By Shaimaa Fayed and Tom Perry / Reuters
CAIRO: Egypt has a plan and timetable for the peaceful transfer of power, the vice president said on Tuesday, as protesters called more demonstrations hoping to show their campaign to oust President Hosni Mubarak remains potent.
With signs growing the government may be gaining the upper hand in the struggle for power, Vice President Omar Suleiman also promised no reprisals against the protesters for their two-week campaign to eject Mubarak after 30 years in office.
“A clear road map has been put in place with a set timetable to realize the peaceful and organized transfer of power,” said Suleiman, Mubarak’s long-time intelligence chief who has led talks with opposition groups including the Muslim Brotherhood — Mubarak’s sworn enemy.
So far the government has conceded little ground in the talks. The embattled 82-year-old president, who has promised to stand down when his term expires in September, appears to be weathering the storm engulfing Egypt, at least for the moment.
Negotiations that brought together the government and opposition factions took place this week under the gaze of a giant portrait of Mubarak.
“The president welcomed the national consensus, confirming that we are putting our feet on the right path to getting out of the current crisis,” Suleiman said in comments broadcast by state television, after briefing Mubarak on the talks.
Hundreds of thousands have joined previous demonstrations and the United Nations says 300 people may have died so far. But many in a country where about 40 percent of people live on less than $2 a day are desperate to return to work and normal life, even some of those wanting to oust Mubarak.
Some normality is returning to Cairo. Traffic was bumper to bumper in the city centre on Tuesday and queues quickly built up at banks, which are still open only for restricted hours.
While opposition groups talk to Suleiman, mainly younger protesters called for a push to remove Mubarak as the authorities tried to squeeze them out of central Cairo.
Suleiman promised that the harassment of protesters would end. “The president emphasized that Egypt’s youth deserve the appreciation of the nation and issued a directive to prevent them being pursued, harassed or having their right to freedom of expression taken away,” he said.
Tuesday’s demonstrations will test the protesters’ ability to maintain pressure on the government. Those camped out in tents on Tahrir Square have vowed to stay until Mubarak quits, and plan more mass demonstrations on Tuesday and Friday.
The release of a Google Inc executive, Wael Ghonim, after two weeks in which he said he was kept blindfolded by Egyptian state security may galvanize support. Activists say the Egyptian was behind a Facebook group that helped to inspire the protests.
“I am not a symbol or a hero or anything like that, but what happened to me is a crime,” he told private Egyptian station Dream TV after his release on Monday. “We have to tear down this system based on not being able to speak out.”
A posting on the social network site after the interview said: “Anyone who saw the Wael Ghonim interview and is not going to Tahrir tomorrow (Tuesday) has no heart.”
Egyptian opposition figures have reported little progress in talks with the government.
The Muslim Brotherhood, by far the best organized opposition group, said on Monday it could quit the process if protesters’ demands were not met, including the immediate exit of Mubarak.
US President Barack Obama, however, said the talks were making progress. “Obviously, Egypt has to negotiate a path and they’re making progress,” he told reporters in Washington.
The United States, adopting a cautious approach to the crisis, has urged all sides to allow time for an “orderly transition” to a new political order in Egypt, for decades a strategic ally.
But protesters worry that when Mubarak does leave, he will be replaced not by the democracy they seek but by another authoritarian ruler. Many young men in Tahrir Square on Monday dismissed the political dialogue taking place.
The opposition has been calling for the constitution to be rewritten to allow free and fair presidential elections, a limit on presidential terms, the dissolution of parliament, the release of political detainees and lifting of emergency law.
The state news agency MENA reported on Monday that Mubarak had set up two committees to be involved in drawing up changes to the constitution.
The potential rise to power of the banned Muslim Brotherhood troubles Cairo’s Western allies and Israel, which has a peace treaty with Egypt.
The White House has expressed concern about the group’s “anti-American rhetoric”, but stopped short of saying it would be against the group taking a role in a future government.
Keen to get traffic moving around Tahrir Square, the army has tried to squeeze the area the protesters have occupied. Some slept in the tracks of the army’s armored vehicles to prevent them being used to force the protest into a smaller space.
The army’s role in the next weeks is considered critical to the country’s future. (Additional reporting by Samia Nakhoul, Dina Zayed, Marwa Awad, Andrew Hammond, Alexander Dziadosz, Yasmine Saleh, Sherine El Madany, Jonathan Wright, and Alison Williams in Cairo; Erika Solomon in Dubai; Writing by David Stamp; Editing by Peter Graff)