Thursday, January 27, 2011

Egypt says it is willing to talk to protesters as turmoil continues

By Janine Zacharia and Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 27, 2011; 5:36 PM

CAIRO - The ruling party of embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Thursday it was "ready for a dialogue" with opposition demonstrators, as anti-government protests continued across Egypt for a third day and a prominent opposition figure returned to the country to join potentially huge demonstrations set for Friday.

But with the nation of more than 80 million people in turmoil amid a surge of popular discontent with authoritarian governments in the Middle East and North Africa, the party of the 82-year-old Mubarak was sending mixed messages, also warning protesters not to try to impose their will.

After blasting Mubarak's 30-year rule, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei returned to Egypt after nightfall Thursday with the aim of leading a peaceful transition to democratic government. The former chief of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said he would participate in demonstrations planned for Friday afternoon following weekly Muslim prayers, defying an Interior Ministry ban on such gatherings.

"We are confident of our ability to listen," said Safwat el-Sharif, a senior official in Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP). "The NDP is ready for a dialogue with the public, youth and legal parties," he told reporters as he offered the government's first public response since protests erupted three days ago. "But democracy has its rules and process. The minority does not force its will on the majority."

Sharif applauded Egypt's youth for expressing their views this week, but he urged protesters not to demonstrate after Friday prayers in accordance with the Interior Ministry ban. The United States has called on the Egyptian government to allow peaceful protests to continue.

Sharif spoke to journalists Thursday beneath a large photograph of Mubarak at his party's headquarters a short walk from Cairo's Tahrir Square, where about 15,000 demonstrators protested on Tuesday in a rare public display of anti-government sentiment.

Neither Mubarak nor his son, Gamal, a possible successor to his father, has appeared in public since the demonstrations began.

In tougher comments, Interior Minister Habib el-Adly told Kuwait's al-Rai newspaper: "Egypt's system is not marginal or frail. We are a big state, with an administration with popular support. The millions will decide the future of this nation, not demonstrations even if numbered in the thousands."

The minister, whose resignation is being sought by protesters, added, "Our country is stable and not shaken by such actions."

Riot police were deployed Thursday in full force across the capital, where the opposition movement was showing signs of unprecedented unity, gathering demonstrators from across the political and religious spectrum. At the lawyers' guild earlier in the day, hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes police blockaded dozens of protesters inside the building in a tense standoff.

Demonstrators clashed with security services in the eastern city of Suez where activists reportedly set fire to a police post and threw rocks at police. In Ismailia, police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators.

News agencies reported that as many as seven people have been killed, hundreds injured and nearly 1,000 detained in a crackdown by security forces.

But Cairo and other cities were girding for what could be the largest demonstrations of the week following Friday noon prayers. Anti-government protest leaders urged supporters to join demonstrations at what they labeled "Angry Friday."

Among those planning to attend Friday's demonstrations was ElBaradei, a political reform advocate who could challenge Mubarak in an election later this year. ElBaradei returned to Cairo from Vienna Thursday evening.

Before leaving the Austrian capital, ElBaradei, 68, told reporters it was time for Mubarak to step down.

"He has served the country for 30 years, and it is about time for him to retire," Reuters news agency quoted ElBaradei as saying. "Tomorrow is going to be, I think, a major demonstration all over Egypt, and I will be there with them."

"The regime has not been listening," he also said, according to the Associated Press. If Egyptians, especially young people, "want me to lead the transition, I will not let them down," he said. "My priority right now . . . is to see a new regime and to see a new Egypt through peaceful transition."

Upon landing in Cairo, ElBaradei told reporters, "It's a critical time in the life of Egypt, and I have to participate with the Egyptian people."

ElBaradei, who headed the IAEA from 1997 to 2009, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with the agency in 2005.

This week's demonstrations, inspired by Tunisians' ouster of their president, have fed uncertainty about Mubarak's political future and Egyptian stability. They have also wreaked havoc on the local stock market, which was halted for a half hour on Thursday amid a steep slide in shares.

Sharif also said Egypt would not follow the same path as Tunisia, vowing that Egypt would not "imitate" other countries.

The protesters who spilled onto Egypt's streets this week have given the opposition movement here characteristics that it long lacked: spontaneity and roots in many segments of society.

The demonstrations drew experienced activists and those who had never marched before. There were secularists, socialists and Islamists all walking together and demanding change with a unity that for years has eluded Egypt's opposition.

The new face of the opposition poses a significant challenge for Mubarak, who has imposed sharp limits on his critics during his 30-year rule. Poor health has raised questions about Mubarak's ability to remain in office and prompted speculation that he is grooming his son to succeed him.

Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said there is "a great amount of discontent in Egypt," but until now it had been "compartmentalized in three different movements" that did not work together: a labor movement, a pro-democracy political movement and the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group.

"Is there any indication the three groups are beginning to merge [in the demonstrations]? That is the crucial question," she said.

Tuesday's protests were called for by a number of opposition groups through social media, which had drawn only a few dozen or few hundred people when they issued similar calls in the past.

This week, only a few hundred people turned up at the start. But the numbers grew quickly, as Egyptians used social networking sites to organize and drew inspiration from the fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali this month in nearby Tunisia and, on Wednesday, by images of their own people defying Egypt's repressive police the day before.

"The psychological barrier of fear has been broken," said Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Doha Center. "Eighty million Egyptians saw [Tuesday's protests]. They saw that it's okay to come out and that there is safety in numbers."

Egyptians' anger has been simmering for years. Opportunities are scarce and the gap between the poor and a small elite is growing. There have been intermittent political protests here for years decrying the repressive regime, food prices and an emergency law that effectively rescinds human rights in the name of national security. But they have drawn just a few hundred young activists at a time or have been organized by the Muslim Brotherhood, which can activate a large grass-roots membership but can also be easily dismissed by the government as Islamist discontent.

Tuesday's demonstrations were the largest in years and, by some estimates, one of the largest anti-government protests in Egypt's history, rivaled in recent memory only by a gathering across the country organized by the banned Muslim Brotherhood in 2005.

Although members of the Islamist group are participating in this week's demonstrations, the Muslim Brotherhood has not organized them. Many among the throngs on the streets of Cairo are college-educated Egyptians in their 20s and 30s, with some older. They gathered Wednesday despite a government ban on demonstrations, screaming, "The demands of the people are for Mubarak to leave!"

"This is more of a leaderless movement," Hamid said. "When police shoot into the crowd, it's not the Brotherhood. It's the Egyptians: people's brothers, sisters, mothers and wives."

Demonstrators' defiance on Tuesday spurred others to join Wednesday. A video showing a young man standing in front of a riot police truck as it sprayed high-pressure streams of water at him circulated on the Internet.

"This was the jihad that I was brought up to believe in, the struggle against evil and corruption," said Ahmed el-Masry, 23, who works at a magazine and protested for the first time Wednesday.

"Until now, I had thought that the weakness and disunity of the opposition parties and movements in Egypt was a major barrier to their putting real pressure on the Mubarak regime," said Michele Dunne, editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin, an online journal. "I'm not so sure anymore."

Correspondents Griff Witte and Sherine Bayoumi in Cairo contributed to this report. Fadel reported from Beirut. Staff writer William Branigin contributed from Washington.

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