Egypt’s vice president met a broad representation of major opposition groups for the first time and offered new concessions including freedom of the press, release of those detained since anti-government protests began nearly two weeks ago and the eventual lifting of the country’s hated emergency laws.
Two of the groups that attended the meeting said this was only a first step in a dialogue which has yet to meet their central demand – the immediate removal of President Hosni Mubarak.
“People still want the president to step down,” said Mostafa al-Naggar, a protest organiser and supporter of Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace laureate and one of the country’s leading democracy advocates.
“The protest continues because there are no guarantees and not all demands have been met,” he added. “We did not sign on to the statement. This is a beginning of a dialogue. We approve the positive things in the statement but … we are still demanding that the president step down.”
The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition group, made a similar statement after its representatives attended the meeting.
Vice President Omar Suleiman offered to set up a committee of judiciary and political figures to study proposed constitutional reforms that would allow more candidates to run for president and impose term limits on the presidency, the state news agency reported. The committee was given until the first week of March to finish the tasks.
The offer also included a pledge not to harass those participating in anti-government protests, which have drawn hundreds of thousands at the biggest rallies. The government agreed not to hamper freedom of press and not to interfere with text messaging and the internet.
The offer to eventually lift emergency laws with a major caveat – when security permits – would fulfil a long-time demand by the opposition. The laws were imposed by Mr Mubarak when he took office in 1981 and they have been in force ever since. They give police far-reaching powers for detention and suppression of civil and human rights.
Mr Mubarak is insisting he cannot stand down now or it would only deepen the chaos in his country. The US shifted signals and gave key backing to the regime’s gradual changes on Saturday, warning of the dangers if Mr Mubarak goes too quickly.
The meeting drew the broadest representation of Egypt’s fragmented opposition to sit with the new vice president since the protests began on January 25.