CAIRO – 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.
Egypt's government on Saturday denied reports that Suleiman was targeted in an assassination attempt.
A government statement said a stray bullet from an exchange of fire between "criminal elements" struck the lead car in the vice president's motorcade as it moved through an area of disturbances on Jan. 28, just days after the unrest began.
The statement said Suleiman was not injured. It said there was no evidence he was intentionally targeted and referred to the shooting as a random incident.
Government officials, meanwhile, sought to depict that normalcy was returning to a capital that has been paralyzed for nearly two weeks by the crisis. State TV announced that banks and courts, closed for most of the turmoil, will reopen Sunday, the start of Egypt's work week, though daily bank withdrawals will be limited to $15,000 and the stock market will remain shut at least through Monday.
In Tahrir, Elwan Abdul Rahman, a 26-year-old who came from southern Egypt on Friday to join protesters, dismissed the prime minister's comments. "He's laughing at the world, he's laughing at all of us," he said, pointing at the crowds and saying, "Do you think they're gonna go away tomorrow? ... People are here with their blood and their soul."
The government and military have promised not to try to clear protesters from Tahrir, and soldiers guarding the square continued to let people enter to join the growing rally.
But there were signs of tension Saturday. At one point, army tanks tried to try to bulldoze away several burned out vehicles that protesters used in barricades during fighting this week with pro-regime attackers. The protesters say they want the gutted chassis in place in case of a new attack. Protesters clambered onto the vehicles and lay down in front of them to prevent soldiers from removing them, and only after heated arguments did the troops agree.
Also, there were reports for the first time of attempts by troops guarding the square's entrances to prevent those entering from bringing food for protesters, thousands of whom have camped out for days and need a constant flow of supplies.
Mohammad Radwan, 31, said soldiers harassed him as he brought in supplies of bread, cheese and lunch meat and tried to confiscate some of the food until he shouted them down. "They want to suffocate the people in Tahrir and this is the most obvious attack on them without actually attacking," he said.
So far, protesters have been willing only to start contacts with the government on terms of Mubarak's exit. A group of youth activists organizing the protests met Friday with Suleiman.
One proposal floated by the "Wise Men" would have Mubarak "deputize" Suleiman with his powers and step aside in every way but name, perhaps keeping the presidency title for the time being at least. The Wise Men have met twice with Suleiman and Shafiq to discuss the proposal, which also involves the dissolving of the parliament monopolized by the ruling party and the end of emergency laws that give security forces near-unlimited powers.
But "the stumbling point remains that of the president stepping down," said Amr el-Shobaki, a Wise Men member. The group comprises about a dozen prominent public figures and jurists.
One of the protest organizers who met with Suleiman Friday night said the proposal "could be a way out of the crisis." But he too said there was no sign of Suleiman accepting. "The problem is in the president," he said. "He is not getting it that he has become a burden on everybody."
The protest organizers themselves are a mix of small movements who managed to draw broadbased support among a public disenchanted with Mubarak's rule. The majority are young secular leftists and liberals, who launched the wave of protests though an Internet campaign, but the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood also has built a prominent role.
Suleiman and Shafiq say they want negotiations with all the factions, promising their voices will be heard.
Protesters, however, distrust a process conducted by the current government, given the regime's overwhelming domination of the playing field, including a grip on security services and the media, a vast patronage system, a constitution that effectively enshrines its monopoly and a history of rigging elections.