Egypt panel to study constitutional reform

Egypt’s government and opposition have agreed to set up a
committee to study constitutional reform, state TV says, after days of protests
calling for President Hosni Mubarak to quit.

The move followed talks between new Vice-President Omar
Suleiman and key opposition members, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

It was the first time the government and the Brotherhood
have held talks.

Opposition groups have not yet confirmed the reports.

They want Mr. Mubarak to resign immediately. He says to
do so would cause chaos and has said instead that he will not stand for
re-election in September.

Meanwhile, many banks opened for the first time in a
week, with long queues of people forming to withdraw money.

Huge crowds have been on the streets of Cairo and other
cities in the past two weeks calling for democratic reforms, and tens of
thousands again flocked to the capital’s Tahrir Square on Sunday.

Mr. Suleiman was hosting the talks on Sunday along with a
number of other opposition parties, including Wafd and Tagammu.

The Muslim Brotherhood is taking a huge gamble by
agreeing to join negotiations. Already its prestige has been damaged by its
slowness to endorse the past two weeks of demonstrations.

Other opposition leaders say they won’t enter into any
discussions until Hosni Mubarak goes. Senior government figures argue that only
the president has the power to make the changes necessary to enable a free and
fair election for his successor.

One idea is to sideline the president but keep him in
power till those changes have been made. That might explain the curious
comments by the US envoy, Frank Wisner, who suggested Mr. Mubarak should stay
in office for the time being.

Many Egyptians went back to work on Sunday and the banks
are reopening. But the government will be disappointed if it has any hope that
the protests will just slowly peter out.

The BBC’s Jon Leyne, in Cairo, says there was a wide
array of opposition voices at the talks, along with a number of other “wise
men”, including top business figure Naguib Sawiris.

Key opposition figure
Mohamed ElBaradei was not at the talks.

State TV said the
participants had agreed to form a joint committee of judicial and political
figures tasked with suggesting constitutional amendments.

The participants also
rejected foreign interference in Egypt’s affairs and said they would work
towards the peaceful transition of power, the reports said.

Mr. Suleiman had invited
the groups last week, telling the Muslim Brotherhood it was a “valuable
opportunity”.

The Brotherhood had previously
said it would not take part in the negotiations.

US Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton said she supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s attendance but
would “wait and see” how the dialogue developed.

The Islamist group is
Egypt’s most influential and well-organised opposition but it remains
officially banned and its members and leaders have been subject to frequent
repression.

Mr Mubarak has blamed it
for the unrest and said that if he leaves, the group will exploit the ensuing
political chaos.

The Muslim Brotherhood
denies accusations that it is seeking to create an Islamist state in Egypt.

BBC correspondent Jon
Leyne says the Brotherhood is undoubtedly a force in Egypt but it is itself
divided and unclear in its intentions.

Economic woes

Hundreds of bank
branches across the country and in Cairo opened on Sunday.

Long queues formed at
some for the brief opening period – the banks closed again at 1330 local time.

Protesters are remaining
in Tahrir Square day and night The central bank has released some if its $36bn
in official foreign reserves to cover withdrawals, amid fears Egyptians would
be panicked into taking out their savings.

Deputy central bank
governor Hisham Ramez has said he is confident all transactions will be
honoured.

The government is seeking
to revive an economy said to be losing at least $310m a day.

Many shops, factories
and the stock exchange have been closed for days, and basic goods have been
running short.

Correspondents say many
Egyptians have been wondering how quickly daily life will return to normal
regardless of the outcome of the struggle for power.

But they also say there
is no let up in the magnitude of the protests in Tahrir Square, and the mood is
almost back to the festival atmosphere of the first few days, with many families
and young children
in attendance. 

WORLDstory

Day 13 of protests in Egypt – the crowds showed no signs of abating.
Photo: File