CAIRO (AFP) – Egypt's opposition Muslim Brotherhood said Sunday it will start landmark talks with authorities as senior members of President Hosni Mubarak's ruling party quit and Washington intensified efforts for a speedy power transition.
An official from the brotherhood, which the government has accused of trying to profit from the sweeping protests posing the greatest threat to Mubarak's three-decade grip on power, said talks will take place between the group and Egypt's new Vice President Omar Suleiman.
The official did not give a date for the talks, which will be the first ever between the government and its bete noire.
"Keeping in mind the interests of the nation and its institutions and concerned about preserving the country's independence... we began talks to see up to what point they are ready to accept the demands of the people," the official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official also said the dialogue was aimed at eliminating "foreign or regional interference in our affairs," in an effort to distance the group from Iran, which has called for the installation of an Islamist regime in Egypt.
The brotherhood, which is officially banned but tolerated in Egypt, is the best-organised opposition movement drawing on a vast social aid network.
Senior members of Mubarak's party resigned on Saturday, but demonstrators staging a 12th day of anti-regime protests rejected the shuffle as a cosmetic move.
The resignations came after Mubarak huddled with his new government for the first time on, and an official said that the country's stock exchange would remain closed indefinitely as the stand-off continues.
State television said the executive committee of the ruling National Democratic Party had resigned en masse. Among those stepping down was Mubarak's son Gamal, once viewed as his heir apparent, state television reported.
Hossam Badrawi -- reputed to have good relations with opposition figures -- will take over as NDP secretary general and political bureau chief, it said.
But protesters rejected it as a meaningless gesture.
"Some people say it is cleaning out but I believe these are cards they are throwing on the table to please the street, it's like a striptease show," said Mahmud Momen, a 46-year-old businessman.
Farid Ismail, a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, said the resignations were a sign of the regime's demise.
"The regime's pillars are crumbling. This means that the revolution of the youth has caused a large earthquake and many of the regime's symbols are falling -- it is trying to save itself," he declared.
The political turmoil in Cairo loomed large over international meetings in Munich, Germany, where Obama's special envoy Frank Wisner said Mubarak should stay in office during a democratic transition.
"The president must stay in office in order to steer those changes through," Wisner, who met Mubarak this week, told the Munich Security Conference via video link, describing the leader as an "old friend" of the United States.
"President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical," he said.
But officials in Washington quickly distanced themselves from Wisner's remarks, saying he spoke as a private citizen.
Also in Munich, for a meeting of the Middle East diplomatic Quartet, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the region faced a bumpy road on the transition to democracy.
And she praised the "restraint" shown by the Egyptian security forces during a mass demonstration on Friday.
US President Barack Obama spoke Saturday to several foreign leaders about the unrest in Egypt and underscored the need for "an orderly, peaceful transition, beginning now," the White House said in a statement.
The US leader spoke to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, the statement said.
Cameron and Obama agreed that "real, visible and meaningful change needed to start now" in Egypt, a Downing Street spokesman said.
At least 300 people are believed to have been killed and thousands injured since the protests began on January 25, according to the United Nations high commissioner for human rights.
With big crowds swelling anew in Tahrir Square, Mubarak met for the first time with the government he swore in five days earlier.
Present were his new prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, the ministers of petroleum, trade, finance and social solidarity, and the head of the central bank, state news agency MENA reported.
Elsewhere in Egypt, a pipeline in northern Sinai sending gas to Jordan was attacked, officials said, prompting gas supplies to Israel to be halted also. It was unclear if the attack was linked to the anti-regime protests.
A blast followed by a fire was reported at a Coptic church in Rafah bordering the Gaza Strip, although a local official denied an explosion was the cause.
France said it had suspended sales of arms and riot police equipment to Egypt two weeks ago after the outbreak of the mass protests.
Despite a return to relative calm, Egypt's stock exchange will not reopen on Monday, as previously announced, MENA reported. Banks, however, were due to resume business on Sunday.
Mubarak, 82, who has ruled the Arab world's most populous nation for 30 years, has said he is "fed up" and pledged he will not stand in September's election, but has said he will stay in power until then, while calm is restored.
But protesters -- inspired by the downfall of Tunisia's longtime president last month -- want him out immediately, and the European Union and the United States are stepping up pressure for a transition to begin.
George Ishaq of the opposition group Kefaya ("Enough" in Arabic), speaking on Al-Jazeera television, said his secular group was opposed both to a religious state in a post-Mubarak Egypt and to foreign intervention.
He denied any rift between the uprising's secular and Islamic members. "The opposition has demands which should be taken into account... The demands are united and we will hold on to them," he said.
Citing unnamed US and Egyptian officials, the New York Times reported that Suleiman and senior Egyptian military leaders are exploring ways for Mubarak to make a graceful exit.
Rather than resign immediately, Mubarak's powers would be scaled back, enabling the creation of a transitional government headed by Suleiman, the former intelligence chief, to negotiate reforms with the opposition.
In Munich, Clinton warned that a transition in Egypt could "backslide into just another authoritarian regime."
"Revolutions have overthrown dictators in the name of democracy, only to see the political process hijacked by new autocrats who use violence, deception, and rigged elections to stay in power, or to advance an agenda of extremism."
© AFP 2013