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03 December 2023

Egypt protesters hold square despite talks

An Egyptian anti-government demonstrator sleeps on the wheels of a military vehicle at Cairo's Tahrir square. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak came under fresh pressure Monday to quit immediately as opponents posing the biggest challenge to his 30-year rule said concessions made in landmark talks were insufficient. (AFP)


Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak came under fresh pressure Monday to step down immediately as opponents said concessions made in landmark talks were not enough to halt a revolt against his 30-year reign.

As a winter sun began to peep through a chill morning mist, thousands of demonstrators emerged from under blankets and tarpaulins in central Cairo's Tahrir Square, which over two weeks has begun to resemble a tented camp.

Many slept under the tracks of Egyptian army tanks arrayed around the square - fearful that if the troops manning them begin to move it could be to drive out the protesters or to abandon them to the mercies of pro-regime thugs.

Mubarak's key lieutenant and possible heir, Vice President Omar Suleiman, had attempted to appease the revolt on Sunday by inviting some opposition groups to join him on a panel to pilot democratic reform.

But the demonstrators, in their 14th straight day of protest Monday, were unimpressed and opposition parties, including the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, repeated their demand that Mubarak himself must stand down or immediately delegate his powers to his deputy.

And there was scant relief for the strongman in the Western capitals where he was once hailed as a strong ally and bulwark of Middle East stability.

US President Barack Obama said Egypt had changed forever since last month's street revolt and called for a "representative government" although he stopped short of calling on Mubarak, an old US ally, to quit immediately.

"He's not running for re-election. His term is up this year," he said.

Government spokesman Magdi Radi said the parties had agreed to form a committee of jurist and politicians "to study and propose constitutional amendments and required legislative amendments... by the first week of March".

Negotiators also agreed to open an office for complaints about the treatment of political prisoners, loosen media curbs, lift emergency rule "depending on the security situation" and reject foreign interference.

But Suleiman refused another key demand of the opposition, saying he would not assume Mubarak's powers and rule in his place during the transition.

Not all of the opposition movements involved in the revolt against Mubarak's rule were present at the talks. Former UN nuclear watchdog head and leading dissident Mohamed ElBaradei was not invited.

"The process is opaque. Nobody knows who is talking to whom at this stage," ElBaradei told US network NBC. "If you really want to build confidence, you need to engage the rest of the Egyptian people - the civilians."

The Muslim Brotherhood, still officially banned, said it had agreed to take part in the talks because it wanted to gauge whether the government was serious about reform, but warned that the initial concessions were insufficient.

Asked whether he believed Mubarak would step down, the powerful Islamist movement's number two leader Mahmud Ezzat told AFP: "That hinges on popular pressure, and we support the popular pressure. It must continue."

Mubarak has thus far refused demands to step down immediately.

While he has said that he is "fed up" with leadership, he feels he must stay on until September's presidential election in order to ensure stability - but the demonstrators' frustration is now finding an echo abroad.
Spain's foreign minister said the election should be brought forward.

Egypt "could find a way to answer the legitimate aspirations of the citizens if the authorities made a gesture and brought forward to the month of June the elections," Trinidad Jimenez told Spain's El Mundo newspaper.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the timing of Mubarak's exit depended on the Egyptian people but warned that an early date could lead to complications if opposition groups are not organised for the vote.

"As I understand the constitution, if the president were to resign, he would be succeeded by the speaker of the house, and presidential elections would have to be held in 60 days," she said.

Clinton said she had heard a leader from the Muslim Brotherhood as well as leading dissident ElBaradei say "it's going to take time" to organise polls, adding: "That's not us saying it. It's them saying it."

This cuts little ice with the protesters in Tahrir Square, however, where there is no faith that after three decades in power the 82-year-old leader is serious about stepping down and where all demand he goes.