The pressure on Hosni Mubarak to release his 30-year grip on Egypt escalated on a day when some of his key allies appeared at a largely peaceful anti-government rally and the Obama administration leaned on opposition leaders to join negotiations to discuss proposals to strip the president of power.
With the Egyptian president’s fate uncertain and pro- and anti-Mubarak forces continuing street battles in the capital and other cities, army units chose to protect the opposition demonstrators who had fought for and won control of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Fears of cataclysmic violence yielded to euphoric scenes of Egyptians demanding their president step down with cries of “Leave! Leave!”
The thousands who had poured through lines of razor wire set up by the military were joined by Gen. Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the defense minister and a close advisor to Mubarak, who came to the square to inspect soldiers. Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League and a powerful politician often mentioned as a presidential candidate, also visited.
The tacit support from two men at the pinnacle of the country’s establishment indicated that power may be seeping from Mubarak, and that the old guard around him realizes it needs a solution quickly.
It also coincided with a number of conciliatory gestures offered by newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman, who proposed to meet Saturday with opposition leaders, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei; university professor Ayman Nour; and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement long suppressed by Mubarak.
Among the proposed solutions was a deal under which Mubarak would remain in office as a symbolic president while handing effective control to Suleiman prior to elections.
U.S. officials said they were pushing opposition groups — including the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization deeply mistrusted by successive administrations in Washington — to join the talks, but they described some leaders as wary of losing leverage if they participate in negotiations before Mubarak surrenders power.
Nour, who ran for president against Mubarak in 2005 and was later jailed, said the opposition groups were debating the proposal. The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group, had previously been dismissive of an offer of talks from Suleiman, but Friday confirmed the sides were discussing whether negotiations could start.
The deal being discussed would hinge on whether Mubarak resigned from the National Democratic Party but stayed president in name, with no involvement in actual governance, according to Nour and a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood.
“We might agree to talk with the vice president if Mubarak resigned from the NDP and left the political scene completely by delegating his powers to the vice president to be in charge until he leaves office in September,” Nour said.
He said they were also demanding the trial of all those involved in killing protesters in the last 11 days, including Egypt’s previous interior minister, who Mubarak sacked last week.
Obama administration officials said they were also urging the Egyptian army to endorse negotiations, a move they hoped would assuage the opposition leaders’ fears that they were falling into the trap of a political charm offensive.
But the messages sent by the Egyptian government remain mixed. On the one hand, officials have dangled the promise of reform, including constitutional changes, fair elections and an end to emergency law.
Yet pro-Mubarak supporters and undercover police have harassed the demonstrators in and around Tahrir Square. After a day of mostly peaceful protest there, single gunshots rang out after midnight, infuriating the thousands of anti-Mubarak protesters who remained.
And even as some floated the idea of turning Mubarak into a figurehead, Egypt’s prime minister warned that there could be no dilution of the president’s powers. Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, in remarks made on state television Friday and rebroadcast by the Al Arabiya network, predicted Mubarak probably would not turn over power to Suleiman. “We need the president for legislative reasons,” Al Arabiya quoted Shafik as saying.
Still, the idea retained appeal as a face-saving way to close the Mubarak era. At a public appearance Friday, Obama said “the key question he [Mubarak] should be asking himself is, ‘How do I leave a legacy behind in which Egypt is able to get through this transformative period?’ ”
That comment, said a White House official, was Obama’s way of telling Mubarak it was best to step aside.
“It’s not the only scenario, but it’s the cleanest. Everyone wants to see a dignified exit,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity.
Increasingly, the focus appears to be shifting away from Mubarak’s fate to finding a peaceful process to handle the aspirations and ambitions of political forces now unleashed on Egypt’s streets.
“Tantawi and Moussa are trying to reach out to protesters, and act as intermediaries between protesters and the opposition on one side and the regime on the other,” said Diaa Rashwan, an analyst with Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, referring to the public appearances by the top power-brokers in the square with anti-Mubarak forces.
But to many observers, it appeared that Egypt’s ruling figures had lost their bearings, offering concessions that now are too little and using repressive tactics that no longer work.
“It is a political striptease, where Mubarak throws off garment after garment,” said Hisham Kassem, a political analyst. “Mubarak is dealing as if his government is still strong. But he doesn’t realize the old methods no longer work.”
Kassem predicted it was only a matter of time before Egypt’s military brass, worried about deeper divisions in Egyptian society and lasting economic damage, moved to dump Mubarak.
“It is a waiting game,” Kassem said. The military “will have to handle the mess when he is gone.”
The political maneuvering meant little in Tahrir Square, where the call remained clear and the demand simple regarding Mubarak, and not what came next.
“We are not leaving! You are leaving!” the protesters yelled, drowning out the drone of a helicopter overhead.
“Where are you, freedom? Mubarak is standing between us,” they chanted thunderously.
“He is going to leave!” others bellowed.
People gathered in a circle and danced, clapped and sang, hopeful that victory was near. A band with an electric guitar played a faux reggae song: “Get Out, Get Out Hosni Mubarak.”
But Cairo remains turbulent. The push to unseat Mubarak has unleashed a wave of Egyptian-on-Egyptian violence. The government still blames the protests and civil disturbances on foreign agents. Paranoia and suspicion in the capital have seen foreigners, protesters and Egyptian rights activists detained by security forces and besieged by mobs.
Even if Mubarak leaves office before elections scheduled for September, Egypt could be marred by bloodshed and internal strife in the months ahead as sides vie for power.
The fear was evident in the way the anti-Mubarak crowds kept up their defenses in case any sudden danger materialized.
On a side street, men made ready to make their stand. The first line of defense was a barricade assembled from a wrecked blue police bus and a mass of torn-up metal railings and sheet metal. Fifty yards down the street, the defenders lined up in ranks five deep, some clutching wooden clubs.
“Nobody knows what will happen here,” said Said Khirallah, a 52-year-old school administrator and a father of three. “We are peaceful, but we will defend this square with our bodies.
“The Egyptian citizen is humiliated,” he said. “I want a free country for my kids, and this is a way to find our dignity again.”
Times staff writers Raja Abdulrahim and Timothy M. Phelps in Cairo, Paul Richter and Peter Nicholas in Washington and Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Los Angeles, as well as Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo Bureau and special correspondent Doha Al Zohairy in Cairo, contributed to this report.