Pushed by army, US, Mubarak offers talks

Protesters take part in a demonstration at Tahrir Square in Cairo. Egyptian opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei told thousands of protesters in central Cairo on Sunday that an uprising against Hosni Mubarak's rule "cannot go back". The banner reads: "Leave, Mubarak. (REUTERS)

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak offered talks on sweeping reforms with opponents on Monday, indicating that massive pressure from street protesters, Western allies and his own army are ending his 30 years of one-man rule.

After a week of unprecedented rallies against the poverty, corruption and oppression under the 82-year-old military-backed leader, newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman appeared on state television to say Mubarak had asked him to begin dialogue with all political forces on constitutional and other reforms.

It seems unlikely Mubarak could preside for long within any new system that brought free elections to the most populous Arab state. After the fall of Tunisia's veteran strongman two weeks ago, the shift will send a shockwave throughout the Middle East.

"I think it's the beginning of the end," said analyst Omar Ashour, speaking on Al Jazeera television.

Before Suleiman spoke, the armed forces command had declared the demonstrators' demands "legitimate" and said it would not fire on peaceful protesters who called for a million people to take to the streets on Tuesday to push Mubarak out altogether.

At the same time, the United States, which has backed him as a bulwark against radical Islam and a friend to Israel with billions of dollars in military aid, said bluntly that he must revoke the emergency law under which he has ruled since 1981 and hold free elections. Washington has sent an envoy, former ambassador to Cairo Frank Wisner, to meet Egyptian leaders.

High on the agenda of Western powers, which have been caught off guard by the speed with which Mubarak's police state has been pushed back by unarmed citizens, will be trying to prevent a full takeover by anti-Western Islamists.

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