- Associated Press - Saturday, February 5, 2011

CAIRO (AP) — The top leadership body of Egypt’s ruling party resigned Saturday, including the president’s son, but the regime appeared to be digging in its heels, calculating that it can ride out street protests and keep President Hosni Mubarak in office.

Protesters rejected the concessions and vowed to keep up their campaign until Mubarak steps down, convinced that the regime intends to enact only superficial democratic reforms and keep its hold on power. Tens of thousands thronged Cairo’s central Tahrir Square in a 12th day of protests, chanting “He will go! He will go!”

But the United States gave a strong endorsement to Mubarak’s deputy Omar Suleiman’s handling of the transition, warning that order was needed to prevent extremists from hijacking the process. “It’s important to support the transition process announced by the Egyptian government actually headed by now-Vice President Omar Suleiman,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at an international security conference in Munich, Germany.

Frank Wisner, the retired American diplomat sent by President Barack Obama to Cairo this past week to tell Mubarak that the U.S. saw his rule coming to an end, said Mubarak had to keep a leadership role at least temporarily if the “fragile glimmerings” of progress were to take hold as quickly as needed.

Mubarak insists he will remain in his post until his term ends in the autumn after presidential elections in September. Washington has said the transition should bring greater democracy to ensure a free and fair vote. But protesters fear that without an immediate Mubarak exit and the pressure from the streets, the regime will emerge with its authoritarian monopoly largely intact.

“What happened so far does not qualify as reform,” said Amr Hamzawy, a member of the Committee of Wise Men, a self-appointed group of prominent figures from Egypt’s elite that is unconnected to the protesters but has met with Suleiman to explore solutions to the crisis. “There seems to be a deliberate attempt by the regime to distract the proponents of change and allow the demands to disintegrate in the hope of (regime) survival.”

Wael Khalil, a 45-year-old activist protesting in Tahrir, greeted news of the party resignations with scorn, said they would “reinforce their (protesters’) resolve and increase their confidence because it shows that they are winning, and the regime is retreating inch by inch.”

The ruling party leaders who resigned included some of the country’s most powerful political figures — and its most unpopular among many Egyptians. State TV, announcing the resignations, still identified Mubarak as president of the ruling party in a sign he would remain in authority.

Among those on the six-member party Steering Committee that stepped down was the National Democratic Party’s secretary-general, Safwat el-Sharif, and the president’s son Gamal Mubarak, who has long been seen as his father’s intended heir as president. The turmoil has crushed those ambitions, however, with Suleiman promising in the past week that Gamal will not run for president in September.

Hossam Badrawi, a ruling party figure who is a physician and whose family owns one of Cairo’s exclusive hospitals, was named as the new secretary-general and as head of the party’s policies committee, replacing Gamal.

The move suggested that the military figures now dominating the regime — including Suleiman and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq — judged that dumping party veterans was the price for convincing enough Egyptians that it is serious about reform to weaken the demonstrations to the point they die down.

On Saturday, authorities were projecting an air of confidence they can ride it out. Suleiman has invited all the protest groups and opposition parties into immediate negotiations on constitutional reforms. So far, the youth movements leading the protests have staunchly refused, saying Mubarak must leave and a broad-based transitional leadership put in place to ensure the ruling party and regime do not dominate the terms of constitutional change.

But Shafiq, speaking to journalists on state TV, depicted the protest movement as weakening. He noted that a re-invigorated protest — estimated at around 100,000 people — had failed to force Mubarak out on Friday as organizers had hoped. “All this leads to stability,” he said.

He indicated the government hopes to convince enough factions to enter talks that the others will be forced to join in. “Once they find the others are negotiation, for sure they will or they will be left alone,” he said. “The level of aspirations is going down day by day.”

So far, however, only a couple of official opposition political parties have agreed to talks. The official parties, which operate with regime consent, are not involved in the negotiations, have little popular base and are viewed with contempt by many protesters.

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