Tara Todras-Whitehill, Associated Press
CAIRO — Egypt's vice president met a broad representation of major opposition groups for the first time Sunday 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 ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak.
"People still want the president to step down," said Mostafa al-Naggar, a protest organizer 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 Internet.
The offer to eventually lift emergency laws with a major caveat — when security permits — would fulfill a longtime demand by the opposition. The laws were imposed by 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.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry hailed the talks with opposition groups and the promise to remove the emergency law as "frankly quite extraordinary." Kerry called on Mubarak to lay out a timetable for transition and new elections.
"He must step aside gracefully, and begin the process of transition to a caretaker government. I believe that is happening right now," Kerry told NBC's Meet the Press. "What's needed now is a clarity in this process."
Mubarak is insisting he cannot stand down now or it would only deepen the chaos in his country. The United States shifted signals and gave key backing to the regime's gradual changes on Saturday, warning of the dangers if Mubarak goes too quickly.
Sunday's meeting drew the broadest representation of Egypt's fragmented opposition to sit with the new vice president since the protests began on Jan. 25.
The new offer of concessions followed a series of others that would have been unimaginable just a month ago in this tightly controlled country. All appear geared to placate the protesters and relieve international pressure without giving in to the one demand that unites all the opposition — Mubarak's immediate departure. The latest agreement makes no mention of any plan for Mubarak to step before a new election is held later this year.
Since protests began, Mubarak has pledged publicly for the first time that he will not seek re-election. The government promised his son Gamal, who had widely been expected to succeed him, would also not stand. Mubarak appointed a vice president for the first time since he took office three decades ago, widely considered his designated successor. He sacked his Cabinet, named a new one and promised reforms. And on Saturday, the top leaders of the ruling party, including Gamal Mubarak, were purged.
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