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Taking stock in Egypt

Today, here in Cairo, the action began shifting outside Tahrir Square, which remains occupied by thousands of prostesters who insist they won't leave until their demands -- above all the removal of President Hosni Mubarak -- are met.

Vice President Omar Suleiman met with an array of youth activists and opposition figures, among them top members of the Muslim Brotherhood. There are a lot of conflicting reports flying around about the talks, and former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei wasn't invited to what he called an "opaque" gathering. (His brother Ali emails: "[Omar Suleiman] said he would not talk to Dr. ElBaradei according to the Washington Post because he is not part of the opposition. It just shows how fake and futile this whole process is.")

Suleiman released a carefully crafted statement afterwards that fell well short of meeting the protesters' bottom line, and once again blamed "foreign elements" for stirring up all this trouble. I haven't watched state TV today, but foreign journalists are still being harrassed by plainclothes police types going in and out of Tahrir Square, and Al Jazeera English superstar Ayman Mohyeldin was detained for a few hours today with his hands behind his back, according to fellow journalist Ashraf Khalil.

There's a lot of wiggle room in Suleiman's words, notably in his insistence that "the state of emergency will be lifted based on the security situation and an end to the threats to the security of society" -- the same kind of thing the regime has been saying for the last three decades. Under Egypt's emergency laws, the police can pretty much grab anyone anytime they want, without any real accountability. (For a spot-on description of how the system really works on the ground, read this excellent account by Frederick Bowie.) 

Another item, "Media and communications will be liberalized and no extra-legal constraints will be imposed on them," provides no mechanism for ensuring that the commanding heights of the media here -- state television -- will be able to evolve into something resembling objective journalism rather than propaganda. And in an ominous sign of new restrictions yet to come, Internet watchers reported today that Egypt had dramatically data uploads, presumbly to choke off the posting of damning videos from the last few weeks and preserve the ability to do so in the future.

There's no talk of any oversight of the police and security services  -- the so-called deep state that has been brutalizing Egyptians for more than 50 years. Perhaps such issues will be addressed by the committee being set up to "study and recommend constitutional amendments, and legislative amendments of laws complimentary to the constitution," but again -- there are no guarantees that the government will take up these "recommendations," or that the committee will include real democrats instead of the usual toadies and hacks.

It's also worth noting that Suleiman has already violated one of the pledges he made, to "immediately release prisoners of conscience of all persuasions." Google executive Wael Ghonim, who has been missing for well over a week now, is mysteriously to be released tomorrow at 4 p.m., according to Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq. Why not now? And without a complete overhaul of the legal system -- the emergency laws especially -- there's nothing to stop him and others from being arbitrarily detained once again.

No question, the protesters have won some important victories: Mubarak and his son are finished in Egyptian politics, and a number of the most corrupt party figures have been cashiered. Tens of thousands of young Egyptians have risked their lives and their livelihoods and inspired the entire world with their courage (this incredible footage of last Friday's epic battle on Qasr el-Nil bridge leading into the square gives you a taste of it). One of the most common phrases you hear in Tahrir Square is "we've regained our dignity" -- the protesters are enormously proud of what they've done, and rightly so.

But there are no signs that the regime is willing to concede any fundamental authority, and plenty of signs that it is trying to tire and isolate the protesters politically, divide opposition movements and groups in order to weaken them, and stall for time in the hopes of going back to business as usual.

Meanwhile, the United States -- perhaps due to inflated fears of an Islamist takeover -- seems willing to preside over the installation of yet another military strongman in Egypt, proving that the cynicism about America that is widely shared on the Egyptian street isn't too far from the mark.

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Egypt sacks top party bosses

In a seeming tactical victory for the thousands of protesters still occupying Cairo's Tahrir Square, top members of Egypt's ruling party resigned Saturday, according to Egyptian state television.

Safwat el-Sherif, the widely reviled chief of the National Democratic Party, is out, to be replaced by Hossam al-Badrawy, a doctor who was previously the party's secretary for business. Gone, too, is Gamal Mubarak, the president's son, as well as the other four members of the Steering Committee that runs the NDP.

Protesters were clearly not satisfied by the announcement.

"It's a good step, a good tactical gain for the protest movement," said Ghad Party secretary-general Wael Nawara, calling instead for the full dissolution of the NDP. "So far they have not responded to any of our demands," he said. "Instead they have been sacrificing scapegoats."

"It's just a game," said Magdy Soliman, 38, a software engineer who supports former International Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei's National Association for Change. "They're all criminals. From the same gang." (A longtime Egyptian democracy advocate who knows Badrawy well said he was "pretty decent" in comparison to other party figures and had tried to reform the NDP from within, albeit to little discernable effect.)

The news came amid reports, sourced to U.S. and Egyptian officials, that Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman "was exploring a transition of power in which President Hosni Mubarak would give up presidential powers but remain a figurehead until elections are held."

According to the New York Times, the Obama administration has formally backed "a gradual transition" that would involve Suleiman supervising fresh elections in September as Mubarak informally cedes power but does not leave outright.

A group of prominent Egyptians calling itself the "Council of the Wise" is trying to mediate a similar solution between the government and protest leaders, though it's doubtful many of the demonstrators Tahrir Square will accept anything less than Mubarak's outright resignation.

Hassan Nafaa, chairman of the political science department at Cairo University who is in touch with many opposition figures, worried that the loose coalition of groups calling for Mubarak's ouster don't have a coherent game plan. "There is no strategy. Every group has its own perception of the situation, its own dynamics, but I don't think there is any common strategy. They want Mubarak to leave or delegate authority but differ on how to achieve that."

Meanwhile, Mubarak was shown on state television Saturday presiding over a meeting of his economic advisors, and he remains head of the NDP. A number of journalists and activists remain missing, including the bureau chief of Al Jazeera's Arabic channel, presumably swept up by the Egyptian regime's still very active and brutal security apparatus. "There's a new game in town and we don't know the rules," said one Cairo-based analyst whose organization had come under severe pressure in recent days.

At Tahrir Square today, the army took a firmer hand, sending elite reinforcements, manning checkpoints, and pushing protesters to move their makeshift barricades inward. A top Army general appeared and urged the protesters to go home, telling them he respected their right to speak out but said that they were damaging the Egyptian economy.

Outside the area around the square, traffic surged as life began returning to normal. State television appeared to be toning down what Nawara described as a "campaign of terror and xenophobia against foreigners," though the overall depiction of the protesters as wide-eyed radicals bent on destroying Egypt -- with the help of Iran, Israel, and Qatar, no less -- remained in place.

"Given the events of the past 48 hours, the best possible scenario is a slightly more open authoritarian regime. Egypt's democratic moment was thwarted this time," said Joshua Stacher, an assistant professor at Kent State University.