Monday, February 7, 2011

Egypt offers concessions, but protesters stay put

Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 7, 2011; 11:05 AM
CAIRO - Thousands of pro-democracy protesters maintained their vigil in this capital's central plaza Monday, even as the Egyptian government offered new concessions and tried to return Cairo to some semblance of normalcy.

President Hosni Mubarak met with cabinet members, part of his strategy to demonstrate that he's still in charge and that the government is functioning normally despite the protests.
Afterward, the government announced more concessions in a bid to lower the anti-Mubarak sentiment that has fueled the two-week-old protests, unprecedented in Mubarak's 30-year regime. Officials said salaries and pensions will be raised 15 percent, starting in April, for the 6 million people on Egypt'spublic payroll.
Egyptian state television also reported that Wael Ghonim, a missing Google marketing manager who played a key role in organizing the demonstrations, would be released to his family later Monday. He disappeared Jan. 28 and was believed held by Egypt's feared state security services.
In other news intended to blunt public anger, state television reported that judicial officials would investigate three former government ministers and a senior ruling party official on corruption charges.
Banks, schools and shops reopened across Egypt starting Sunday, and traffic jams returned to Cairo's normally anarchic streets. But Egypt's stock market remained closed, with no prospect of opening for several more days.
Demonstrators organized a human chain to blockade the Mugamma, a huge administrative services building that borders the square and is a hated symbol of Egypt's suffocating bureaucracy. The crowd also fended off persistent but nonviolent attempts by the army to reclaim parts of the square, lying down in front of tanks to prevent them from closing in.
The demonstrators are calling for Mubarak to resign immediately and allow an interim government to lay the groundwork for free and open elections. Mubarak has said he will not seek reelection when his term is up this fall, but he has refused to give up power right away.
On Sunday, leaders of opposition parties began talks with government representatives about possibilities for reform and transition. The opposition leaders had earlier sided with the protesters camped out in Tahrir Square, refusing to meet with government representatives unless Mubarak stepped down.
The shift by opposition leaders followed the clearest signals yet from the Obama administration that its call for a quick transition in Egypt did not include a demand that Mubarak step aside before elections this fall.
Washington has struggled to keep pace with the rapidly changing events in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world, at first trying to nudge Mubarak off the stage, and more recently searching for a way to encourage government reform even if Mubarak refuses, for now, to go.
Among those who joined for the first time in talks with Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's newly appointed vice president, were leaders from the banned Muslim Brotherhood movement, along with a loose coalition of political parties, intellectuals and protest organizers. Suleiman said the government would agree to consider broad changes, including constitutional amendments and a possible end to Egypt's three-decade-old state of emergency.

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