Egypt talks in doubt, protests continue

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The World

CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt's newly appointed cabinet met for the first time on Monday, as protesters continued to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

The government sat down with opposition groups on Sunday, offering a number of concessions, including an agreement to form a committee to review amendments to Egypt’s constitution. The committee will look specifically at two articles that govern — and currently restrict — who can run for president.

But protesters rejected the government's concessions, and tens of thousands of protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square dug in deeper, saying only ending three decades of rule by Mubarak could bring the protests to an end.

U.S. President Barack Obama said Monday that talks between Mubarak's regime and the opposition were progressing, though the Muslim Brotherhood — the country's main opposition group, which was invited to participate in Sunday's talks with Vice President Omar Suleiman — said Sunday that they would quit talks if their demands were not met. 

In other developments Monday, a Google executive and pro-reform advocate who went missing in Egypt more than a week ago was released from the custody of security forces.

“Freedom is a bless that deserves fighting for it,” posted Wael Ghonim on his Twitter feed, moments after his release late Monday.

Ghonim, the Cairo-based product and marketing manager for Google’s Middle East and North Africa region, disappeared at an anti-government demonstration on Jan. 27, according to local media.

Google confirmed Ghonim’s release on Monday.

“Huge relief — Wael Ghonim has been released. Our love to him and his family,” posted Google on the company’s Twitter feed.

Ghonim’s disappearance was widely condemned by local and international human rights groups after a video, purportedly capturing the moment he was arrested, surfaced on YouTube last week.

In the video, three plainclothes Egyptian police officers pulled Ghonim out of a crowd while attempting to disperse anti-government protesters. As he was dragged away, a fourth officer pulled Ghonim forcibly down the street by his hair.

Egypt’s police forces have become the main focus of anger over the past two weeks of unrest. Complaining of police impunity, corruption, and human rights abuses, many protesters targeted and destroyed police vehicles in late January.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Egyptians gathered on the steps of Cairo’s journalism syndicate to mourn the death of Ahmed Mahmoud, the first journalist killed in recent turmoil. Mahmoud while taking photographs of protests was shot by security forces in late January, according to local reports.

The two weeks of massive protests have brought the country's economy to a standstill. The Egyptian stock exchange said on Monday that the stock market, which has been closed for more than a week, would reopen next Sunday.

The exchange dropped 17 percent in two days of trading once the protests began.

Egypt’s vice president, Omar Suleiman, offered several compromises on Sunday during a meeting with representatives from several of the country’s opposition groups, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Many opposition leaders were skeptical that the multi-party talks could lead anywhere with Mubarak still in office.

Mubarak has made multiple attempts and concessions to end the protests taking place in Tahrir since the unrest began on Jan. 25, including sacking his cabinet and announcing that he would not run in presidential elections scheduled for September.

Mubarak’s stay in power, however, continued to be a dealbreaker both in the meeting and on the crowded streets of Tahrir.

Mohamed ElBaradei, Egypt’s best known political reform activist and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, did not attend the Suleiman-led talks. But he said that free and fair elections in Egypt could only be guaranteed by a new, transitional government — one without Mubarak.

“The regime which he represents lost legitimacy, and he, he needs to assume political responsibility and step aside,” said ElBaradei on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday.

Sunday marked the first time Egypt’s current government met with members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Essam al-Arian, a senior member of the Brotherhood, said ending the political crisis hinged on Mubarak.

"If the regime does not move quickly to accept the people's demands that Mubarak step down then we will end this dialogue," said al-Arian at a press conference Sunday.

As politicians and opposition figures met, some sense of normalcy returned to a city that has been in a virtual standstill since late January.

Cars, buses and even donkey carts flooded back onto Cairo’s notoriously crowded streets. Banks, shuttered businesses and coffeeshops reopened for the first time in more than a week.

Egypt’s stock market remained closed, at least until Tuesday, following massive losses of about $12 billion during the first two days of unrest.

Journalists and cameramen were more visible, after a weekend of harassment, beatings and the detention of up to two dozen local and foreign reporters.

Egypt’s newly appointed prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, told CNN on Sunday that security forces were instructed "not to bother" journalists covering the demonstrations in Cairo.

Still, two correspondents for Al-Jazeera English were detained — but eventually released — by Egypt’s military on Sunday.

Meanwhile, several gunshots were fired near Tahrir Square on Sunday night — the first time gunfire had been heard downtown in almost two days.

The Egyptian army fired tracer shots into the air as a warning, according to an eyewitness, as crowds began swelling to the security cordon near the Egyptian Museum.

Throughout the day, Egyptian soldiers and tanks attempted to lessen the space protesters had to march in Tahrir Square, but were blocked by people who laid across the pavement to halt the army's advance.

Thousands of Muslims and the country’s minority Coptic Christians held prayers to commemorate the “martyrs” killed in the recent unrest.

Throughout the “day of martyrs,” as they have done all week, protesters displayed posters with the names and faces of Egyptians killed from various neighborhoods in Cairo and the country.

The United Nations estimates that 300 people have been killed in clashes between protesters and Egyptian security forces since late January.

Otherwise, the mood in Tahrir continued to be festive, following two days of clashes between pro- and anti-government supporters last week.

An Egyptian couple got married Sunday in Tahir, posing in front of a tank for their wedding photo, as tens of thousands of their “family members” watched.

Protesters further entrenched their ownership of the square itself, constructing scores of makeshift tents with canvas tarps to weather cold winter nights and rare, intermittent rain showers over the weekend.

Businesses began blooming in Tahrir, in a sign that protesters were creating their own city within a city.

Dozens of popcorn, coffee and even scarf vendors set up shop around the square, formerly a massive traffic hub in Cairo. Several stages with microphones were constructed to amplify the most commonly chanted anti-government slogan.

“We’re not leaving, he will leave,” screamed protesters throughout the day, in a reference to Egypt’s 82-year-old president.

Egyptians in Tahrir found new, more creative ways of expressing their anger at the regime.

Artists moved into the square, setting up canvases on a curb just outside a Kentucky Fried Chicken, to paint various depictions of the “revolution.” Face-painters, working off small wooden boxes, drew Egyptian flags on young children in Tahrir.

Rocks and chunks of brick on the streets were arranged to spell out “leave,” another message to Mubarak. The piles had been arranged as makeshift ammunitions dumps near the perimeter after clashes broke out with pro-Mubarak supporters on Wednesday.

Tens of thousands of protesters continued chanting throughout the day, despite the resumption of business in the capital.

And while leaders of opposition parties negotiated for an end to political stalemate, Egyptians in the square remained defiantly set on the removal of President Mubarak.

“Even if Muslim Brotherhood leaders decide to allowed Mubarak to spend the next seven months in office, I will stay here and continue protesting,” said Mohamed Ahmed, 41, a member of the banned Islamic group.

“We will not leave until he goes.”

More about the unrest in the Middle East:

The altered aura of the Arab state Everything you need to know Egypt: Four ways forward
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