U.S. Joins Egyptian Protesters in Criticizing Suleiman’s Offers

Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman
Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman. Photographer: Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images

Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman said negotiations he has opened with opposition movements are the only alternative to the “chaos” of regime change, as the government’s limited concessions drew criticism from protesters and the Obama administration.

“There will be no overthrow of the regime because this will lead to chaos, which will take the country into the unknown,” Suleiman told local media chiefs yesterday, the official Middle East News Agency reported. The talks that began this week, involving the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups, “are the first way to achieve stability in the country and to get out of the current crisis peacefully.”

In Washington, the Obama administration echoed the criticism of the protesters that Suleiman isn’t responding quickly enough. The Egyptian government has yet to reach the “minimum threshold” of accomodating demands of the country’s citizens, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. Egyptian authorities must make “immediate and irreversible progress” toward a transition of power and expand the scope of negotiations, Gibbs said at today’s briefing.

Tens of thousands filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square yesterday in what may have been the largest turnout in two weeks of protests. Today’s was smaller. Another major gathering is scheduled for Feb. 11, dubbed by protesters as a “Friday of Defiance.”

‘An Impasse’

Mubarak’s refusal to quit immediately, an opposition demand, has created “an impasse,” Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center, said today in an interview from Cairo on Bloomberg Television’s“InBusiness.”

“The protesters aren’t going to back down, but it seems the Mubarak regime isn’t going to back down either, so we have a problem,” he said.

The country’s bonds and credit default swaps have pared losses since Suleiman’s negotiations began. Yields on Egypt’s dollar bonds due in 2020 rose 20 basis points to 6.56 percent at 5:15 p.m. in Cairo, after reaching a record 7.21 percent on Jan. 31.

The central bank stepped in to buy Egyptian pounds yesterday, halting the currency’s slide. It rose 1.3 percent, paring most of the previous two days’ losses. The pound was little changed at 5.8805 to the dollar today. The stock market is due to reopen on Feb. 13 and banks including Citigroup Inc. are restoring services.

Chaos Feared

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said today that Mubarak won’t Suleiman power and resign because he believes that would be unconstitutional and would “entail chaos.”

“He has a constitutional responsibility to defend the constitution and to defend the national security of Egypt,” he said in an interview on the PBS NewsHour broadcast.

Gheit also rejected Vice President Joe Biden’s call yesterday to lift the so-called emergency law, in place for almost three decades, that gives the government broad powers to arrest people without charge, to detain prisoners indefinitely, to limit speech and to try suspects in special courts. Ending the law has been one of the demands of opposition groups, which regard that as a test of the government’s willingness to open society.

“The issue of the emergency law as Vice President Biden stated yesterday, when I read it this morning, I was really amazed because right now, as we speak, we have 17,000 prisoners loose in the streets, out of jails that have been destroyed,” Aboul Gheit said. “How can you ask me to sort of disband that emergency law while I’m in difficulty? Give me time, allow me to have control to stabilize the nation, to stabilize the state and then we would look into the issue.”

Tahrir Square Scene

The numbers in Tahrir have swelled by late afternoon each day as Egyptians leave their workplaces to protest, some arriving directly from their offices in business attire, others bringing their families. Four stages have been erected there, with speakers blasting Egyptian music, the national anthem, chants to rouse the crowds, or news of the movement. The number of tents housing protesters overnight has grown, and donors have brought blankets, food and drink to those staying.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group, dismissed Suleiman’s warning that the protests can’t continue indefinitely. “This threat is rejected by the people, not just by us but the people on the street,” Mohammed Morsey, a spokesman for the group, told reporters in Cairo today.

Many in the anti-government camp oppose the talks started by Suleiman, who has promised steps within a month toward a new constitution and free elections. A constitutional committee has agreed to amend six articles of the constitution, Al Arabiya television reported, without saying how it got the information.

Tunisia’s Spark

The unrest in Egypt followed a revolt in Tunisia that toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14. Jordan, Algeria and Yemen have also had anti-government protests in recent weeks.

The Muslim Brotherhood is joined in the anti-Mubarak movement by the socialist Tagammu party, which is the largest opposition group in parliament, the Wafd party, and the National Association for Change, a movement that Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei helped set up last year. The Brotherhood is banned from politics in Egypt, and members have had to run for office as independents.

Former Foreign Minister Amre Moussa, now secretary-general of the Arab League, is being promoted as a future leader by at least two groups on Facebook, which has been used as a platform for opposition activists.

Arab League

“My 10-year mandate as secretary general of the Arab League ends next month. I don’t intend to renew it,” Moussa told the French newspaper in Le Monde in an interview published today. “I will therefore return to being an Egyptian citizen with all his liberties, responsibilities and duties. For the moment, I don’t intend to say more.”

ElBaradei, former head of the United Nations nuclear agency, returned to his homeland last month and says only that he “won’t let the Egyptian people down” if asked to run for president.

Suleiman said the country’s economic growth, which relies on tourism and foreign investment, may slow to 3.4 percent in the current fiscal year, from 5.1 percent. The government was predicting 6 percent growth before the political crisis.

U.S. Ties

Egypt has been one of the biggest recipients of U.S. aid since Mubarak came to power 30 years ago. The Obama administration has been pushing the government to negotiate with the opposition and begin immediately preparing for a transition of power.

The uncertainty over Egypt’s political future has increased concern that efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be dealt a setback, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said today during a tour of the region.

“Amidst the opportunity for countries like Tunisia and Egypt, there is a legitimate fear that the Middle East peace process will lose further momentum and be put to one side,” Hague told the BBC.

When asked today to explain the group’s position on the peace accord between Egypt and Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood said parliament has the right to reconsider treaties signed with other nations.

“As long as the international treaties were endorsed by the parliament, we respect those treaties,” Mohamed Saad El-Katatni, a member of the group’s top executive body, told reporters in Cairo. “It’s the right of the people, through the parliament, to reconsider these treaties whenever they want.”

Reject Peace Treaty

Katatni said that historically the Muslim Brotherhood has rejected the treaty with Israel.

Independent candidates from the Brotherhood won 88 seats of the 454 seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections, the strongest showing in its 85-year history. The mainstream Brotherhood group has renounced the use of arms to achieve its goals, prompting splits with factions that promote violence.

In a statement today, the Brotherhood said it does not “aspire to power” through the presidency or control of a majority in parliament.

“They are being very careful and cautious,” according to Brookings’ Hamid, who said he met today with some leaders of the group. “They know the international community is watching closely, and they don’t want to frighten the U.S. in particular. They know that if they play a more visible role, if they have leadership aspirations, that’s really going to get people scared in the West.”

“They understand this is not their time yet,” Hamid said, “and they just want to keep a low profile, at least for the foreseeable future.”


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