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Opposition divided ahead of talks with Egypt's VP

Opposition groups demanding the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak failed to agree a common stance before negotiations with Vice President Omar Suleiman to pull Egypt out of its worst crisis in 30 years.
Image: Omar Suleiman
Handing power over to Vice President Omar Suleiman could be a potential compromise for opposition groups.Loay Abu Haykel / Reuters file
/ Source: Reuters

Opposition groups demanding the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak failed to agree a common position before negotiations with Vice President Omar Suleiman to pull Egypt out of its worst crisis in 30 years.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most influential and organized opposition group, said on Saturday it has accepted to enter into dialogue, having refused the offer before.

A Brotherhood spokesman said the talks will take place at 11:00 a.m. (0900 GMT) on Sunday to discuss the process of Mubarak leaving office, the right to protest in public places and guarantees for their safety.

State television said Suleiman began meetings with prominent independent and mainstream opposition figures on Saturday to go through the options, which center on how to ensure free and fair presidential elections while sticking to the constitution.

It did not name the groups he met.

The proposal being promoted by a group of Egyptians calling itself the "The Council of Wise Men" involves Suleiman assuming presidential powers for an interim period pending elections.

But some opposition figures argue that would mean the next presidential election would be held under the same unfair conditions as in previous years. They want to first have a new parliament to change the constitution to pave the way for a presidential vote that is democratic.

A popular uprising has gripped Egypt since January 25, with protesters camping out in central Cairo demanding the departure of Mubarak, even after the president on Tuesday announced he would not seek re-election in September.

Egypt, the Arab world's most populous and influential country, faces the danger of a power vacuum unless some sort of agreement on a transitional government is reached.

Council of Wise Men
With the negotiations under way, state television announced that the leadership of the ruling National Democratic Party, including Mubarak's son Gamal, had resigned.

The resignations were quickly dismissed by the opposition as a ruse.

Mohammed Habib, a member of the Brotherhood said: "It's an attempt to improve the image of the party but it does not dispense with the real aim of the revolution: bringing down the regime, starting with the resignation of President Mubarak."

The "Wise Men" proposal is based on article 139 of the constitution that would allow Mubarak to hand executive powers to his deputy while staying on as figurehead until September, Diaa Rashwan, an expert at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and one of the "Wise Men," told Reuters.

Handing power to Suleiman offers a compromise between protesters' demands for Mubarak to leave office immediately and his decision to stay on until the end of his term in September.

Rashwan said all opposition factions and forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, were invited to Saturday's talks but they were divided over some issues, with some unwilling to let Mubarak stay on even in a symbolic capacity.

"Consultations are continuing to find an end to this crisis," he said. "The truth is that the youth movement do not accept Mubarak's presence in any form or shape. We are trying to persuade them to accept it...We are trying to reach a compromise."

He said the unprecedented social upheaval that gripped Egypt require sacrifices by Mubarak if they hit a deadlock.

"The president has ruled the country for 30 years. Egypt deserves that he sacrifices and leaves power six months before his term expire. What remains is to find an honorable departure without any humiliation because if things stay as they are it won't be good," Rahwan said.

The main opposition groups comprise the Brotherhood, the National Coalition for Change led by Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, the Kefaya ("Enough") group and youth represented by the April Sixth Movement, the liberal Wafd party and the leftist Tagammu party.

Even if they all agree on the proposal, article 82 of the constitution could present a legal complication. It says that while the president is able to delegate powers to a deputy, that person is not allowed to request constitutional amendments or dissolve the parliament or local shura councils.

If that article holds, it would be impossible for a Suleiman-led administration to carry out the constitutional reforms promised by Mubarak in response to the protests.

Without constitutional changes, a presidential election in September would have to run under the same rules that opposition parties say stack all the cards in favor of Mubarak's National Democratic Party and effectively foil a meaningful rival bid.

Internal divisions
The Brotherhood said discussions were still taking place a among the factions to seek common ground.

"Until now there is no agreement among the various parties and factions on one scenario," Mohammed Morsy, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, told Reuters.

He said his Islamist group was proposing that the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court takes over power as stipulated by the constitution since parliament has been effectively suspended since the unrest erupted last month.

"The head of the supreme court will then call for parliamentary elections and the elected parliament can amend the necessary clauses in the constitution in order to conduct fair and honest presidential elections," Morsy said.

"Most of the clauses in the constitution concern the president...The president has to go. We are trying to find a constitutional way out if the president is no longer in his post."