As night fell, central Cairo’s now iconic Tahrir Square was still filled with thousands of anti-regime protesters adamant that the start of dialogue would not divert them from their campaign to unseat Egypt’s strongman.
After two weeks of mass street protests and more than 300 deaths — and with global pressure mounting on Suleiman to negotiate a peaceful transition to more democratic rule — the government met its most powerful foes.
Government spokesman Magdi Radi said the parties had agreed to form a committee of judges 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 an emergency law *”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 stead during the transition.
Not all of the opposition movements involved in the 13-day-old uprising against Mubarak’s rule were present at the talks. Former UN nuclear watchdog head and leading dissident Mohamed ElBaradei was not invited.
Other opposition leaders met Suleiman in a palatial government hall under a huge portrait of the absent Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood, although represented despite the ban, left unsatisfied by the outcome.
Mahmud Ezzat, the Brotherhood’s number two leader, told AFP by telephone that the group had not pulled out of the talks because it felt it had made progress, but warned that street protests would continue.
He argued that the regime, by sitting down with the opposition, had tacitly *”admitted that this is a popular revolution and its demands are legitimate. And one of our demands is that the president must leave.”*
As to whether Mubarak would step down, Ezzat said: *”That hinges on popular pressure, and we support the popular pressure. It must continue.”*
Another senior Brotherhood figure, Essam al-Erian, told reporters: *”They didn’t respond to most of our demands. They only responded to some of our demands, but in a superficial way.”*
Some of the undaunted protesters celebrated Christian prayers in the central Cairo square, the epicentre and symbol of the revolt, in memory of the estimated 300 people killed since demonstrations against Mubarak broke out.
*”God bless the dead. God bless the dead,”* recited a Christian preacher wearing a crucifix. Beside him, a Muslim cleric stood holding a Koran, as the faithful chanted, *”A single hand. A single hand,”* in inter-faith solidarity.
Meanwhile, a measure of normal life began to return to the biggest city in the Arab world. Queues formed in front of banks that had been shut for more than a week and workmen scrubbed down shop fronts.
Mubarak has thus far refused demands to step down immediately.
While he insists that he is *”fed up”* with leadership, he feels he must stay on until a promised September presidential election in order to ensure stability.
The crisis has tested US President Barack Obama’s administration, forcing it to confront the consequences of Washington’s long-term support for Middle East autocrats in exchange for security guarantees.
Obama reiterated his call Sunday for an *”orderly”* and *”meaningful”* transition in Egypt and said he wanted to see a *”representative government”* emerge. He did not press for Mubarak to stand down.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautiously welcomed the latest talks, despite the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood, which some Western observers fear would like to set up an Islamist regime
But at least this meant they were engaged in dialogue, Clinton told National Public Radio.
*”We’re going to wait and see how this develops, but we’ve been very clear about what we expect,”* she said.
Al-Jazeera journalist Ayman Mohyeldin was released on Sunday after spending nine hours in custody, the Qatar-based satellite television channel reported.
Mohyeldin, a US citizen, works for the network’s English channel, which reported his release.