Abdel—Rahman Youssef, a youth activist, says he and other protest figures met with Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq late Friday. He underlines the meeting dealt only with ways to arrange Mr. Mubarak’s departure and that protests will continue until that happens.

Leaders of Egypt’s unprecedented wave of anti—government protests have held talks with the prime minister over ways to ease President Hosni Mubarak out of office. Under one proposal, the 82—year—old leader would hand his powers to his vice-president, though not his title immediately, to give him a graceful exit.

Mr. Mubarak has staunchly refused to leave, insisting on serving out the rest of his term until September, and his aides have repeatedly said in recent days that the country’s leader of nearly 30 years must not be dumped in a humiliating way.

The protesters, in turn, say they will not stop their giant rallies or enter substantive negotiations on democratic reform until Mr. Mubarak quits. Thousands continued to gather on Saturday in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, a day after some 100,000 protesters massed there demanding Mr. Mubarak leave power immediately.

“Group of wise men" circulates ideas

A self—declared group of Egypt’s elite - called the “group of wise men” has circulated ideas to try to break that deadlock. Among them is a proposal that Mr. Mubarak “deputize” his Vice-President Omar Suleiman with his powers and, for the time being at least, step down in everything but name.

The “wise men,” who are separate from the protesters on the ground, have met twice in recent days with Mr. Suleiman and the prime minister, said Amr el—Shobaki, a member of the group. Their proposals also call for the dissolving of parliament monopolized by the ruling party and the end of emergency laws that give security forces near—unlimited powers.

Late Friday, a delegation from the protesters themselves meet with Shafiq to discuss ways out of the impasse, said Abdel—Rahman Youssef, a youth activist who participated in the meeting.

Mr. Youssef told The Associated Press on Saturday that the meeting was not a start of negotiations. “It was a message to see how to resolve the crisis. The message is that they must recognize the legitimacy of the revolution and that the president must leave one way or the other, either real or political departure,” he said.

Protesters studying “wise men's” proposal

The protesters are looking into the proposal floated by the “wise men,” said Mr. Youssef, who is part of the youth movement connected to Nobel Peace laureate and prominent reform advocate Mohamed ElBaradei.

“It could be a way out of the crisis,” Mr. Youssef said. “But the problem is in the president...he is not getting it that he has become a burden on everybody, psychologically, civicly and militarily.”

Israa Abdel—Fattah, a member of the April 6 group, another of the youth movements driving the demonstrations, said there is support for the wise men’s proposal among protesters.

Mr. Youssef underlined that the 12—day—old protests will continue in Tahrir Square until Mr. Mubarak goes in an acceptable way.

"Protesters are still steadfast”

“There is no force that can get the youth out of the square. Every mean was used. Flexibility, violence, live ammunition, and even thugs, and the protesters are still steadfast,” he said, referring to an assault by regime supporters on Wednesday that sparked 48 hours of heavy street fighting until protesters succeeded in driving off the attackers.

On Saturday, soldiersutted vehicles that protesters used as barricades during the fighting, but protesters argued with them for the vehicles to remain. Rumours also circulated in the square that the military - which has surrounded Tahrir for days -was preparing to withdraw, so some protesters lay on the ground in front of tanks to prevent them. The protesters see the military as a degree of protection from police or regime supporters they fear will attack again, though the government promised on Friday not to try to eject the protesters by force.

The emergence of various talks and players marked a new stage in the evolution in the crisis as all sides try to shape the post—Mubarak transition.

Mr. Suleiman and Mr. Shafiq - both military men, like Mr. Mubarak, and regime stalwarts who were appointed to the posts last week - have led the government’s handling of the crisis. They have sought to draw the protesters and opposition groups into negotiations to quickly enact constitutional reforms so elections for a new president replacing Mr. Mubarak can be held in September.

Reluctance to end demonstrations

Protesters, however, are wary of a trap. They fear that without the pressure of protesters in the streets demanding democracy, the regime will carry out only superficial reforms while keeping its grip on power. So they are reluctant to end the demonstrations without the concrete victory of Mr. Mubarak’s ouster and assurances on what happens next.

el—Shobaki, of “the wise men,” said Mr. Suleiman did not respond to their proposal that Mr. Mubarak deputise him. “The stumbling point ,” Mr. el—Shobaki said.

The “wise men” are comprised about a dozen prominent public figures and jurists, including former Cabinet minister and lawyer Ahmed Kamal Aboul—Magd, businessman Naguib Sawiris and political scientist academics like el—Shobaki. “We don’t represent the youth on the ground. We keep in touch with them,” said Mr. el—Shobaki.

Protest organisers are a mix

The protest organizers themselves are a mix. The majority are young secular leftists and liberals, who launched the wave of protests though an Internet campaign, but the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood also has built a prominent role. They have succeeded in drawing a startlingly broad cross—section of the public, including the urban poor, lower middle class and young upper class.

Protest organizers have formed a committee that will carry out any future negotiations with the government over reforms. The committee includes Mr. ElBaradei, the Muslim Brotherhood and representatives of the youth factions.

Mubarak holds meeting with economy team

President Hosni Mubarak is holding meetings with his economy team as thousands of anti—government protesters remain camped out on Cairo’s Tahrir, or Liberation, Square.

The political crisis that erupted since January 25 has cost the country an estimated $3.1 billions, with the ensuing violence driving a nation once seen as a pillar of stability to the brink of chaos.

Protests enter 12th day as curfew is defied

Protests against Mr. Mubarak were held throughout the night and into early Saturday as thousands held out in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square during a 12th straight day of protests, and demonstrators in Alexandria disregarded a curfew.

Hundreds of people in the coastal city demanded Mr. Mubarak step aside after nearly 30 years in office.

The protests that erupted last week led Mr. Mubarak to announce he would not seek another term in office, but that has not satisfied protestors who vowed to persist until he is no longer president.

The protests overnight were primarily peaceful although al-Jazeera television reported that the military was believed to have fired into the air early Saturday at Tahrir Square.

The overnight curfew was shortened three hours to 7 pm to 6 am (1700 to 0400 GMT), state-run television said.

Mubarak's men key to U.S. reform hopes

Seeking reform in Egypt, the U.S. increasingly is counting on a small cadre of President Hosni Mubarak’s closest advisers to guide a hoped—for transition from autocracy to democracy.

It’s a plan that relies on long relationships with military men and bureaucrats who owe their professional success to Mr. Mubarak’s iron rule. To the regret of some U.S. diplomats, it’s also a plan that steers around the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful Islamist political movement that almost surely would play a central role in any future popularly chosen government.

Not that Washington has much choice.

Mr. Mubarak has so smothered potential political opposition that there is no clear alternative for the U.S. as a bargaining partner, even if dealing with aging Mubarak stalwarts reduces U.S. credibility with Egyptians fed up with the Mubarak era.

Telephone diplomacy indicative of American strategy

The Obama administration’s telephone diplomacy this past week was indicative of the American strategy to keep Egypt from tearing itself apart.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice-President Joe Biden spoke to Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s 74—year—old intelligence chief who became vice-president last week. Defence Secretary Robert Gates chatted with his 85—year—old counterpart, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen discussed the situation with Egypt’s top military official, Lt. Gen. Sami Anan, 62. Another key figure is Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, a 69—year—old former Air Force chief.

U.S. diplomatic cables released by the WikiLeaks website encapsulate part of the problem with trusting these men to be the head ushers of democratic and economic change.

Beyond the generational split with young protesters disgruntled by years of harsh unemployment, inequality and political repression, the Mubarak men belong to a military elite whose wealth and power are inextricably linked to the 82—year—old president.

“Egypt’s military is in decline,"

“Egypt’s military is in decline,” a 2008 U.S. cable says, summarizing a series of conversations with academics and analysts. The memo cites a professor in Egypt as saying “the sole criteria for promotion is loyalty and the ... leadership does not hesitate to fire officers it perceives as being ‘too competent’ and who therefore potentially pose a threat to the regime.”

Yet the military’s authority remains strong and its interests in Egypt vast. Mr. Mubarak built an army of almost a half—million men that holds large stakes in the water, olive oil, cement, construction, hotel and gasoline industries.

A diplomatic cable also describes large land holdings of the military along the Nile Delta and the Red Sea, and suggests that the top brass would not be served by important change toward democracy and freer markets.

Most analysts agree that the military “generally opposes economic reforms,” according to the U.S. diplomatic correspondence.

Ripe for political unrest

The exchanges describe an Egypt ripe for political unrest. A 2007 note from the U.S. ambassador at time, Francis J. Ricciardone, said Mubarak’s “reluctance to lead more boldly” was hurting his effectiveness.

Mr. Ricciardone singled out Egypt’s elite 40,000—member counterterror police as he described a “culture of impunity.” The ambassador noted that the Egyptian government shut down a human rights group that had helped the family of a detainee killed in 2003. The officers were exonerated of torture and murder charges.

Difficult environment for journalists

The cables also provide glimpses of the difficult environment for Egypt’s bloggers and journalists. During protests in Cairo this past week, pro—government mobs beat, threatened and intimidated reporters attempting to inform the world of the unfolding events in the country.

In one cable, an Egyptian blogger complained to the U.S. Embassy after YouTube and Google removed videos from his blog apparently showing a Bedouin shot by Egyptian police and thrown on a garbage dump, and another one of a woman being tortured in a police station.

The cables contain mixed assessments of some of those being counted on to lead Egypt’s transition after six decades when the country’s four presidents all came from the officer corps.

Mr. Suleiman, referred to as the “Mubarak consigliere,” comes out better than others. He is described as disappointed as far back as 2007 that he had yet to be named vice president. Yet on first glance, he seems an ideal candidate to guide Egypt through an unstable period.

At a time when Mr. Mubarak’s son Gamal was being promoted as a future president, a U.S. cable says Mr. Suleiman “would at the least have to figure in any succession scenario.”

“He could be attractive to the ruling apparatus and the public at large as a reliable figure unlikely to harbour ambitions for another multi—decade presidency,” according to the cable.

But it is unclear what that will mean now as thousands of Egyptians demand Mr. Mubarak’s immediate resignation.

Little indication Suleiman will show Mubarak the door

There’s little indication Suleiman will show his longtime boss the door, even if Obama administration officials are discussing options that include having Mubarak step aside now for a transitional government headed by Suleiman.

“His loyalty to Mubarak seems rock—solid,” a cable written four years ago concludes.

Under one proposal, Mr. Mubarak would hand his powers to his vice-president, though not his title immediately, to give the ruler a graceful exit.

Mr. Suleiman has offered negotiations with all political forces, including protest leaders and the regime’s top foe, the Muslim Brotherhood. He’s spoken of independent supervision of elections, loosening restrictions on who can run for president and term limits for leaders.

He has some support.

Suleiman too much of a Mubarak government figure

Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, a former U.N. atomic energy chief and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said he respects Mr.Suleiman as a possible negotiating partner. Some protesters have backed the idea of Mr. Suleiman playing a leading role in the transition; others see him as too much of a Mubarak government figure and want him out, along with the president.

Then there’s Tantawi, known among younger servicemen as “Mubarak’s poodle,” according to one informant. His unbending support for Mr. Mubarak is described in worse terms.

“’This incompetent defense minister’” who reached his position only because of unwavering loyalty to Mubarak is ‘running the military into the ground,’” a U.S. diplomat wrote, relaying the assessment of an unidentified professor in Egypt.

Mr. Tantawi reached out to the demonstrators on Friday by visiting the square that has been the rallying point for Cairo’s protests. He held friendly but heated discussions, telling people that most of their demands have been met and they should go home. “The people and the army are one hand!” they chanted during Mr. Tantawi’s brief stop.

Anan is largely respected among U.S. officials. The cables spare him the harsh criticism doled out to Mr. Tantawi, who is lambasted in various memos as the chief impediment to modernizing Egypt’s military.

Muslim Brotherhood threat

But the fear of American officials illustrated throughout the notes - and offered by the Mubarak government as its main excuse for resisting democracy -” is the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood.

U.S. officials say there have been no contacts with the hardline Islamist movement. It has formed the most organized opposition to Mr. Mubarak’s three—decade autocracy but opposes much of the U.S. agenda in the region, such as Arab—Israeli peace efforts.

“The specter of an MB presidency haunts secular Egyptians,” a cable noted. Still, it said such a development was “highly unlikely” and that the military wouldn’t support an extremist takeover.

But avoiding talks with the group could be a mistake for the U.S., if it means a missed opportunity for some influence with a group that could become a dominant force in Egypt’s future.

The United States has confirmed discussions with Mr. ElBaradei, who has “captured the imagination of some section of the secular elite that wants democracy but is wary of the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood,” according to a February 2010 cable.

ElBaradei’s biggest challenge

Mr. ElBaradei’s biggest challenge would be mustering credibility among Egyptians on the streets, it predicted. The jury is still out on that question, even if the Muslim Brotherhood has expressed support for Mr. ElBaradei as an acceptable point—man for leading the pro—democracy movement. The military’s view of him hasn’t really been made clear.

Ultimately, the protests haven’t made Egypt’s post—Mubarak future any clearer. What’s obvious now is that neither Mr. Mubarak will run in September elections. But no one knows how the military will react to possibly months more of instability.

“In a messier succession scenario,” a 2008 cable noted, “it becomes more difficult to predict the military’s actions.”

“While midlevel officers do not necessarily share their superiors’ fealty to the regime,” it is “unlikely that these officers could independently install a new leader.”

They military won’t have to act alone, and no officials are warning of a military coup. But the military elite’s reticence for change could prove a hindrance to democratic transformation.

U.S. officials consistently have criticized the government’s response to the crisis, and officials say Mr. Suleiman’s outreach efforts have been too narrow and not credible enough to gain widespread support and usher in real democracy.

"Mubarak never really had a succession plan"

As for Mr. Mubarak, who said in an ABC television interview on Thursday that Egypt would slip into chaos if he didn’t serve out his remaining seven months, the cables suggest he never really had a succession plan - long “the elephant in the room of Egyptian politics.”

“Mubarak himself seems to be trusting to God and the inertia of the military and civilian security services to ensure an orderly transition,” a 2007 cable said.

Egyptian scribe dies of gunshot wound

Meanwhile, the first death of a journalist covering the protests was reported. An Egyptian journalist died of a gunshot wound suffered a week ago in Cairo, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said.

Ahmad Mohamed Mahmoud, who was working for the newspaper al-Ta’awun, was hit by what the newspaper described as sniper fire while filming a confrontation between security forces and protestors on January 28 near Tahrir Square.

Numerous journalists from around the world have been detained or assaulted while covering the protests in Egypt with the rate of incidents targeting media soaring since Thursday.

Al-Jazeera said its Cairo bureau was stormed and destroyed by unknown attackers on Friday and its bureau chief, Abdel Fatah Fayed, and journalist Ahmad Youssif were detained by Egyptian security agents.

In Washington, United States President Barack Obama on Friday appealed to Mr. Mubarak to listen to his people and make “the right decision” about the best way forward for the country as the White House warned of greater instability.

Obama for orderly transition

Mr. Obama would not say whether Mr. Mubarak should resign before the end of his term in September, but Mr. Obama made it clear that “going back to the old ways is not going to work.” “The only thing that will work is moving (to) an orderly transition process that begins right now,” Mr. Obama said.

In the event of new elections, Mohammed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner as former head of the international nuclear watchdog and an opposition activist, said he would be prepared to run as Mr. Mubarak’s replacement.

“If the people want it, then, of course, I would,” he told the Vienna newspaper Der Standard.

He added, however, that who would run is not what was truly important at the moment and told the newspaper that he saw himself primarily as a “broker of change.” The secretary general of the Arab League, Egyptian Amr Mussa, met on Friday with an informal group of Egyptian intellectuals dubbed the “wise men.” They have been talking with the government and have proposed a gradual shifting of power away from Mr. Mubarak to vice-presidents and technocrats while allowing the ruler to keep his titular job as head of state.

Mr. Mussa was prepared to negotiate between the demonstrators and the government, Arab League sources said. Mr. Mussa, a former foreign minister is popular in Egypt, and is seen as a potential successor to Mr. Mubarak.

More In: International | News