U.S. Urges Talks As Mubarak Eyes The Exit

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President Hosni Mubarak apparently told ABC’s Chrisiane Amanpour today that he’s fed up with leadership and would step down if he could, but that he fears for his country’s safety. Mubarak and his son Gamal, who had been rumored to have left the country, met with Amanpour at the Presidential palace in the Heliopolis neighborhood of Cairo today. Mubarak told Amanpour that he responded to President Barack Obama’s suggestion that he leave office before September by saying, “You don’t understand the Egyptian culture and what would happen if I step down now.” He told Amanpour he would never flee the country and that he intended to die there.

Egypt is at its most dangerous moment. After holding off brutal attacks by pro-government thugs yesterday, anti-government protesters remain in Tahrir Square demanding Mubarak’s ouster. Fed up or not, Mubarak refuses to leave and Omar Suleiman, his long-time intelligence chief and newly-named vice president, gave an interview today on Egyptian State TV hitting all the crackdown hot-buttons: he rejected “foreign meddling”, said the anti-Mubarak protesters were not “part of the Egyptian culture”, and called on the protesters to end their “sit-in”.

Despite an assurance from Egypt’s Prime Minister that yesterday’s bloodshed would not be repeated, a renewed and potentially violent confrontation seems possible in coming hours. The government has moved against international reporters ahead of potentially massive anti-government protest marches expected following Friday prayers tomorrow. The military, which took up token positions between the opposing sides at Tahrir Square this morning, appears torn between affection for the protesters and loyalty to their leaders. Suleiman told State TV he thought yesterday’s violence was the result of a “conspiracy.”

The U.S. believes talks between the government and the representatives of the protesters are desperately needed at this point. Talks may be the only way to convince Mubarak it is safe enough to step down. They are also necessary to convince the protesters that after 30 years of deception, Mubarak actually intends to leave. And talks are crucial to ensuring that after Mubarak goes there is the kind of “orderly transition” of power that the U.S. has been urging.

Suleiman said in his interview that he has spoken to some opposition figures, but State department spokesman P. J. Crowley said today, “They’re not broad enough… to meet the aspirations of the people. It needs to go farther, it needs to go faster.” Suleiman told his Egyptian State TV interviewer that he would be willing to talk with the leadership of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, an unprecedented concession by the regime.

The protesters, fearing a double cross if they relinquish the position of power they have gained through bloodshed, are stonewalling. Some interlocutor, whether western or Arab, is apparently needed to convince them that they can maintain their positions in the square, but should not make Mubarak’s stepping down a precondition for talks. Crowley said as much today. “We encourage the opposition to come forward and engage constructively and see this process,” Crowley said. “Time is of the essence.” The longer the confrontation goes on without concrete progress, the greater the possibility for violence, Crowley said.

Hillary Clinton added to the pressure for talks this afternoon, calling for the Egyptian “government and a broad and credible representation of Egypt’s opposition, civil society and political factions to begin immediately serious negotiations on a peaceful and orderly transition”.