Egyptian ruling party officials quit

CAIRO — Senior officials resigned from Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party on Saturday in the latest government shake-up aimed at quelling the massive pro-democracy movement demanding President Hosni Mubarak's resignation.

The departures of Mubarak's son and onetime heir apparent, Gamal, along with several other party leaders came as regime officials opened talks with opposition leaders over the transition to a post-Mubarak era and took steps to restore normal life to a capital paralyzed by 12 straight days of protests.

With another massive anti-government rally called for Monday, the Egyptian government is struggling to strike a difficult balance: pacifying the protesters while allowing the Mubarak regime to manage a political transition that the Obama administration and other allies insist must begin now. U.S. officials are backing a transition plan led by Vice President Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's longtime confidant and spy chief, who met Saturday with some opposition leaders and intellectuals to discuss their demands.

Experts and protest organizers warned, however, that those opposition leaders didn't speak directly for the broad-based democracy movement — a leaderless grassroots collection that ranges from young liberals organized via Facebook to Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood — and it was far from clear how many would be satisfied enough with the concessions to leave the streets. Demonstrators have stated repeatedly that nothing short of Mubarak's immediate resignation would end the protests.

Over the past week, Mubarak, who's ruled for nearly three decades, has said he'd step down after elections scheduled for this fall, that Gamal wouldn't replace him and that presidential term limits should be imposed. The regime also has slapped travel bans and asset freezes on leading political figures over charges of wrongdoing.

But Mubarak has staunchly refused to resign and hasn't addressed the protesters' other key demands, such as lifting a 30-year emergency law or dissolving a parliament almost completely filled with ruling party members.

The strategy has failed to peel off many protesters, who gathered in perhaps their largest numbers yet on Friday in downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square despite two days of deadly clashes with pro-Mubarak gangs.

Protecting privileges

Experts said that Mubarak was following an old tactic of regimes in times of duress: managing a transition to protect the status and privileges of their elites.

"The target of the regime's actions now is to draw a wedge between those who want to stay and protest and those willing to leave if some of their demands are met," said Shadi Hamid, research director at the Brookings Doha Center, a think tank in Qatar.

"The constant stream of reforms, changes and commitments are all meant to create the narrative that things are in fact going in a positive direction and there's no need for people to be in the streets anymore. But there hasn't been any real fundamental reform of the system yet."

A brief cheer went up from Tahrir Square, where a steady rain and tougher Egyptian army presence had thinned the crowd considerably, when news arrived of the ruling party reshuffle, which included the departure of general secretary Safwat El Sharif. He'll be replaced by Hossam Badrawy, a wealthy physician and reputed reformer, who broke ranks with the party over restrictions on presidential candidates.

Suleiman has insisted, however, that Mubarak won't resign before elections scheduled for this September. Officials also said that a White House proposal to have Mubarak cede decision-making powers to Suleiman during a transitional period would be unconstitutional.

" (Mubarak) clearly has no problem with being a former president. But he does have a problem with being a deposed president," an Arab official, requesting anonymity to speak frankly, said this week.

Several protesters objected to the White House's preference for Suleiman, the longtime head of the notorious Mukhabarat secret police, to lead the transition.

"This is a totally unacceptable idea," said Hossam Hamalawy, a prominent journalist and activist who's participated in the demonstrations. "(Suleiman) was always the No. 2 man in the regime. Nothing happens in the country without his and Mubarak's approval.

"He is very close to the Americans and to the Israelis... and it's out of the question that we will accept him as president or figurehead in the current regime, let alone pushing the transitional government."

But Egyptian officials continued to argue that life was returning to normal despite some $3 billion in estimated losses due to the demonstrations. State media reported that Mubarak met with his economic team, and banks were set to reopen today for the first time in more than a week.