Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Mubarak proposes talks as opposition calls for massive protest

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2011; 6:06 PM

CAIRO - As pro-democracy demonstrators vowed to bring 1 million people to the streets of Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak offered a gesture of conciliation on Monday, directing his new vice president to begin talks with his opponents about changes to the country's constitution.

But Mubarak offered no sign that he is intending to step down, leaving questions about whether the decentralized and leaderless movement that has swept Egypt over the past week can muster the force necessary to topple this nation's deeply entrenched establishment.

Protesters have already accomplished far more than anyone in this country thought possible, forcing Mubarak to call the army to the streets and focusing global attention on the president's autocratic 30-year reign. But unlike other successful democratic uprisings, this one lacks charismatic personalities and any clear agenda beyond ousting Mubarak and holding elections to choose a successor.

Appearing on state-run television to discuss his new role, Vice President Omar Suleiman offered no details about the scope or timing of any talks. In an olive branch of its own, the military promised to guarantee "freedom of expression'' during a march planned for Tuesday, saying it recognizes "the legitimacy of the people's demands."

Opposition leaders, including Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and democracy advocate, have signaled that they are ready for such a dialogue. Demonstrators, however, say that the opposition leaders do not represent them, and that they will be satisfied only with Mubarak's ouster.

The movement that rose up seemingly out of nowhere last week to pose the greatest challenge yet to the 82-year-old president has no name, no symbols and no formal infrastructure. Although some students and others are involved in organizing its direction, they deny being its leaders.

Protesters say the absence of a specific platform or a single dynamic figure has been critical to their success, allowing them to tap into Egyptians' widespread contempt for Mubarak without allowing the movement to become riven by factions.

"There are many talented people who could govern this country. As long as it's not Mubarak and his circle," said Ahmed Allam, a 31-year-old accountant, reflecting a sentiment that is broadly shared among demonstrators.

Allam was among the tens of thousands who jammed Tahrir Square on Monday night as Cairo's central plaza took on a joyful atmosphere before the mass mobilization planned for Tuesday. Demonstrators waved Egyptian flags and chanted relentlessly against Mubarak. In an indication that they intend to stay, they distributed large quantities of food and water, established first-aid stations and even set up satellite television service so they could keep up with news from outside the plaza.

Egypt's organized political opposition was caught off guard by the past week's protests and has struggled to catch up. The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest opposition group, acknowledges that it has played only a marginal role.

ElBaradei was picked by opposition leaders on Sunday to lead any possible negotiations with the government. But when he spoke to demonstrators later that evening, many in the crowd ignored him.

Still, ElBaradei, 68, could be a crucial figure if the offer by Suleiman, who is also Mubarak's longtime intelligence chief, proves genuine. ElBaradei has called for Mubarak to step aside, and has said he has the "political and popular support" necessary to form a unity government while the nation transitions to a democracy.

At a meeting on Monday in the Cairo district of Dokki, representatives of about 30 groups agreed to work as a united coalition and to support the call for 1 million people to turn out for the march on Tuesday, spokesmen for the organizations said. ElBaradei and other protest leaders were scheduled to convene again on Tuesday at the downtown headquarters of the Wafd Party, a traditional opposition group.

The political opposition to the ruling National Democratic Party in Egypt has never been terribly popular. The groups tend to be oriented around extreme ideologies, and they rarely cooperate with one another. Many have been tainted by perceptions of complicity with a government that has moved rapidly to suppress any group or individual that poses a true threat to its power.

"These demonstrations not only signal the death of the Mubarak regime, they also signal the death of Mubarak's traditional opposition because they all failed to get on this train," said Hisham Kassem, an Egyptian political analyst. "This movement is very real, and unlike any previous caricature of an opposition."

Kassem said he thinks leaders will develop as the movement grows. "No one could have predicted that a man wearing jeans in Czechoslovakia would have emerged as a leader," he said, referring to Vaclav Havel, who rose from obscurity to play a crucial role in liberating Eastern Europe from communism.

Amr Hamzawy, research director at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said leaders are far less important right now than a well-defined plan for moving from dictatorship to democracy - one that he said does exist. "The most important point is that we have the procedures for change," he said.

The lack of a central figure and a defined vision for what happens should Mubarak step aside may be one reason the United States and other Western governments have shied away from embracing the nascent democracy movement, and have instead spoken only in general terms of advocating an orderly transition of power. Above all else, the United States fears instability in this nation of 80 million that has long played a central role in determining the character of the broader Arab world.

Demonstrators say that they don't want instability, either, but that Mubarak has brought near-anarchy to Egypt over the past week by clinging so desperately to power.

Police executed a vicious crackdown on demonstrators Friday night before they were withdrawn in favor of the army. Over the weekend, looters ransacked stores and criminals fled prisons as uniformed police all but disappeared from view.

The police were back on the streets Monday, but they made no immediate moves to enforce a 3 p.m. government curfew. Those in the square openly defied it.

Still, no one doubts the government could still crack down. It stopped domestic train service Monday to keep protesters from traveling to Cairo, and the military dispatched a helicopter to circle low over Tahrir Square for much of the afternoon. On the ground, the plaza was rung with barbed wire and tanks stood at every entrance.

Mubarak appeared on state television Monday to swear in his new cabinet - one that did not include the much-reviled interior minister, who was thought to have orchestrated Friday's heavy-handed police response. Although the president promised political and economic changes, he was not specific, and demonstrators said they were not appeased.

The movement against Mubarak broke into the open last Tuesday with demonstrations that were inspired by a successful revolt in Tunisia and were organized by university students via Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. But since Friday, Internet connections have been severed across Egypt, making any attempts to plot the direction of the movement far more difficult.

Staff writers Leila Fadel, Janine Zacharia, Samuel Sockol and Sherine Bayoumi contributed to this report.


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