published Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

Despite retreats, Egypt regime’s core stands firm

By SARAH EL DEEB and LEE KEATH

Associated Press

CAIRO — Egypt’s regime has offered a string of concessions in the face of the strongest threat yet to its rule, but so far nothing that uproots its entrenched monopoly on power.

The power elite has ruled for six decades, backed by a constitution it wrote, state media it controls and millions of Egyptians who depend on its patronage. In the face of a popular uprising, it has shown dogged resilience in what opponents say is a campaign to break anti-government protests and preserve the regime’s authority after President Hosni Mubarak leaves the stage.

In an example of the levers it can pull, the government announced a 15 percent raise Monday for some 6 million public employees — a potent message to almost a quarter of Egypt’s labor force about where their loyalties should lie.

Leading the effort is Vice President Omar Suleiman, a canny former intelligence chief with vast experience in international negotiations, who has promised to carry out change.

However, after talks with Suleiman on Sunday, many protesters and their allies warned the steps toward democratic reform he is offering look more like an effort to divide and conquer the opposition by offering cosmetic gestures.

Zakariya Abdel-Aziz, a judge who backs the protesters, described the government’s concessions as “smoke in the air.”

“The only thing the regime does is to turn people against each other. This is the scenario, and the goal is to win more time,” he said.

The tens of thousands gathering daily in Cairo’s Tahrir Square say they will settle for nothing less than Mubarak’s ouster and a breaking of the regime’s hold. They insist each government retreat fuels momentum toward that goal. But they’re well aware the regime is digging in.

“Now we are at the nail-biting stage,” said Wael Abdel-Fattah, a pro-reform columnist. “The regime is also pulling out the big guns, using psychological warfare, terrorizing (protesters), isolating them from society and spreading the idea of Mubarak as a father” figure to convince the broader public he must stay on to guide the transition.

The government’s concessions so far would have been unimaginable only three weeks ago.

The 82-year-old Mubarak announced he will not run for a new term in September elections, and Suleiman promised that Mubarak’s son Gamal would not try to succeed him. An unpopular interior minister in charge of police was removed, and the top leadership of the ruling National Democratic Party was replaced, though Mubarak remains its official head.

Suleiman says any proposals for reform are open for discussion and he has even agreed to talk to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, long shunned by Mubarak’s government as its most bitter rival.

But in concrete terms, those steps merely amount to a change in faces.

Deeper reform would mean tackling the pillars of the powerful coalition that has ruled Egypt for decades — the ruling party, the military and commanders of the powerful internal security forces.

Their strength has multiple foundations. Emergency laws in place since Mubarak came to power nearly three decades ago give police almost unlimited powers of arrest, and they are accused of using torture against opponents with impunity.

The constitution enshrines the ruling party’s domination of politics, effectively allowing it to determine who can form a political party and who can run for the presidency, a post with no term limits.

Elections have been rife with fraud. As a result, the current parliament elected two months ago is almost entirely composed of ruling party members. Existing opposition parties have little popular support, rarely challenge the ruling party and have played no role in the wave of pro-democracy protests that began Jan. 25.

The ruling party also has the platform of state TV and newspapers and a lock on the country’s sprawling bureaucracy, including the civil service and state-run companies that provide the livelihoods for millions of Egyptians.

In the past, the state has drawn on their ranks to bus out supporters for elections. Within the ruling party is a strong faction of business tycoons who opponents accuse of using paid thugs to attack rivals — including the force of regime supporters who attacked Tahrir Square last week.

Ammar Ali Hassan, an Egyptian political analyst, said millions benefit from the regime and want the status quo. Protesters “are not resisting Mubarak alone. It is an intertwined institution of corruption,” he said.

The shake-ups have not separated the ruling party from the presidency or state institutions to put it on a more level playing field with other political forces, said Amr Hamzawy, a political scientist on the Committee of Wise Men — a self-appointed group of prominent figures that is distinct from the protesters and has met with Suleiman to explore solutions to the crisis.

“What we have seen is a consolidation pattern and not a reform pattern,” he said. “What is being offered after rounds of talks is too little to make me feel that we are well on our way to the democratic path.”

Washington has given a strong endorsement to Suleiman’s handling of the transition. President Barack Obama, who has said the United States wants real but orderly democratic change, said Monday that Egypt is “making progress” toward a path out of the political crisis.

However, the amorphous groups of activists fueling the protests are wary of talks in which Suleiman holds all the cards. They fear the government is working to erode the one weapon they have to keep up the pressure — the protests.

On state TV, newscasters, analysts and government officials put out a reassuring line that the regime is addressing reforms and life is returning to normal. For those who complain of livelihoods wrecked by the turmoil, they have this message: The Tahrir protesters are causing trouble for no reason.

“I’ve gone for days without going to work. What more do they want? They want Mubarak to go, fine, he’s going. But he has to stay for now,” said an unidentified man interviewed on state TV. “I haven’t been able to even see my mother because of the disruptions.”

In the square, many protesters reported plainclothes police in the crowd Monday and accused them of taking photos of demonstrators to try to intimidate them with fear of arrest.

On the Internet, there appeared to be a campaign to flood pro-protester websites and Facebook pages with government propaganda and comments by regime supporters.

Suleiman’s meetings with opposition groups Sunday only fueled the suspicions.

State TV repeatedly aired footage of the gathering, touting it as a sign of the government’s commitment to change.

Suleiman proposed setting up a committee of judicial and political figures to study proposed constitutional reforms, but state media specified only amendments to allow more candidates to run for president and impose term limits, not the wider ones the protest movement seeks.

He promised to eventually lift emergency laws, but with a major caveat — when security permits. The government has said for several years it wants to end the laws but has yet to do so.

He also offered to set up a committee, including independent figures and members of the youth movement, to monitor the “honest implementation” of all the new agreements.

But Suleiman rejected the immediate removal of Mubarak, calling it “offensive to the military,” said Mostafa el-Naggar, a youth activist who attended. Another activist, Abdel-Rahman Youssef, said Suleiman also shot down demands for the dissolving of parliament.

The meeting was dominated by official and traditional opposition groups who have no role in the street. Protesters dismiss them as part of the regime, and see their presence as a sign the government is not serious in talking to real reformers.

“Most of the people at the meeting are not part of the crisis and they haven’t even set foot in Tahrir,” said Youssef.

The youth activists who did attend said they were there only to deliver the message that Mubarak must go and had no authority to negotiate on behalf of the protesters. They refused to approve a final statement issued by the session.

The protests aim to “bring down the temple,” said Khaled al-Said, a 42-year old businessman who traveled from the southern province of Qena to camp out in the square. He warned that eventually protesters could try to march on Mubarak’s palace, in a separate part of the city.

“Mubarak is only changing the symbols of the regime and he remains the referee,” he said. “The new symbols will still take orders from him.”

———

AP correspondent Maggie Michael contributed to this report.

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