Newly-appointed Egyptian vice president Omar Suleiman held talks on Sunday with opposition groups in Cairo in an attempt to stem the anti-government protests that continue across the country. Suleiman agreed to several major concessions, including ending the country’s decades-old emergency laws (he did not say when), allowing a free press (even as another Al Jazeera reporter was arrested), and creating a constitutional reform committee. The top demand of demonstrators—the immediate removal of President Hosni Mubarak-was not addressed. Protests continue today across Egypt, and tens of thousands of demonstrators have held their ground in Tahrir Square amidst a heavy military presence. We go to Cairo to speak with Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Hossam Bahgat, an Egyptian human rights activist. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: In the latest developments in Egypt, newly appointed vice president Omar Suleiman held talks Sunday with opposition groups in Cairo in an attempt to stem the anti-government protests which continue across the country. While Suleiman agreed to several major concessions, including ending the country’s decades-old emergency laws, allowing a free press, and creating a committee to propose constitutional reforms, the number one demand of protesters — the immediate removal of President Hosni Mubarak from power — was not addressed. Participants at the meeting included members of secular opposition parties, members of the business community, some youth representatives. In a move that’s been called "highly significant," the banned Muslim Brotherhood was also included in the talks.
Speaking on Sunday, the newly appointed secretary general of the ruling NDP Party, Hossam Badrawi, said he believed the government is being responsive to demands.
HOSSAM BADRAWI: [translated] Lifting the emergency state once the security situation is over is the declared intention, so that the people are reassured. The release of political detainees, especially those young people from the 25th of January Movement, I think is a strong message that our attitude has shifted.
AMY GOODMAN: Despite government promises, protests continue today across Egypt. Tens of thousands of demonstrators held their ground in Tahrir Square amidst a heavy military presence.
According to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, leaders of several youth organizations, calling themselves the Coalition of the Angry Youth Uprising, said they would not agree to negotiations with the regime until the primary demand of Mubarak’s resignation was met. They also said the involvement of youth activists at the talks Sunday was not to negotiate but to convey their list of demands.
Meanwhile, leading opposition figure and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei said he was not invited to the talks, although representatives of his group, the National Association for Change, was present. Speaking with David Gregory on NBC’s Meet the Press, ElBaradei called the government’s intentions "opaque." He also reiterated the demand that President Mubarak step down and said a caretaker interim government should be appointed until elections could be held.
MOHAMED ELBARADEI: There is still a huge lack of confidence between the government and the demonstrators. There’s a good deal of fear that the government will return and then come back, you know, again, with vengeance, if you like. The process is opaque. The regime, which he represents, lost legitimacy, and he needs to assume political responsibility and step aside and get the country to move on and cede power to a transitional presidential council, a caretaker government, and have a year of transition where we can really have free and fair election, including — which I haven’t heard from Richard — including the right to establish parties. That is key, for people to establish parties and to take the time to go and engage. And then you will have, you know, among other guarantees, fair and free election in a year’s time from now. Suspend the constitution, suspend the parliament, have a provisional constitution. We cannot go through democracy through the current constitution, which is a dictatorial one.
AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Cairo, where we’re joined by Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous.
Sharif, welcome to Democracy Now! We’re also joined by Hossam Bahgat, an Egyptian human rights activist. It’s great to have you back in a studio, Sharif. It has been a remarkable 14 days. This is day 14 of the uprising in Egypt. Before we talk about anything else, talk about what’s happening on the ground right now, in Tahrir Square and around Cairo.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, we saw yesterday was the Sunday — what they call the Sunday of Martyrs, and tens of thousands of people filled Tahrir Square. I was surprised to see the level of — the number of people that showed up yesterday. And it was a very festive atmosphere, a lot of families, a lot of children. What appeared to be fewer of the Muslim Brotherhood were in attendance yesterday. And a lot of people were carrying pictures of the dead, what they call the martyrs who were killed in the revolution. And they say, if this was a revolution, then they are martyrs.
And what they continue to stress is that even the most minimum of demands that they have called for have not been met. The Mubarak regime continues to make these so-called concessions. None of these concessions are things that the protesters have called for. These negotiations that took place yesterday, members of the April 6 Youth Movement were not represented at the table. They say they want the Mubarak regime’s ouster, and after that, then they can look to talks. That is their number one principal demand, and that has not yet been met.
Joining me here in Cairo is Hossam Bahgat. He’s the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. And Hossam, a lot of the talk right now is about constitutional changes, dissolving parliament, and the resignation of the president. And one of the issues that people say is that the president — if the president resigns first, then these changes cannot be implemented. They’re trying workarounds. What is the latest?
HOSSAM BAHGAT: Look, the consensus amongst everyone is right now that the solution can only begin with Mubarak stepping down. Now, there are some differences, technical differences, about, you know, whether he should resign fully, immediately, or whether he should step aside by delegating all of his powers to the vice president, like he did when he was hospitalized in 2004 and later in 2010, and then, in a couple of weeks, resign once we have ensured that we the provisions that are necessary for a meaningful presidential election. I am of the view that if Mubarak is to resign immediately, then it is 100 percent certain that Omar Suleiman will be elected within 60 days as president for a full presidential term of six years. That is not a prospect that would satisfy me as an advocate for democracy and human rights and someone who wants to see a real end to three decades of Mubarak rule. And Omar Suleiman’s succession will unfortunately be a continuation, in my view, of the Mubarak regime and the violations perpetrated under Mubarak. So I am of the view that Mubarak must immediately step down by delegating all of his authorities to his vice president, that we need within a couple of weeks to put to a public referendum some amendments of the constitutional provisions to make sure that we can have free and fair presidential elections.
AMY GOODMAN: Hossam —
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And what are these amendments to the — sorry, go ahead, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Just before you get to the amendments, Sharif, I wanted to ask Hossam, as you talk about Omar Suleiman, exactly what are your concerns with him? You are a human rights activist. We have reported on his working closely with the U.S. CIA with extraordinary rendition. Why don’t you lay out for us who this man is who was just chosen by Mubarak in the last week to be his vice president?
HOSSAM BAHGAT: Sure. Look, Amy, he’s been in this position as director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service since 1993, but obviously we only learned about this in 2007, because up until then, he was not a public persona. We did not know who the head of our intelligence service was. Since 2007, he started to appear, but again, we only knew how he looked like and we knew his name. We knew absolutely nothing about him, until, of course, some truth started emerging about the U.S.-led so-called war on terror. And of course his name started featuring prominently in all the books that came out, the documents that were obtained through some of Freedom of Information requests and litigation in the United States, and that’s, of course, when we started to find out that he was the most reliable partner in the Middle East in the extraordinary rendition program. He oversaw the transfer and interrogation of terror suspects, not just in Egypt but in other countries of the region.
And then, of course, there is the post-WikiLeaks era, in which we started to also read transcripts of private meetings that he held with some U.S. officials. And in them, we started to also find out more about his involvement in domestic affairs, not just in foreign policy issues, but also his role in the starvation of the people of Gaza, his role in using the economic blockade that the Egyptian government has been involved in, in order to pressure the Gazans to turn against Hamas and to pressure Hamas, as well, to accept to sign a deal in, you know, the Egyptian-brokered reconciliation with Fatah.
And interestingly, it is exactly this that he’s been trying also with the protesters in Tahrir now, using economics, citing economic hardships, to turn the people against the protesters and also trying to control, at least for a few days, until very recently, trying to prohibit people from taking food and medical supplies and blankets into Tahrir Square for the protesters. And then, most recently, since his appointment as a vice president, he’s given one long TV interview with state television in which, of course, it became very clear that, you know, he accused all those that insisted on remaining in Tahrir Square despite the violence and the shootings and the food deprivation, he accused all of us of implementing a foreign agenda. And he, you know, used implicit — and then, later, very explicit — threats of retaliation against us.
Yesterday, with the round of negotiations, or so-called dialogue, that he had with some representatives of political forces, again, it became very clear that he does not enter these negotiations on an equal footing with representatives of the protesters. He sent everyone home and then decided to deliver a statement of what he called a consensus that resulted from these consultations. And later, we had a number of political — of representatives of political forces, most importantly the Muslim Brotherhood, saying, "That is not true. You know, we did not agree to these things. This was only a protocol session. It is the first session of this dialogue. Each one of us expressed their views, and then we were told that we will be invited back. And suddenly, we were surprised to see Suleiman announcing the understandings or agreements, as he called them, to Egyptian television." And, of course, in this announcement that Suleiman made, he said, "No, the president is not going to resign. No, the president is not going to delegate his powers to his vice president. And no, we’re not going to lift the state of emergency immediately; we’re only going to do this when there is no longer a security threat," which, of course, the government of Egypt says has been since 1981.
AMY GOODMAN: Hossam Bahgat, we are going to break. Sharif, we’re going to come back to this discussion after the break. Hossam Bahgat is an Egyptian human rights activist, founder and executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. He is in Cairo with Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous. We’ll hear more from them in a moment.
AMY GOODMAN: We are covering the uprising in Egypt. It is the 14th day. Schools are closed, stock exchange closed. Thousands of protesters remain in Tahrir Square. We are joined in Cairo by Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous, as well as Hossam Bahgat, the Egyptian human rights activist, founder and executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who just was talking about the record of the newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiuman, who, by the way, was trained at the U.S. Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg.
Sharif, why don’t you continue the discussion?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Hossam, after President Mubarak gave this so-called concession speech last Tuesday, promising not to run again, what we saw was a crackdown and a crackdown on Tahrir Square, with the attack by the baltaguia, which you were there on Wednesday. On Thursday, we saw a roundup of human rights lawyers, human rights activists. Talk about the reaction of the government after that point.
HOSSAM BAHGAT: Sure. Look, Sharif, I’ve been monitoring the human rights violations in Egypt for 10 years now. And so, you know, it came as no surprise to anyone that Mubarak broke yet another promise. I mean, his rule — throughout his rule, he has been repeatedly breaking his promises, especially when it comes to human rights and civil liberties. What did come as a shock to many Egyptians was, of course, the fact that this also extended to the Vice President. Since he was appointed, of course, the violations did not stop, in terms of people being arrested, in terms of the use of violence against protesters, and then, suddenly, the use of snipers even shooting and killing protesters as they stood in Tahrir Square, and later, the harassment of foreign journalists and breaking into the offices of a human rights organization, arresting everyone, etc.
Another turning point, unfortunately, was yesterday when the army arrested a journalist for the first time, working for Al Jazeera. That was the first time that —
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That was Ayman Mohyeldin.
HOSSAM BAHGAT: Exactly. That was the first time that we had received any report of the army itself detaining someone solely for being a journalist. And they perfectly knew that this was Ayman Mohyeldin from Al Jazeera English. A few days before, last Thursday, as you mentioned, it was the military police. So it was, again, army officers that raided the offices the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, which has been providing legal aid to protesters but also, of course, acting as a liaison office for all of us who have been volunteering for the Front to Defend Egypt Protesters. Everyone inside was detained, including representatives from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and then they were released two days later.
So, you know, of course, these are — I mean, when I answered Amy’s question about the record of Omar Suleiman and why the majority of not just the human rights community, but also people who are advocating for change and advocating for reform, see Omar Suleiman as Mubarak the second. It is not just because of his, you know, long record or even more recent record, but it’s also because he oversaw these violations, or at least he knew about them. And, you know, on perhaps a less significant or less dramatic but equally significant level, he has so far failed to even express condolences to the families of the hundreds that have been murdered by the regime. I mean, we’re not talking about an apology or prosecution; he has not even said, you know, "We express condolences to the families." And again, that would be a very significant shift. But everything that we’re hearing now reminds us of Mubarak, and that terrifies us.
And perhaps that is the main reason why people in my organization and other organizations are saying, please don’t hold presidential elections now, because only Suleiman is going to win in these presidential elections. We have to change the rules governing these elections. We have to open up the process so that people like ElBaradei and Amr Moussa and also representatives of these young people who planned and led this revolution can stand in the presidential elections. We need to make sure that the millions of Egyptians living abroad, at least six million, get to vote for the first time. Right now they’re not allowed to vote. We need to make sure that the elections are conducted under full judicial supervision with full involvement of both Egyptian and international civil society monitors. And we need to make sure that any elected president is only allowed to serve for no more than two terms. Before we can introduce these changes, an immediate resignation of Mubarak and presidential elections are going to be a disaster for at least a full presidential term of six years.
AMY GOODMAN: In a move that suggests that Egypt might be in new political territory, the banned Muslim Brotherhood participated in the talks Sunday. For years, the Egyptian government has labeled the group a terrorist organization. While the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t participate in the organizing of the first demonstrations on January 25th, the group is the largest and most well-organized opposition in Egypt. Speaking on Sunday after the talks, a spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood said they have no demands other than the demands of the people.
ISSAM ERYAN: [translated] We have declared clearly that we do not have a private agenda and that since the regime implicated itself in shedding blood and killing people and trying to evade consequence, it does not have any choice but to respond to the call of the people for the president to step down, to annul the parliament, and to eliminate emergency laws and liberate the judiciary. Today we held a meeting after which we declared that we accepted the call to dialogue, so that we can find out the intention of the regime and if they are able to get the country out of the crisis they got the country into themselves. We do not have any other demands besides the demands of the people.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Issam Eryan, spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood. Hossam, your response? Also, all of the criticism that you are talking about, also shared by the Brotherhood and others after these talks, saying that no agreement was arrived at. And they’re saying they don’t trust the Egyptian government.
HOSSAM BAHGAT: Right. Look, Amy, as a campaigner for civil liberties, for full equality, for the rights of religious minorities and the rights of women, of course, I disagree with the Muslim Brotherhood on many issues. But the Brothers have been our partners in this revolution. This has been a revolution by all Egyptians for all Egyptians. And, I mean, we all — you know, Amy, remember the last time we spoke, or I called your show, we were about to witness what looked like it was going to be a massacre in Tahrir Square. It was on Thursday. There was a lineup of ambulance cars. They were evacuating the foreign journalists. They were raiding the offices of human rights groups. They were cutting the transmission of all cameras from Tahrir Square. There were all the signs that we were about to witness a Chinese-style massacre of everyone that dared to remain in the square after the brutal violence the day before. And in fact, we owe our lives now in a large part to the courage shown by many of the members of the Muslim Brothers that actually confronted the military tanks and, you know, lost many of them. And many of the martyrs are actually members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
But as Sharif said earlier, I mean, we are now seeing everyone come back to the square, as well. I mean, it’s the middle class, it’s women, it’s children, it’s artists and directors and filmmakers and actors — everyone. And the mood is very festive again. And we don’t have a single report of the Muslim Brotherhood members trying to impose any restrictions on any of the participants or, you know, any inconvenience even anyone. And so, and the fact that the protesters are back on the square now and, if you want, were all feeling exuberant again in the square is, I think, due to a large extent to the perseverance of thousands and thousands of members of the Muslim Brothers that actually protected literally this physical space for us over the weekend.
We, of course, welcome the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood were included in this ongoing political process. I mean, they agree with us that a solution could only start with Mubarak stepping aside or stepping down. And this is, like I said — I mean, there seems to be a unanimous agreement on this right now. But the fact they were invited by the Vice President, who is, you know, their worst enemy, of course, as we know from WikiLeaks, again, within the government — the fact that they were invited makes sure that not only they exercise the right in being part of the political process, participate in public life, express and organize themselves, but also it is another loss to the regime. Of course, we know, primarily from U.S. media, that they were included in this process in part under pressure from the United States, because they want to see them included in the process so that the risk of them taking over, which is a fear that is widespread in the West, is minimized. But nonetheless, it is very significant.
They came out of these consultations, and not only Mr. Eryan, but Mr. Katatni, who is the former head of the parliamentary bloc, and other senior leaders actually said, you know, "We did not agree to anything that falls short of meeting the full demands of the protesters, starting with Mubarak stepping aside. There is not going to be a solution of this crisis without Mubarak’s departure."
AMY GOODMAN: Also, according to Al-Masry Al-Youm, the Muslim Brotherhood’s youth wing boycotted the talks.