Egypt's opposition Muslim Brotherhood said Sunday it had launched landmark talks with authorities as senior members of President Hosni Mubarak's ruling party quit and Washington intensified efforts for a speedy power transition.
An official from the brotherhood, which the government has accused of trying to profit from the sweeping protests posing the greatest threat to Mubarak's three-decade grip on power, said talks had taken place on Saturday morning between them and Egypt's new Vice President Omar Suleiman.
They were the first talks ever between the government and its bete noire.
"Keeping in mind the interests of the nation and its institutions and concerned about preserving the country's independence... we began talks to see up to what point they are ready to accept the demands of the people," the official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official also said the dialogue was aimed at eliminating "foreign or regional interference in our affairs," in an effort to distance the group from Iran, which has called for the installation of an Islamist regime in Egypt.
The brotherhood, which is officially banned but tolerated in Egypt, is the best-organised opposition movement drawing on a vast social aid network.
Senior members of Mubarak's party resigned on Saturday, but demonstrators staging a 12th day of anti-regime protests rejected the shuffle as a cosmetic move.
The resignations came after Mubarak huddled with his new government for the first time on, and an official said that the country's stock exchange would remain closed indefinitely as the stand-off continues.
State television said the executive committee of the ruling National Democratic Party had resigned en masse. Among those stepping down was Mubarak's son Gamal, once viewed as his heir apparent, state television reported. Hossam Badrawi -- reputed to have good relations with opposition figures -- will take over as NDP secretary general and political bureau chief, it said.
But protesters rejected it as a meaningless gesture. "Some people say it is cleaning out but I believe these are cards they are throwing on the table to please the street, it's like a striptease show," said Mahmud Momen, a 46-year-old businessman.
Farid Ismail, a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, said the resignations were a sign of the regime's demise.
"The regime's pillars are crumbling. This means that the revolution of the youth has caused a large earthquake and many of the regime's symbols are falling -- it is trying to save itself," he declared.
The political turmoil in Cairo loomed large over international meetings in Munich, Germany, where Obama's special envoy Frank Wisner said Mubarak should stay in office during a democratic transition.
The president must stay in office in order to steer those changes through," Wisner, who met Mubarak this week, told the Munich Security Conference via video link, describing the leader as an "old friend" of the United States.
President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical," he said.
But officials in Washington quickly distanced themselves from Wisner's remarks, saying he spoke as a private citizen.
Also in Munich, for a meeting of the Middle East diplomatic Quartet, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the region faced a bumpy road on the transition to democracy.
And she praised the "restraint" shown by the Egyptian security forces during a mass demonstration on Friday. US President Barack Obama spoke Saturday to several foreign leaders about the unrest in Egypt and underscored the need for "an orderly, peaceful transition, beginning now," the White House said in a statement.