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Egypt transition talks strained by pressure

CAIRO (AFP) ― Its wings clipped by a popular revolt, Egypt’s regime is seeking a way out of crisis through national dialogue, but pressure from the street and division among key players could discredit the process.

On Sunday, Vice President Omar Suleiman began talks with members of the opposition and announced measures aimed at placating the protesters staging massive protests demanding the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

Responding to global pressure for a peaceful transition, Suleiman met opposition parties, independent politicians and the Muslim Brotherhood, which is still technically banned and has not officially met the state in 50 years.

U.S. President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have not explicitly called for Mubarak to leave immediately, but have repeatedly stressed that Egypt’ key ally wants an orderly transition to begin now.

Mubarak’s government said the parties engaged in the dialogue had agreed on the formation of a committee to look into constitutional reforms by the first week of March.
Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman (center) meets with representatives of protesters of the 25th January movement in Cairo on Sunday. (AP-Yonhap News)
Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman (center) meets with representatives of protesters of the 25th January movement in Cairo on Sunday. (AP-Yonhap News)

But the Brotherhood said results of the meeting “were insufficient.”

Several groups behind the demonstrations, including the youth groups massed in central Cairo’s emblematic Tahrir Square, have rejected the regime’s offer of dialogue until their central demand ― for Mubarak to step down ― is met.

Leading Egyptian dissident Mohamed ElBaradei was not invited to the talks, and he suggested that the fledgling negotiations lacked credibility because they were being managed by Mubarak and the military.

“The process is opaque, nobody knows who is talking to whom at this stage,” ElBaradei said. “If you really want to build confidence, you need to engage the rest of the Egyptian people ― the civilians.”

Also represented at the talks are the liberal Wafd party, the left-leaning Tagammu, and some 30 independent figures including the head of the state Human Rights Council, former ambassadors, former judges and businessmen.

But despite some participants being well respected, most lack a popular mandate, analysts said.

“The people involved in the dialogue, except for the Muslim Brotherhood, are on the margins of the uprising,” said Rabab al-Mahdi, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.

“What the talks have done is to push all the insignificant players up one level,” she said.

Though once active, the Wafd and the Tagammu have been criticized as cosmetic additions to the regime’s efforts to appear pluralistic and democratic.

The regime is trying to communicate a message that it is being reasonable and willing to negotiate, but in fact “it is acting like someone who is drowning and holding on to a piece of straw,” Mahdi said.

Joining the talks is also risky business for the opposition leaders, whose younger members see them increasingly as out of touch.

“If they proceed down this path, they will be rejected by their followers,” said Issandr al-Amrani, an independent political analyst in Cairo. “The regime is using a policy of divide and rule, as it has done in the past.”

But the Muslim Brotherhood may benefit from the talks, by getting the legal recognition they have been seeking for decades.

“I personally reject the idea of this national dialogue,” Salah Mohammed, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood told AFP. “But I understand that some of leadership is hoping to get recognition.”

Beyond the internal interests, participants are criticized for being out of touch with the reality on the ground.

“There is a sea of anger on the streets calling for Mubarak’s resignation and it can’t be ignored. The people at that table are talking in a vacuum,” said Abdel Haleem Qandeel, a coordinator of the Kefaya opposition movement.

“We are now in different times, this is a revolt that is being played out live on air, this puts a lot of pressure on Suleiman to play it carefully.”
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