Cairo: Egypt's influential Muslim Brotherhood agreed to join talks with President Hosni Mubarak's embattled regime on Sunday, a historic turning point in relations between the state and the banned group.
The Army stepped up pressure overnight on the protesters who have occupied central Cairo's Tahrir Square, tightening a cordon around the area, but on the political front new avenues of dialogue opened up.
The Brotherhood, a well-organised Islamist movement, has long been banned from Egyptian politics. That Mubarak's camp has been forced to invite its bitter foe to talks is a sign of the opposition's mounting strength.
"We will join the talks today," senior Brotherhood official Essam el-Erian said, adding that the meeting would begin before midday (1000 GMT).
Egypt's newly-appointed vice president, former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, has agreed to meet opposition groups, including the Brothers, to discuss democratic reforms leading to elections to replace Mubarak.
Erian said that the group would take part, but warned it would drop out if there is no one to represent the protesters who have occupied Tahrir Square since January 28 to demand Mubarak's departure.
"We have been invited. We will go. But our participation is conditional on giving the youth representation," he said. "If the demands of the youth are not met, we have the right to reconsider our position."
Another Brotherhood official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "We decided to begin talks to see up to what point they are ready to accept the demands of the people."
He said the move was aimed at eliminating "foreign or regional interference in our affairs," an apparent attempt to distance the group from Iran, which has called for the installation of an Islamist regime in Egypt.
The Brotherhood is officially banned in Egypt, but its vast social aid network is tolerated and serves as the basis of a well-organised opposition movement which fields parliamentary candidates as independents.
Negotiations were to begin amid high-level manoeuvres at the heart of Mubarak's three-decades-old regime, where wealthy business leaders close to his son Gamal Mubarak appear to have been sidelined in favour of military figures.
The executive committee of the ruling National Democratic Party resigned en masse on Sunday, including Gamal, once viewed as Mubarak's heir apparent.
Protesters rejected this as a meaningless gesture, insisting their goal is still to force Mubarak from office immediately, rather than wait for September, when the strongman has vowed to step aside for elections.
"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 in the crowd.
Despite the determination of the Tahrir Square protesters, who have held the square for 13 days against attacks from pro-Mubarak mobs and attempts by troops to restrict access, parts of Cairo were getting back to normal on Sunday.
Banks were due to reopen, businesses were washing down shop fronts and traffic was heavy in parts of the town centre, despite the ongoing tension of a crisis which has left an estimated 300 dead and thousands wounded.
The crisis has given US President Barack Obama's administration a policy headache, forcing it to confront the consequences of Washington's long-term support for Middle East autocrats in exchange for security guarantees.
Obama spoke on 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.
"The Prime Minister said that a clear and credible roadmap to change was needed as soon as possible, including a path to free and fair elections," the spokesman added, but both capitals shied clear of calling for Mubarak to go.
Citing unnamed US and Egyptian officials, the New York Times reported that Suleiman and Egyptian military leaders want Mubarak to make a graceful exit.
Under the US-backed plan, Mubarak's powers would be scaled back enabling the creation of a transitional government headed by Suleiman to negotiate reforms with the opposition, the paper reported.
First Published: Sunday, February 06, 2011, 15:45