The strong endorsement of a step-by-step transition in Egypt got a cool response from protesters who filled Tahrir Square for a 12th straight day, and leaders of opposition groups insisted that the genuine change in Egypt required Mr. Mubarak’s departure as a first step.
Egyptian officials continued to put pressure on demonstrators, raising alarm about the economic toll the country had suffered as a result of the standoff, and offering further concessions by removing Mr. Mubarak’s son Gamal and other officials from their posts in the ruling party.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
, speaking to a security conference in Munich, said it was important to support Mr. Suleiman, a pillar of the Egyptian establishment and Mr. Mubarak’s longtime confidante, as he seeks to defuse street protests. Mr. Suleiman has promised repeatedly to reach out to opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood
, but there were few indications that any genuine dialogue with opposition leaders had begun.
Ms. Clinton’s message, echoed by Chancellor Angela Merkel
of Germany and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, was a notable shift in tone from the past week, whenPresident Obama
, faced with violent clashes in Cairo, demanded that Mr. Mubarak make swift, bold changes. The change appears to reflect worries that rapid change in Egypt could destabilize the country and the region.
“That takes some time,” Mrs. Clinton said. “There are certain things that have to be done in order to prepare.”
But Mohamed ElBaradei
, the Nobel laureate who has been chosen to negotiate on behalf of the protesters and other opposition groups, said the American-backed transition plan was a nonstarter. “I do not think it’s adequate,” he said in an interview. “I’m not talking about myself. It’s not adequate for the people.
“Mubarak needs to go,” he said. “It has become an emotional issue. They need to see his back, there’s no question about it.”
There were tens of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square on Saturday as a light rain fell, and in interviews, some said they would not be dislodged until their demands were met.
Ibrahim Mustafa, 42, waiting to enter Tahrir Square in the morning, as the military tightened restrictions said: “President Obama better put pressure on Mubarak to leave or things are going to get a lot worse here. He needs to get the army to force him out of here. America is going to create another Iran here. America doesn’t understand. The people know its supporting an illegitimate regime.”
Human rights groups said that security officials under Mr. Suleiman, even as he talks about leading a transition, are continuing to abduct and detain without charges people it considers a political threat.
The most notable example is the disappearance of Wael Ghonim, a Google executive and leader of the young Internet activists who started the revolt. Believed by many to be the anonymous host of the Facebook
page that first called for the Jan. 25 protest and this kicked off the Egyptian uprising, he wrote that day on his Twitter
account: “We got brutally beaten up by police people,” and later, “Sleeping on the streets of Cairo, trying to feel the pain of millions of my fellow Egyptians.”
“Very worried as it seems that government is planning a war crime tomorrow against people,” he wrote two days later. “We are all ready to die.” He disappeared soon after.
At least seven other online activists associated with the April 6th movement remain missing after being abducted a few days ago at a cafe after leaving a meeting at the home of Mr. ElBaradei.
Even so, the United States appears to be easing its pressure for rapid change. Mrs. Clinton suggested that the United States was not insisting on the immediate departure of Mr. Mubarak, and that such an abrupt shift of power may not be necessary or prudent. She said Mr. Mubarak, having taken himself and Gamal out of the September elections, was already effectively sidelined. She emphasized the need for Egypt to reform its constitution to make a vote credible.
“That is what the government has said it is trying to do,” she said. “That is what we are supporting, and hope to see it move as orderly but as expeditiously, as possible, under the circumstances.”
Mrs. Clinton expressed fears about deteriorating security inside Egypt, noting the explosion at a gas pipeline in the Sinai Peninsula, and uncorroborated media reports of an earlier assassination attempt on Mr. Suleiman.
The report was mentioned at the conference by Wolfgang Ischinger, a retired German diplomat who is the conference chairman, just as Mrs. Clinton began taking questions at the gathering of heads of state, foreign ministers, and legislators from the United States, Europe, and other countries.
American officials said they had no evidence that the report was accurate. But Mrs. Clinton picked up on it and said it “certainly brings into sharp relief the challenges we are facing as we navigate through this period.”
A senior Republican senator at the meeting, Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, voiced support for the administration’s call for a gradual transition in Egypt, saying that a Suleiman-led transitional government, backed by the military, was probably the only way for Egypt to negotiate its way to elections in the fall.
“What would be the alternative?” he asked.
Mrs. Clinton emphasized that American support for Mr. Suleiman’s plan should not be construed as an effort to dictate events. “Those of us who are trying to make helpful offers of assistance and suggestions for how to proceed are still at the end on the outside looking in,” she said.
But in a hectic morning of diplomacy, Mrs. Clinton was clearly eager to build support for this position. She met with Mr. Cameron, Mrs. Merkel, and Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who said the views of Turkey and the United States were “100 percent identical.” Mr. Obama spoke by phone on Friday with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Mrs. Clinton’s emphasis on a deliberate process was repeated by Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Cameron. Mrs. Merkel harkened to her past as a democracy activist in East Germany, recalling the impatience of protesters, after the fall of the Berlin Wall
in 1989, to immediately join democratic West Germany. But the process took a year, and it was time well spent, she said.
“There will be a change in Egypt,” she said, “but clearly, the change has to shaped in a way that it is a peaceful, a sensible way forward.”
Mr. Cameron said introducing democracy in Egypt “overnight” would fuel further instability, saying the West needed to encourage the development of civil society and political parties before holding a vote.
“Yes, the transition absolutely has to start now,” Mr. Cameron said. “But if we think it is all about the act of holding an election, we are wrong. It is about a set of actions.”
Mrs. Clinton highlighted the dangers of holding elections without adequate preparation. To take part in Egypt’s new order, she said, political parties should renounce violence as a tool of coercion, pledge to respect the rights of minorities, and show tolerance. The White House has signaled that it is open to a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that others warn could put Egypt on a path to extremism.
“The transition to democracy will only happen if it is deliberate, inclusive, and transparent,” she said. “The challenge is to help our partners take systematic steps to usher in a better future, where people’s voices are heard, their rights respected, and their aspirations met.”
“Revolutions have overthrown dictators in the name of democracy, only to see the process hijacked by new autocrats who use violence, deception, and rigged elections to stay in power,” Mrs. Clinton said.
In Cairo, however, there were few indications that Mr. Suleiman and other officials were making much progress in addressing concerns of opposition groups. Negotiations between Mr. Suleiman and a group of self-appointed “wise men” who are acting as intermediaries between the vice president and the protesters and trying to find away around limits on succession in the Constitution did not advance significantly.
Amr Hamzawy, one of the intermediaries said the negotiations were “gaining traction,” but added that his group did not meet with Mr. Suleiman on Saturday. The intermediaries, whose efforts have received the tacit encouragement of Western governments, have forwarded a plan that would see Mr. Mubarak transfer his powers to Mr. Suleiman and perhaps move to his home in Sharm el Sheik or embark on one of his annual medical leaves to Germany.
In Tahrir Square, meanwhile, the military tightened its cordon around the protesters by reinforcing security checks at all the entrances off all entrances. An army general, Brig. Gen. Hassan al-Rawaini, negotiated with protesters outside a barricade near the Egyptian Museum, urging them to bring down the fortifications, allow traffic to return and move their protest to the heart of Tahrir Square.
In contrast the pitched clashes of just days ago, General Rawaini offered a microphone to protesters so that they could air their complaints. He tried to reason, kissing some on the head and pinching others’ cheeks. Occasionally, he winked.
Eventually, he and his soldiers moved past the makeshift barricade, knocking part of it down, though protesters quickly put back up the sheets of corrugated tin, barrels, metal rebar and parts of fences. He then toured an area strewn with rocks from the clashes and incinerated vehicles that served as barricades. Some protesters thought he was preparing for the army to enter, forming human chains across the streets. Others chanted, “Peaceful!” and formed a bodyguard around the general.
“He wants to teat down these barricades, so that the tanks can come through,” shouted Sayyid Eid, a 20-year-old protester as he tried to block his way.
“We’re going to die here,” yelled Magdi Abdel-Rahman, another protester.
“Listen to him! Listen to him!” others shouted back.
Tempers cooled and General Rawaini made a leisurely stroll to a makeshift health clinic, then visited knots of protesters across the square with a retinue of soldiers.
“We’re trying to remove the barricades and return the streets to normal,” General Rawaini said. “If you want to protest, you can go back to the square.”
A protester shouted back, “General, we’re not going to walk way from here until Hosni Mubarak leaves.”