- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 6, 2011

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.

Many food items now cost two to 10 times what they were just a week ago, and the instability has cost the country $310 million a day, according to early estimates by Credit Agricole bank.

Others say the strength of the people’s voice in Egypt will dissipate if protests continue. They worry that demonstrators will grow tired and observers will grow bored with the show.

“You need to recharge your batteries and at the same time being ready for a new action,” said Amir Mohsen, a business development specialist. “[The demonstrators] will get fewer and fewer if they stay there.”

Some viewed the government’s talks with the opposition and its concessions as a ploy to pacify the protesters without having to actually implement real reforms and end the demonstrations.

But in Tahrir Square on Sunday, the protests showed no signs of slowing.

Tens of thousands of people crossed several checkpoints to get to the square. Bags were searched, IDs checked and scores of volunteers supporting the ongoing protest cheerfully patted down everyone. Inside the packed square, anti-Mubarak signs sprawled over the crowd, and people sang and set up creative displays to illustrate their political demands.

On one end of the square, men held up urinals. The white ceramic read: “Contribute to the National Democratic Party,” the party of the president.

On the other end, teenage boys took turns lying as if dead next to rocks that spelled, “In honor of the Tahrir dead,” referring to the hundreds of protesters estimated to have been killed in clashes during the uprising.

Activists said the rocks were hurled into the square during battles between demonstrators and a wave of Mubarak supporters that swept through on Wednesday. The fights left about 11 dead and hundreds - if not thousands - injured. Protesters say the Mubarak supporters were hired thugs, not genuine activists.

On the edges or the square, tanks, covered with anti-Mubarak graffiti were parked, as soldiers casually watched the milling mob. Dozens of protesters crowded in the shadow of the tanks, having slept there for days in order to prevent the army from continuing to inch into the square.

“They are staying for the tanks not to go closer, to not decrease the parameter, to not decrease the revolution,” said Mohammad Saigh, 23, a fifth-year medical student volunteering at one of the many makeshift medical clinics scattered throughout Tahrir Square.

Like other activists, Mr. Saigh said, they do not fear a direct attack from the army. “We don’t expect [the soldiers] to shoot. Many officers said, ‘We will not shoot a single bullet because I’m not going to hell for orders.’ “

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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