Lefteris Pitarakis  /  AP
Egyptian anti-government demonstrators pray at a barricade protecting the group from possible attacks by pro-government protesters in Tahrir Square, the center of anti-government demonstrations, in Cairo, Egypt on Sunday.
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updated 2/7/2011 12:43:38 PM ET 2011-02-07T17:43:38

Nearly two weeks into the Egyptian crisis, the Obama administration is still struggling to find a path forward that protects U.S. security interests without abandoning the pro-democracy protesters.

On Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that while the administration supports the transition to a new government in Cairo — so long as it is inclusive and transparent — it must be the Egyptian people who decide if the reforms go far enough. She withheld judgment on the decision by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood to join discussions with the embattled government.

Video: Egypt at a turning point? Talks spur concessions (on this page)

"We are going to wait and see how this develops," Clinton told National Public Radio before returning to Washington from an international security conference in Munich, Germany.

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In Cairo, new Vice President Omar Suleiman met with a broad representation of major opposition groups for the first time and offered new concessions, including release of those detained since anti-government protests began nearly two weeks ago and the eventual lifting of the nation's emergency laws, which give police far-reaching powers for detention and suppression of civil and human rights.

Democratic Sen. John Kerry applauded the talks with opposition groups and called the move toward lifting the emergency laws "quite extraordinary." He called on President Hosni Mubarak to lay out a clear path toward a new government.

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"He must step aside gracefully and begin the process of transition to a caretaker government," Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told NBC television's "Meet the Press." "I believe that is happening right now. What's needed now is clarity in this process."

Clinton on Saturday made clear that the U.S. was throwing its weight behind nascent efforts by Cairo to make constitutional and other reforms before a presidential election is held, and to reach out to opposition groups.

"It takes time to think those through, to decide how one is going to proceed, who will emerge as leaders," she said. "The principles are very clear. The operational details are very challenging."

Story: Obama: Egypt not going back to way it was

Obama sees 'progress' on Egypt
On Monday, Obama said Egypt is "making progress" toward a path out of the political crisis enveloping the country.

The president did not elaborate in response to a reporter's question on the talks taking place in Egypt, where Vice President Omar Suleiman met several major opposition groups for the first time Sunday.

U.S. officials have indicated support for the talks, even though they do not meet protesters' demands for President Hosni Mubarak's immediate resignation. And some in Egypt see the U.S. support as contradicting Obama's repeated call for a transition in Egypt to begin "now."

Obama was asked Monday about the situation in Egypt after a speaking engagement. He replied, "Obviously Egypt has to negotiate a path, and I think they're making progress."

Tough foreign policy challenges for Obama
The crisis, which largely caught the White House by surprise, presents one of the toughest foreign policy challenges of Barack Obama's presidency. Even in the most optimistic outcome, with a government in Cairo that is broadly aligned with the U.S., the loss of Mubarak as a three-decade pillar of U.S. Mideast policy suggests that relations with Egypt will never be the same.

And if the Muslim Brotherhood — an Islamist political movement that is banned in autocratic Egypt — takes a central role in a future popularly elected government, the U.S. challenge will be even tougher.

Also at risk are the strong ties between American and Egyptian counterterrorism officials that both sides have cultivated over the past three decades.

Lefteris Pitarakis  /  AP
An Egyptian anti-government demonstrator stands in Tahrir Square, the center of anti-government demonstrations, in Cairo, Egypt on Sunday. A sense of normalcy began to return to the capital of some 18 million people, which has been largely closed since chaos erupted shortly after the protests began on Jan. 25.

Martin Indyk, a retired U.S. diplomat and former ambassador to Israel, said Obama deserves praise for his approach to the crisis so far, even if his message has seemed confused at times.

"He's kind of like a high-wire artist in which he's got to walk a fine line between wanting Mubarak to go but not go in a way that creates chaos, wanting to signal to the street that he's with them in their demands for democracy and universal rights," Indyk said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

"And so the message sometimes gets a little blurred because you've got this, kind of, echo chamber that the administration finds itself in. And it's a very complicated position, but I would give President Obama credit here that, while he hasn't always got the messaging right, he's got the basic policy right," he said.

Video: Obama, O’Reilly talk Egypt at Bowl pregame (on this page)

Egypt once had to contend with its own breed of hardcore Islamic militants. But brutal repression by the country's security services — most recently led by former intelligence chief Suleiman — largely eliminated them as a threat. The secretive Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization has been headed by al-Qaida's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri since 1991, but Egypt's secret police crushed the group.

Video: Muslim Brotherhood eying government role?

Another worry is the possibility that the post-Mubarak era in Cairo will put at risk Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab countries to make peace with the Jewish state, and both Cairo and Amman have played important roles in Washington's effort to nudge Israel and the Palestinians toward peace. Mubarak hosted an Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiation last September.

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Clinton's speech in Munich on Saturday mirrored one she delivered last month in Qatar, when she warned regional leaders that the foundations of progress and development were "sinking into the sand" and would continue to do so unless those leaders acted to meet the aspirations of their people, particularly the large youth population. A day after that speech, Tunisia's longtime autocratic president was driven into exile amid a rebellion that inspired protesters in Egypt to step up demonstrations against their leadership.

In a revised travel warning, the State Department on Sunday urged Americans to avoid traveling to Egypt and said those in the country should consider leaving when it was safe. Commercial flights were available and no additional government-chartered flights were planned, the department said.

Last week the department ordered all non-emergency U.S. government personnel and family members to leave Egypt.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Egypt at a turning point? Talks spur concessions

  1. Transcript of: Egypt at a turning point? Talks spur concessions

    HOLT: Good evening from Amman , Jordan .

    LESTER HOLT, anchor (Amman, Jordan): The pro- democracy movement in neighboring Egypt took an interesting turn today. As die-hard anti- Mubarak activists held their ground in Cairo 's Tahrir Square , refusing to negotiate, the powerful and formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood were at the bargaining table, winning sweeping concessions from the embattled government on everything from freedom of the press to a promise to end martial law . Most telling, however, was that those deals were being agreed to by Egypt 's new vice president, not President Hosni Mubarak , who it appears is slowly being squeezed out of the picture and out of Egypt 's future. Our chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel remains on the ground for us in Cairo . He has today's new developments for us. Richard , good evening.

    RICHARD ENGEL reporting: Good evening, Lester . The government today did offer major political concessions, but the protesters in Tahrir Square are digging in and want more. But the longer this goes on, they risk alienating many Egyptians who want both political reform and stability. For the first time in two weeks, what's happening outside Tahrir Square may be determining Egypt 's future. Cars are back out, the city is cleaning up. Cairo , which has looked like a war zone, is going back to work. A sense of normal life is now returning to Cairo . People are coming out on the streets, opening their shops, wondering if this conflict may have turned a corner. Banks opened today. Government salaries, delayed more than a week, have been paid, the money transferred by direct deposit to ATM machines .

    Unidentified Man #1:

    ENGEL: 'We want to return to stability,' said this man. These people supported the uprising for more democracy, but now that the government is promising to do it, they believe the demonstrations in Tahrir Square should stop.

    Unidentified Man #2:

    ENGEL: 'We've achieved many reforms, stability and work are more important now,' he said. The government today promised to make fundamental changes to allow more democracy. The vice president, Omar Suleiman , met with opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood , which wants Islamic law . It's an astonishing photo op. The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned for decades. Suleiman headed the intelligence service that has tracked the brotherhood down. Now they're discussing Egypt 's political future together. After the meeting, Egypt announced it would go further by soon lifting martial law , in place since Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 , allowing more presidential candidates to run in future elections and greater freedom of the press . It's almost everything the opposition has asked for, but is it real? Hasham Kassan has worked for democracy in Egypt for years. Tonight he's skeptical.

    Mr. HASHAM KASSAN: All this talk about not running again and all the reform, etc., is lies. And if those kids leave, Mubarak is going to turn back on all the promises he made.

    ENGEL: And there's still the open question of Tahrir Square , where thousands of protesters remain camped out. Today they held prayers for the 12 or more people killed in the violence. The protesters still draw huge crowds and say they'll only stop if Mubarak resigns and leaves the country.

    Unidentified Woman: We have nothing solid. He can change his mind tomorrow.

    Unidentified Man #3: Whatever he offers, no one will accept. I don't know why they're wasting their time.

    ENGEL: The protesters worry if they leave the square , the government will just renege on its promises. It's now a question of trust. Mubarak seems to be giving in to all the opposition's demands except one, his legacy. But protesters say it's a ploy by the 82-year-old survivor to clear the square and wait out this political storm. Lester , a lot now depends on numbers. If the protesters get smaller and start to fade away, then this is probably the best offer they're going to get from the government . If the protests, however, stay large or even get bigger, then there is a chance they could force President Mubarak to step down early, although it seems unlikely he'd actually leave the country. Lester :

    HOLT: Richard Engel in Cairo tonight,

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