CAIRO – President Hosni Mubarak assembled his economy team on Saturday in an effort to project calm as the country's turmoil triggered global economic jitters and the standoff continued, with thousands of anti-government protesters remaining camped out on Cairo's Tahrir, or Liberation, Square.
The political crisis that engulfed Egypt since Jan. 25 has cost the country an estimated $3.1 billion, with the ensuing violence driving a nation once seen as a pillar of stability to the brink of chaos.
The state MENA news agency said Mubarak's meetings took place Saturday morning in the presidential palace in Heliopolis, a Cairo suburb miles away from the events in the city center. The report said the oil minister, the financial minister, the Central Bank governor and other top economy officials were present.
On Friday, a rally of nearly 100,000 anti-government protesters failed to force the ruler of 30 years to relinquish power despite pressure from the Obama administration for a swift exit to allow for a path toward democracy.
By noon Saturday, the mood among the crowd in Tahrir was calm, a marked contrast to clashes earlier in the week between anti-government protesters and Mubarak supporters.
Egyptian troops, deployed on the square's periphery, controlled access and checked IDs of those entering. Security forces also tried to clear some of the entrance roads, remove charred hulks of cars and other debris, remnants of the pitched street battles earlier in the week.
Opposition leaders have said the protests would not end until Mubarak leaves office. In an apparent attempt to pace themselves, protest leaders have said the main rallies in Tahrir Square would take place on Tuesdays and Fridays.
Earlier in the week, two days of wild clashes between protesters and regime supporters that killed 11 people seemed to have pushed the United States to the conclusion that an Egypt with Mubarak at the helm is potentially more unstable than one without him.
For the first time in the now 12-day protests, varying scenarios have emerged by two opposing camps in Egypt and by the United States on how to usher the country into a post-Mubarak era. President Barack Obama said that discussions have begun in Egypt on a turnover of the government and he called for "a transition period that begins now."
"We want to see this moment of turmoil turned into a moment of opportunity," Obama said in Washington on Friday. He did not explicitly call for Mubarak to step down immediately, but U.S. officials said the administration has made a judgment that Mubarak has to go soon if the crisis is to end peacefully.
Under one U.S. proposal, the 82-year-old Mubarak would step down and hand power to a military-backed temporary government headed by his newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks. The government would prepare for free and fair elections later this year.
That would mesh in some ways with the demands of the protesters. But one significant difference was the timetable.
Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, one of the leaders of the protesters, criticized the government's plan to reform the constitution within five months and hold presidential elections in September, saying that was too rushed.
It would take a full year under a transitional government to sufficiently loosen the ruling party's entrenched monopoly on politics before a truly democratic election can be held, ElBaradei said. The ruling party has squeezed out almost all rivals with a grip solidified in vote fraud, election rules tilted in its favor, widespread patronage, emergency laws and domination of the media.
"People are not stupid ... This is not really a genuine desire to go for reform," ElBaradei said of the government's timeframe. He said Mubarak must "hear the clear voice coming from the people and leave in dignity."
Mubarak has staunchly refused to step down until elections in September, and his prime minister said Friday that stance is "unlikely" to change.
The protesters have vowed to continue their rallies until Mubarak goes, and they seemed flush with a sense of victory and recharged determination after repelling pro-regime rioters who attacked Tahrir Square on Wednesday, sparking 48 hours of mayhem and pitched battles.
The crowd in Tahrir remained undeterred following two days of violence earlier in the week in which pro-Mubarak combatants, some on horses and camels, hurled concrete, metal bars and firebombs, and unleashed barrages of automatic gunfire, but were eventually driven away.
The ruling National Democratic Party, accused by protesters of organizing the attack, denied any role, but called on its supporters to "adhere to a truce and not enter confrontations with others." Protesters say the regime organized the assault by police in civilian clothes and paid thugs.
After Friday's peacefull and mostly relaxed rally, a curfew in place for a week but widely ignored was eased to run from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m.
The death toll in Egypt's violence since Jan. 25 has risen to 109 people. Among those who died was a reporter from a state-run newspaper who was shot by a sniper last week while photographing clashes from his balcony and died Friday — the first journalist death in the crisis.
Trying to launch the transition with Mubarak in place, Vice President Suleiman has offered talks with all political forces over constitutional changes to ensure a free vote. Mubarak has said he will not run for re-election.
Suleiman said the invitation goes out to protest leaders and the regime's top foe, the Muslim Brotherhood. That was significant, suggesting the banned fundamentalist group could be allowed an open political role in the post-Mubarak era.
But so far the protest factions have stuck to their condition that Mubarak step down before any negotiations on the constitution.
Suleiman has talked of changing the constitution to ensure fair supervision of elections, loosen restrictions on who can run for president and impose a term limit for the presidency.
ElBaradei and other protest leaders demand more. They want an end to an emergency law that gives security forces near unlimited powers and demand greater freedom to form political parties. Currently, any new party effectively needs approval by Mubarak's ruling party. As a result, the existing opposition parties are largely shells with little popular support or organization.
Suleiman has not mentioned either issue. He served as intelligence chief and Mubarak's top aide until being elevated to vice president, and is mistrusted by some as a regime figure, but others have spoken him as an acceptable interim president.
ElBaradei said he respects Suleiman as someone to negotiate with over the transition.
ElBaradei said he was consulting with lawyers and experts to draw up a temporary constitution. He called for a transitional government headed by a presidential council of two or three figures, including a military representative. It would hold power for a year while a permanent constitution is drawn up, then elections could take place.
Still, he underlined that the protest movement is not seeking "retribution" or a purge of the ruling party, only a more level playing field. "Not everyone who worked with the regime should be eliminated," he said.