Egypt has a plan and timetable for the peaceful transfer of power, the vice president said on Tuesday, as protesters called more demonstrations to show their campaign to oust President Hosni Mubarak remains potent.
With signs growing that the government may be gaining the upper hand in the struggle for power, Vice President Omar Suleiman promised no reprisals against the protesters for their two-week campaign to eject Mubarak after 30 years in office.
However, protesters camped on Cairo's Tahrir Square accused the government of merely playing for time, and swore they would not give up until the current "half revolution" was complete.
"A clear road map has been put in place with a set timetable to realise the peaceful and organised transfer of power," said Suleiman, a long-time intelligence chief who has led talks with opposition groups including the Muslim Brotherhood -- Mubarak's sworn enemy.
So far the government has conceded little ground in the talks. The embattled 82-year-old president, who has promised to stand down when his term expires in September, appears to be weathering the storm engulfing Egypt, at least for the moment.
Negotiations between the government and opposition factions took place on Sunday under the gaze of a giant portrait of Mubarak -- the man the street protesters want to go immediately.
"The president welcomed the national consensus, confirming that we are putting our feet on the right path to getting out of the current crisis," Suleiman said in comments broadcast by state television, after briefing Mubarak on the talks.
Hundreds of thousands have joined previous demonstrations and the United Nations says 300 people may have died so far. But many in a country where about 40 per cent of people live on less than $2 a day are desperate to return to work and normal life, even some of those wanting to oust Mubarak.
"HALF A REVOLUTION"
However, people on Tahrir Square are sceptical about the talks and suspicious of the government's motives.
Youssef Hussein, a 52-year-old tourist driver from Aswan, held up a sign saying: "Dialogue prolongs the life of the regime and gives it the kiss of life. No dialogue until Mubarak leaves."
"This dialogue is just on paper, it is just political manoeuvring to gain time," said Sayed Hagaz from the Nile Delta.
Ayman Farag, a Cairo lawyer, said the protesters' work was far from complete. "What has happened so far is only half a revolution and I hope it will continue to the end," he said.
Some normality is returning to Cairo. Traffic was bumper-to- bumper in the city centre on Tuesday and queues quickly built up at banks, which are still open only for restricted hours.
While opposition groups talk to Suleiman, the mainly younger protesters called for a push to remove Mubarak as the authorities tried to squeeze them out of central Cairo.
Suleiman promised that the harassment of protesters would end.
"The president emphasised that Egypt's youth deserve the appreciation of the nation and issued a directive to prevent them being pursued, harassed or having their right to freedom of expression taken away," he said.
Tuesday's demonstrations will test the protesters' ability to maintain pressure on the government. But another one called for Friday, when Egyptians are not working, may be a better guide to whether the protests are keeping their momentum.
The release of a Google Inc executive, Wael Ghonim, after two weeks in which he said he was kept blindfolded by Egyptian state security may galvanise support. Activists say the Egyptian was behind a Facebook group that helped to inspire the protests.
"I am not a symbol or a hero or anything like that, but what happened to me is a crime," he told private Egyptian station Dream TV after his release on Monday. "We have to tear down this system based on not being able to speak out."
Google had launched a service to help Egyptians use Twitter despite government Internet restrictions by dialling a telephone number and leaving a voice mail that would then be sent on the online service.
Opposition figures have reported little progress in the talks with the government. The official news agency said Mubarak issued a decree ordering the establishment of a committee to study and propose legal and constitutional amendments, which he has promised as part of his concessions.
The Muslim Brotherhood, by far the best organised opposition group, said on Monday it could quit the process if protesters' demands were not met, including the immediate exit of Mubarak.
The United States, adopting a cautious approach to the crisis, has urged all sides to allow time for an "orderly transition" to a new political order in Egypt, for decades a strategic ally.
The opposition has been calling for the constitution to be rewritten to allow free and fair presidential elections, a limit on presidential terms, the dissolution of parliament, the release of political detainees and lifting of emergency law.
But protesters worry that Mubarak will be replaced not by democracy but by another authoritarian ruler.
The potential rise to power of the banned Muslim Brotherhood troubles Cairo's Western allies and Israel, which has a peace treaty with Egypt.
The White House has expressed concern about the group's "anti-American rhetoric", but stopped short of saying it would be against the group taking a role in a future government.
Keen to get traffic moving around Tahrir Square, the army has tried to squeeze the area the protesters have occupied. Some slept in the tracks of the army's armoured vehicles to prevent them being used to force the protest into a smaller space.
The army's role in the next weeks is considered critical to the country's future.