — a half-dozen scruffy-looking doctors, lawyers and other professionals in their early 30s — stepped forward publicly for the first time. At least three had been released just the night before from three days of extra-legal detention at the hands of Mr. Mubarak’s police, and they vowed to escalate their movement. “The government played all the dirty games that they had, and the people persisted,” said Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, a 32-year-old surgeon. “We are betting on the people.”

More than 100,000 turned out again on Sunday in the capital’s central Tahrir Square — more than expected as the work week resumed here. And some of the movement’s young organizers, who were busy meeting to organize their many small groups into a unified structure, said they were considering more large-scale demonstrations in other cities, strikes or acts of civil disobedience like surrounding the state television headquarters.

Zyad Elelaiwy, 32, a lawyer who is one of the online organizers and a member of the umbrella opposition group founded by Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate, acknowledged a generational divide in the movement. Some older leaders — especially from the recognized parties — were tempted to negotiate with Mr. Suleiman, he said, but the young organizers determined to hold out for sweeping change.

“They are more close to negotiating, but they don’t have access to the street,” Mr. Elelaiwy said. “The people know us. They don’t know them.”

Mr. ElBaradei and the Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest opposition group, have committed to follow the lead of the young organizers, he said.

Many of the protesters who gathered in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests, vented anger at reports that the United States was supporting the idea of a negotiated transition undertaken by Mr. Suleiman while Mr. Mubarak remained in power. “The extremists aren’t here in Egypt, but they will be if the United States persists!” said Noha El Sharakawy, a 52-year-old pharmacist with dual citizenship in both countries.

But the young revolt’s initiators said they were unfazed because they had never relied on Western support. “If the United States supports the revolution, it is good for the United States,” said Islam Lofty, 32, a lawyer. “If they do not, it is an Egyptian issue.”

Some in Washington said they welcomed Mr. Suleiman’s statement, arguing that it echoed points that Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has pressed for: a clear road map and timetable of reforms, starting with the end of one-party rule and protections for political opponents and the media.

Though Mr. Mubarak’s government has often made similar pledges without delivering, American officials pursuing a strategy of slow and steady motion toward a few clear goals suggested they were gratified.

In an interview with National Public Radio on Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that she and Mr. Biden had held many conversations with Mr. Suleiman about steps toward democracy. “We hear that they are committed to this,” she said, “and when we press on concrete steps and timelines, we are given assurance that that will happen.”

To explain the apparent American shift from urgent demands for change to endorsing plans for Mr. Mubarak to remain in place during a transition, Mrs. Clinton alluded to “a debate within Egypt itself, and not just in the government, but among the people of Egypt” over how to manage the timing of the transition, since the existing Egyptian Constitution would set an unrealistic deadline of two months for an election if Mr. Mubarak stepped down. That “doesn’t give anybody enough time,” she said. She has not addressed the Egyptian opposition’s suggestion for how to solve that problem: suspension of the Constitution for up to a year until a transitional unity government can organize a free election.

In an appearance on ABC News, Mr. Suleiman said little to suggest that he was ready to move Egypt toward democracy or that he even took its youth-led democracy movement seriously.

Insisting that a transition had already begun with his meeting with members of the opposition, he reiterated that Mr. Mubarak would stay in power. If he left, Mr. Suleiman argued, “other people who have their own agenda will make instability in our country.”

Brushing aside the secular character of the youth revolt shaking Egypt and the Arab world, Mr. Suleiman suggested conspiratorially that unspecified “other people” and “an Islamic current” were in fact pushing the young people forward. “It’s not their idea,” he said. “It comes from abroad.”

And when asked about progress toward democracy, he asserted that Egypt was not ready, and would not be until “the people here will have the culture of democracy.”

Mr. ElBaradei, who has been delegated as a negotiator for the protest movement, rejected Mr. Suleiman’s arguments in his own Sunday talk show appearance.

“We need to abolish the present Constitution,” Mr. ElBaradei said in an interview on CNN. “We need to dissolve the current Parliament. These are all elements of the dictatorship regime, and we should not be — I don’t think we will go to democracy through the dictatorial Constitution.”

Rashid Mohammed Rashid, a former minister of trade and industry, said in an interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN that he believed it would be better for Mr. Mubarak to finish his term as president to ensure a smooth transition.

But he also dismissed the threat of a radical Islamist takeover that Mr. Mubarak has often used to justify his regime, in part because of the secular impulses of the new youth movement. “I generally believe that what we have seen in the last 10 days have been initiated by the young people of Egypt, that were probably, as I said, were restricted, despite the political reforms that have been happening, of having a voice and a share,” Mr. Rashid said.

“Egypt is a great country,” he said. “It has a great young population. It has a great future and I think it is time now to let the future happen by the young people, not by history,”

Protesters in the square, meanwhile, sought to dispel the notion that their ostensibly secular, liberal movement might contain seeds of extremism. Coptic Christians held a Mass there while Muslims stood guard, repaying a favor that Christian protesters did for Muslims on Friday.

Some in the square — where many have stayed for a week without going home — acknowledged some worries about Mr. Mubarak’s perseverance, especially after the Western powers appeared to back a political transition that left him in place. “There is a lot of pressure on us,” said Omar el Shamy. “We are kind of scared.”

He added: “But after the work week started and they tried to get everyone to hate us because they couldn’t get to work, the people keep coming!”

(*) David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo, and David E. Sanger from Washington. Mona El-Naggar contributed reporting from Cairo.