Vice president offers concessions in Egyptian talks

Mubarak ouster not on the table

CAIRO | In a bid to stem anti-government protests, Egypt’s vice president on Sunday agreed to several major concessions in talks with opposition groups, including ending the country’s decades-old emergency laws that have given state police broad powers to detain citizens and stifle free speech.

Omar Suleiman also agreed to allowing a free press, creating a committee to propose constitutional reforms and opening an office to deal with complaints about political prisoners during talks with opposition groups that included the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

But the protesters’ No. 1 demand - the immediate ouster of President Hosni Mubarak - was not addressed during Sunday’s first set of negotiations between the government and the opposition, a development unlikely to assuage the thousands of young protesters who have risen up against the regime.

Over the past 13 days, demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square have seen rage, euphoria, deadly battles and sweeping changes across their country and the region. On Sunday, in what appeared to be a new chapter of the saga, Tahrir Square reinvented itself again.

Part protest, part street fair and part funeral, Sunday’s demonstrations began what organizers hope will be a permanent part of Cairo’s political landscape. At least, that is, until their demands are met.

“We’re changing our country,” Manal said as she sat outside the tent she shares with about 10 other women.

“We are very happy,” added Manal, a French professor who has been camping in the square since the protests began. “We are doing something that our parents couldn’t do. We are not afraid.”

Two weeks of protests have prodded Mr. Mubarak into firing his Cabinet, naming his first vice president since taking power in 1981, removing himself and his son, Gamal, from September’s presidential election and purging the leadership of his political party. But he has refused to step down before September, saying that chaos would ensue.

In Tahrir Square on Sunday, vendors sold popcorn in one of the most festive protests since the uprising began. Although demonstrators chanted, danced, sang and munched on the many food items sold in the square, Cairo’s first more-normal business day in almost two weeks brought some relief to families reeling from a sudden loss of income.

Manal the French professor, like many other protesters, said she was not going to work and is prepared to stay in the square until Mr. Mubarak steps down. She said he will hear their message eventually. “We will leave when he leaves,” she said.

Family, friends and strangers have been carting food, blankets, medicine and other supplies into Tahrir for the hundreds of people who camp out in the square nightly. In recent days, many have been shut out by security, but have returned with food stuffed in pockets and under coats. Vendors have moved into the square selling cigarettes, socks, juice and hot meals. Other volunteers pass out free food and serve hot tea, while still others comb the streets cleaning up trash.

Some schools reopened Sunday for the first time in more than a week, and banks did the same for only three hours with long lines outside, the Associated Press reported.

Protesters were optimistic about the reforms that were announced Sunday, but said they would not relent until their chief demand is met. Too many people have suffered at the hands of the regime and will continue to face arbitrary arrests and police brutality if they give up now, they said.

“We thought it would be two days, four days, a week,” said one activist, referring to the amount of time they expected it to take to oust the president. “Maybe he doesn’t know the way to the airport.”

But Egyptians increasingly are divided on the whether to continue street actions or to stand down while leaders implement promised reforms. Some say Egypt simply cannot afford more unrest.

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