Vice President Omar Suleiman, center, met with representatives of protesters on Sunday
Egypt’s Vice President Omar Suleiman agreed Sunday to a series of key steps aimed at bringing an end to the mass protests that were in their 13th day.
After Suleiman’s meetings with representatives of several different opposition groups, state-run TV read a statement saying both sides had agreed to form a national committee to work on constitutional changes within a month, take steps to free the media and communications, and end military law and security threats.
There was no immediate word from opposition groups after the meeting, and it was not immediately clear how many of the protesters believe that those who met with Suleiman on Sunday actually represent their interests.
According to the state-run TV statement, the two sides agreed to form a national committee to follow up on implanting commitments President Hosni Mubarak made in his speech on February 1, when he said he would not run for re-election in September. In that speech, Mubarak vowed to “restore the security and stability of the homeland, to achieve a peaceful transition of power in an environment that will protect Egypt and Egyptians and which will allow for responsibility to be given to whoever the people will elect in the forthcoming elections.”
They also agreed on Sunday to reject any foreign interference in Egypt and form a committee from the legal authority and political groups that would work together to suggest needed changes, according to the statement.
Many protesters are calling for Mubarak’s immediate ouster and for him to stand trial. His announcement last week that he planned to stay in office through September’s elections infuriated thousands and spurred further protests. But he also has vociferous supporters, who have clashed at times with anti-government demonstrators in recent days.
The demonstrations Sunday seemed generally peaceful. Among those taking part were members of Egypt’s Christian minority, who held a Mass in Tahrir Square paying tribute to those killed during clashes. Some Muslim protesters vowed to form a ring around the Christians and protect them during the service. Egypt’s population is 10% Christian, a minority mostly made up of Coptic Christians.
Among of the groups that met with Suleiman was the Muslim Brotherhood — an opposition Islamist umbrella group that is officially banned but tolerated in Egypt — which days earlier said it would not negotiate until Mubarak leaves office. “We did not change our stance. We decided to take the people’s demands to the negotiation table,” said Essam el-Erian, a spokesman for the group.
Suleiman also met separately with six young people representing protesters in Tahrir Square, who call themselves part of the January 25 movement, named after the date the protests began, according to state-run TV. The news infuriated some protesters, who said they had not selected anyone to represent them, and that they didn’t want to make deals with Suleiman.
On the streets of Cairo, there were increasing signs of normalcy returning. Some shops re-opened, traffic began to seem more like it did before the protests began, and some banks opened for the first time since January 27.
The nation’s central bank imposed restrictions on withdrawals by individuals, but not by companies, said Ahmed Ismail, manager of the Abu Dhabi National Bank.
The justice minister announced that courts would reopen Sunday and the government eased its daily curfew, making the hours 7 p.m. to 6 a.m.
“We’re in better shape,” Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq said on state television. “And we can sense that day by day.”
Sunday’s developments followed an announcement Saturday that key members of the ruling National Democratic Party resigned from leadership positions, in the strongest gesture yet to placate angry Egyptians.
Mubarak’s son, Gamal, was among those who resigned from party posts, meaning that he is no longer eligible to take over from his father. His decision effectively put to rest a widespread belief that the embattled president was preparing for a dynastic handover.
The United States has been mounting pressure on Mubarak to step aside. On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at a security conference in Germany, said it is “important to follow the transition process announced by the Egyptian government, actually headed by Vice President Omar Suleiman.”
U.S. President Barack Obama, in phone calls with foreign leaders Saturday, emphasized the importance of an “orderly, peaceful transition” to a government that is “responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”
The diplomatic official who delivered a message from the Obama administration to Egypt’s leadership this week, however, said Mubarak “remains utterly critical in the days ahead as we sort our way toward the future” and must stay in office.
Changes are needed in Egypt to pave the way for a smooth transition, and “the president must stay in office in order to steer those changes through,” said Frank Wisner, a former ambassador to Egypt. “It’s his opportunity to write his own legacy.”
U.S. officials emphasized that Wisner was speaking for himself, as an expert on the region, and not for the Obama administration.
Barak Barfi, a research fellow with New America Foundation, said an immediate departure by Mubarak could cause more harm than good.
“The problem that we have now is if Mubarak leaves, there could be complete chaos. The country could fall apart,” Barfi said Sunday from Cairo. “It would be more beneficial for the democratic process if Mubarak could see through his term ’til September. Amendments to the constitution (could) be made, and a democratic process (could) be started.”
Some opposition leaders said they had teamed up and called for Mubarak’s immediate resignation and the right for peaceful demonstration.
Mohamed ElBaradei’s National Association for Change and the Tagammu party’s leader announced Saturday a newly formed opposition group of 10 people, including ElBaradei, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Beltagy, and liberal Ghad party leader Ayman Nour.
“We have been in agreement right now that we’d probably have a presidential council of three members including somebody from the army,” ElBaradei told CNN. “We have a caretaker government … who would then run the country for a year, prepare the grounds for the necessary changes in the electoral process to ensure that we will have all what we need for a free and fair election.”
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