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Opposition, Mubarak regime to draft 'road map' for landmark talks

The Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak has taken a giant step toward the goals of the country's opposition.

The meetings Sunday between Vice-President Omar Suleiman and representatives of several opposition parties were unprecedented in nature. No modern Egyptian government has ever tolerated protesters, let alone met with them.

The two sides say they have agreed on drafting a "road map" for further negotiations, and to create a judicial committee to draft possible amendments to the country's constitution that would allow for free and fair elections.

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They also discussed the release of jailed activists, freedom of expression in all forms of media, and the end of Egypt's state of emergency law, established in 1981 when Mr. Mubarak first came to power. They did not, however, reach a conclusion on any of them.

But if those things make Sunday's talks significant, the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood also was at the table makes them historic.

It was in 1954, that the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed by Gamal Abdel Nasser (after a member of the Brotherhood attempted to assassinate him), and it's taken this long for an Egyptian government to sit down with representatives of the party, which has manoeuvred itself in a leading role in the protest.

The movement long ago eschewed violence and concentrates its efforts on providing the country's working class with health care and social programs, albeit with religious overtones, as well as on winning the leadership in many of Egypt's professional guilds. Members also have sought seats in parliament since 1984, running as independents. But recognition or legalization eluded them.

"Today, we were recognized," said Mahmoud Hussein, secretary-general of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, speaking Sunday evening. "This is the most important thing [to come out of the meeting]"

But for the fact that a larger-than-life portrait of Mr. Mubarak was staring down at the Brothers' representatives throughout, the meeting was as good as one could have hoped.

The issue of Mr. Mubarak's continued presidency haunts these negotiations. It is the widest gap between the regime and the opposition.

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Earlier in the weekend, it had been reported that a senior member of the Brotherhood had indicated support for the idea that the President stay in office a while longer to facilitate the political reforms.

"No," Dr. Hussein retorted emphatically. "We are with the people - the protesters - on this point. Mubarak must go."

Esam El-Erian, another member of the Brotherhood's executive committee, predicted after the meeting that Mr. Mubarak may step down before the end of this week, not in September, at the official end of his term.

Sunday's meetings took place just as Cairo was beginning to return to normal. Many of the banks and most of the stores and coffee shops were open, and Cairo's infamous traffic was as congested as ever. People parked their cars near Tahrir Square, in the very places where burned out cars and police vehicles had sat just a few days ago. Sniffer dogs were used to ferret out any bombs.

The size of the crowd - in the tens of thousands - in the square remained impressive, but it will get increasingly difficult for the opposition to get out the protesters, as work and other interests diverts more and more of them. Losing large crowds will greatly reduce the leverage the opposition has in negotiations with the regime; hence the push to get Mr. Mubarak out fast.

Already, it has become clear that the Muslim Brotherhood, not initially participating in these protests, has taken over the role of protest organizer from the largely secular youth groups that launched the revolution. And they're doing a good job. The security, medical and public speaking duties largely are carried out by Brothers, and the crowd is decidedly religious in nature, unlike the crowds of a week or 10 days ago.

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Some of those original organizers are not happy about the Suleiman meetings.

"They evade the demands of the people," said Mohamed Adel, from the Sixth of April youth group that has been among the core protesters.

In one of the two meetings on Sunday, Mr. Suleimen met with a group of younger people said to support Mohamed ElBaradei as a candidate for president, as well as people said to represent the people in Tahrir Square.

"Any young people talking with Omar Suleiman or anyone else in the government does not represent the youth groups that called for the Jan. 25 revolt," said Ahmed Maher, another leader in what is now known as the Revolutionary Youth Movement.

The meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood reflects a wider acknowledgment of its influence. On Thursday, Jordan's King Abdullah II, facing a public uproar over high food costs, met with members of Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood for the first time in nearly a decade.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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