Egyptian opposition groups have said their meeting on February 6 with Vice President Omar Suleiman was "positive" but yielded nothing specific to meet their demands.
In the talks, which followed nearly two weeks of massive street protests during which demonstrators called for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, the government pledged to form a committee to propose political reforms. These include setting term limits on the president and allowing more candidates to run. The reforms are supposed to be ready by the first week of March.
The government also said it would not harass those participating in antigovernment protests or hamper journalists. The authorities indicated, however, that Mubarak would stay in power to oversee the changes.
Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh from the Muslim Brotherhood, which joined the talks despite the fact the group is banned, said the government’s statement represented "good intentions, but did not include any solid changes."
Mustafa Naggar, from an opposition group backed by democracy advocate Mohamed ElBaradei, said the meeting was "positive in general, but was only a beginning."
The meeting follows the mass resignations on February 5 of the leadership of Mubarak's ruling party. The departures included Mubarak's son Gamal. But the 82-year-old president, who has ruled Egypt with an iron fist for three decades, said he would stay in office until his term ended in September.
The talks were the first in years between the government and the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, whose members were regularly rounded up and jailed, until the protests began almost two weeks ago.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on February 6 offered cautious support for talks between Suleiman and opposition groups, but withheld judgment on the Muslim Brotherhood's participation.
Experts on the ground, however, say the Muslim Brotherhood is not the radical group it is often made out to be.
Elizabeth Arrott, the head of Voice of America's bureau in Cairo, said the group has quieted down in recent years.
"I think that a lot of people, when they immediately hear about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, think of Hamas and, eventually, Al-Qaeda, which are indeed offshoots of the original organization, which started here in Egypt," she said. "After, there was a fair amount of violence by members, however, the general group here has turned into much more of a social movement."
Would 'Not' Force Women To Cover Up
Although the group aims to create an Islamic state in Egypt, it says it would not force women to cover up in public and recently called for the creation of "a democratic and civic state."
Its representatives won as much as 20 percent of seats in parliamentary elections in 2005. It failed to win a single seat in last year's elections, which was widely denounced as rigged in favor of the ruling National Democratic Party. Arrott said the Brotherhood commands wide respect within Egypt.
"It does have a fair amount of support here, and largely because it has filled the gap in many services that the government has been unable to provide. It runs schools, it runs hospitals, it has neighborhood organizations that really are a safety net for many, many people," she said.
Mubarak's decision to open talks with the Brotherhood suggests the group could become a leading political force in the post-Mubarak era along with other opposition political parties.
The opposition talks come amid street protests now in their 13th day. Thousands of demonstrators remained camped out on Cairo's central Tahrir Square, the focal point of the protests.
Protesters said they were determined to bring down Mubarak.
"We are here as protesters, people against the president of Egypt. We will stay here until the president of Egypt leaves the country," he said.
An army commander patrolling Tahrir Square on February 6 tried to persuade protesters to go home.
Egyptian authorities have warned that the ongoing protests could damage the country's economy. Many Egyptians, even those who joined the initial protests, say they are looking forward to resuming normal life.
A number of banks opened for the first time after a week-long closure due to the political protests. Many citizens, fearful of the safety of their accounts, lined up to withdraw their savings.
In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama on February 5 called for talks with leaders from Germany, Britain, and the United Arab Emirates to discuss the situation.
The White House issued a summary of Obama's remarks, saying "the president emphasized the importance of an orderly, peaceful transition, beginning now, to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people, including credible, inclusive negotiations between the government and the opposition."
Obama also voiced "his serious concern" about the targeting of journalists and human rights groups, and reaffirmed that the government of Egypt has a responsibility to protect the rights of its people and to release those who have been unjustly detained.
In a television interview with Fox News on February 6, Obama said he believes Egypt is "not going to go back to what it was," and that the time for change is now.
Obama also said he believed the Muslim Brotherhood is only one faction in Egypt and that they do not have majority support in the country. But he added that they are well-organized and that there are some strains of their ideology that are anti-American.
written by Claire Bigg with contributions from agency reports