Cairo – President Hosni Mubarak appeared increasingly isolated on Saturday, with protests entering their 12th day and the Obama administration and some members of the Egyptian military and civilian elite pursuing plans to nudge him from power.
The country’s newly named vice president, Omar Suleiman, and other top military leaders were discussing steps to limit Mr. Mubarak’s decision-making authority and possibly remove him from the presidential palace in Cairo — though not to strip him of his presidency immediately, Egyptian and American officials said. A transitional government headed by Mr. Suleiman would then negotiate with opposition figures to amend Egypt’s Constitution and begin a process of democratic changes.
On Saturday, thousands of people re-assembled in Cairo’s Tahrir Square after a huge and jubilant protest rally on Friday by anti-Mubarak demonstrators who have made the vast, central plaza the rallying-ground and the emblem of their campaign.
Soldiers at the entrance seemed to have reinforced security checks, forcing demonstrators to pass through in single file. The military also appeared to have shrunk the area available to protesters, particularly close to the Egyptian Museum.
There were indications that, alongside the authorities’ avowed readiness to break with their autocratic past and talk to the fractured opposition, more traditional efforts to stifle unwelcome voices remained. After days of harassment of reporters, Al Jazeera, the Doha-based satellite broadcaster, said Egyptian authorities had arrested its bureau chief and one of its journalists in Cairo a day after it said its offices in Cairo had been torched.
At the same time, the government is seeking to give the impression that it has restored authority and that the country is slowly emerging from the chaos and tumult or recent days — part of an apparent effort to counter the protesters’ narrative of imminent change.
On Saturday, for instance, Mr. Mubarak summoned the most senior economy officials – including ministers responsible for oil and finances — to a palace far from the crowds in Tahrir Square to discuss a crisis that has cost the country $3.1 billion and left the capital paralyzed, according to The Associated Press.
It was not immediately clear how much that crisis would be affected by a huge explosion early on Saturday in a pipeline in northern Sinai, which sent a huge plume of orange and yellow flame into the early morning air that was visible for miles around. Despite assertions on state television that the pipeline had been sabotaged, the head of Egypt’s natural gas company later said that the fire, which has interrupted supplies to Jordan and Israel, was caused by a gas leak and not terrorism.
On Friday, administration officials said that among the political ideas that had been discussed were suggesting to Mr. Mubarak that he move to his home at Sharm el Sheik, the seaside resort, or that he embark on one of his annual medical leaves to Germany for an extended checkup. Such steps would provide him with a graceful exit and effectively remove him as the central political player, going partway toward addressing a central demand of protesters on the streets of Cairo.
Mr. Suleiman and top military officers are being encouraged to have detailed discussions with opposition groups, conversations that would ultimately include how to open up the political system, establish term limits for the president and enshrine some key democratic principles ahead of elections scheduled for September.
“None of this can happen if Mubarak is at the center of the process,” said one senior administration official. “But it doesn’t necessarily require the president to leave office right now.”
But administration officials remain concerned that removing Mr. Mubarak too early could create constitutional problems that would establish a political void. Under the existing Constitution, the speaker of the Parliament would take power, at least in name, if Mr. Mubarak resigned.
Apparently echoing Washington’s assessment, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany told a security conference in Munich, Germany, on Saturday that early elections would not be helpful, reflecting fears among European leaders of a power vacuum. “Early elections at the beginning of the democratization process is probably the wrong approach,” she said, according to Reuters.
Opposition leaders have insisted that they will not negotiate with Mr. Suleiman until Mr. Mubarak is out of office. They have been counting on the impact of his resignation, should it occur, to ensure that senior Egyptian officials do not try to derail the movement toward a constitutional democracy.
At a news conference with Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada on Friday, President Obama said he believed that the Egyptian president had already made a “psychological break” from his hold on office by announcing that he would not run again. Mr. Obama again stopped short of declaring that Mr. Mubarak should leave office sooner, but he set out a series of steps that the Egyptian government must meet to assure an “orderly transition” that seemed to all but require that the Egyptian leader step out of the way, if not resign.
Mr. Mubarak said in an interview Thursday with ABC that he was eager to step down, but that if he did, “Egypt would sink into chaos.”
Leaders of the country’s opposition movements are already warning of the risk of another military-backed president for life if the military elite currently negotiating a transition from Mr. Mubarak were to block broader change.
But several groups of prominent intellectuals and political analysts are pushing plans to endorse an initial transfer of power to Mr. Suleiman, who already appears to be governing in Mr. Mubarak’s place, they said.
“The reality on the ground is that the vice president is the one managing the situation and what we want to do is legalize it,” said Wahid Abdel Neguid, the deputy director of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and one of the figures working on the plans. “Given the current situation, the president really can’t do anything, not here and not abroad, given the amount of pressure that is on him.”
The groups putting forward the proposal include Nabil Fahmy, former Egyptian ambassador to the United States; Naguib Sawiris, one of the most prominent businessmen in Egypt; Ahmed Kamal Aboul Magd, a lawyer and influential Islamic thinker; and Ahmed Zewail, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist. One group met Friday at the office of Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League and perhaps the most popular political figure in Egypt.
Mr. Suleiman, a former military officer, appears to share power with two close allies, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the defense minister, and Ahmed Shafiq, the prime minister, a retired general who previously ran the country’s national airline, said Abdel Moneim Qattou, a retired Army general close to all three.
But the three find themselves squeezed between their loyalties to Mr. Mubarak on one side and the military on the other, Mr. Qattou said. They have been unwilling to push Mr. Mubarak out, he said. But they are also unwilling or unable to deploy the military against the protesters — a move that would cut deeply against its self-image and prestige.
“The three of them are military men,” Mr. Qattou said. “They know each other very well and they are together trying to find a way out of this crisis. They want to do this without spilling blood and without hurting the dignity of Egypt or Mubarak while fulfilling the demands of the masses.”
There appeared to be signs on Friday that the three men may be recalibrating their positions. Mr. Shafiq announced for the first time that the government would make no effort to clear Tahrir Square, allowing the protesters to remain indefinitely.
Field Marshal Tantawi, meanwhile, visited the square himself in the morning to inspect the troops stationed around the Egyptian Museum. It was the first appearance there by any of the country’s top officials, and protesters and military experts took it as a signal to Mr. Mubarak’s plainclothes supporters not to assault the square again.
A cheer rose from the protesters as soon as Field Marshal Tantawi appeared, and they clasped hands to form a barrier around the area where he was walking. Several said they wanted to ensure that no Mubarak-supporting provocateur tried to incite violence.
Mr. Obama repeated twice at his news conference that exactly how the transition would occur is “not a decision ultimately the United States makes or any country outside of Egypt makes.” But he laid out a series of principles that seemed designed to hem Mr. Mubarak in, and reduce his options.
“Going back to the old ways is not going to work,” he said. One official said that these messages were being reinforced in what he called an effort to “flood the zone” with calls to military leaders, members of the Egyptian elite, and legislators. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates made another call to his Egyptian counterpart on Friday, part of the effort to assure that the military kept enough peace on the streets for serious discussions with the opposition to begin.
Opposition leaders contend that the existing Constitution so favors the governing party that it should be thrown out immediately and that Parliament, which is dominated by Mr. Mubarak’s party, should be disbanded.
In the opening stages of what promises to be a protracted round of negotiations, the diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei said in a news conference at his home near Cairo that opposition lawyers were preparing an interim Constitution. He said the opposition was calling on Mr. Mubarak to turn over power to a council of two to five members who would run the country until elections within a year.
Only one member would come from the military, Mr. ElBaradei said, adding that the armed forces’ most important task now was to “protect Egypt’s transition period in a smooth manner.”
“We have no interest in retribution,” he said. “Mubarak must leave in dignity and save his country.”
Mohamed el-Beltagui, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed Islamist group that had been the major opposition in Egypt until the secular youth revolt, said that the organization would not run a candidate in any election to succeed Mr. Mubarak as president.