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Who's taking the lead in Egypt's crisis?

Protesters who have paralysed Egypt and pushed the government into making concessions unimaginable two weeks ago, are still far from achieving their core demand that President Hosni Mubarak end his 30-year rule now.

world Updated: Feb 07, 2011 19:20 IST

Protesters who have paralysed Egypt and pushed the government into making concessions unimaginable two weeks ago, are still far from achieving their core demand that President Hosni Mubarak end his 30-year rule now.

Instead, the government seems to have regained the upper hand, at least for now, in controlling the pace of change and drawing the opposition under its umbrella for discussions.

Below are some questions and answers about what happens next:

* What has the opposition gained?

After two weeks of protests, Mubarak has said he will not run again for president, his son has been ruled out as next in line, a vice president has been appointed for the first time in 30 years, the ruling party leadership has quit and the old cabinet was sacked. Perhaps more importantly, protesters now go onto the streets almost with impunity in their hundreds of thousands. Before the wave of protests began on Jan. 25, even a few hundred would have met a crushing police response.

These are staggering gains won from Egypt's leadership which had stifled any opposition voice almost completely, with the exception of a few hardy independent newspapers.

Yet the government has so far dodged the protesters' main demand that Mubarak must go now. The state-owned al-Gomhuria newspaper seemed to sum it up on Monday: it had a banner headline reading "New Era" above a photo of Vice President Omar Suleiman meeting the opposition while he stood under a picture of Mubarak.

* Where does the government stand?

Although the hard core of the opposition has refused to budge on letting Mubarak stay on, some more pragmatic elements have said rather that the president, at the very least, should delegate his powers to Vice President Suleiman.

The government has rejected both demands. Instead, it has persuaded opposition representatives who joined the dialogue to adopt a government statement as the basis for talks that puts the establishment in the driving seat.

The statement, issued after the first round of talks on Sunday, referred to the president "ending his current term" in in September when an election is due. This means the government is dictating a departure timetable.

Protesters have demanded an end to emergency law, in force for decades, which they say has been used to stifle dissent. The government statement said lifting it depended on "security conditions", rather than conceding the principle that it go now.

Sidestepping a call to dissolve parliament, the statement said the government would accept court rulings against fraudulent results in the last election in November 2010, a vote rights groups dismissed as a sham. But that falls far short of holding another election to replace the parliament that is now overwhelmingly dominated by Mubarak's ruling party.

* How united is the opposition?

Two broad trends seem to be emerging between youths -- who can reasonably claim to have been the driving force for the protests -- and the more formal opposition groups ranging from liberals and leftists to Islamists, which are more pragmatic and more ready to engage in political horse-trading.

One of the strongest voices in the opposition ranks is the Muslim Brotherhood, which took a backseat in the early part of the protests. It is now talking with the government, a step unthinkable before Jan. 25. The state has long demonised the group, particularly to the West, as seeking to install a Sunni theocracy, similar to Shi'ite Iran which the West fears.

But within the opposition there is little common ground. Even their demand that Mubarak quit before they agree to talks with the government is no longer the unifying call it was.

The Brotherhood, seen as Egypt's biggest organised opposition group which had ruled out talking to the government before Mubarak went, changed its tune and joined discussions.

Among the Brotherhood ranks, some now grumble that its leadership has caved in too easily to government trickery.

The youth camped in Cairo's Tahrir Square have not budged. "We reject these talks. Mubarak must leave," accountant Sayed Abdel Hadi, 28, said as he wrote an anti-Mubarak slogan on the road. But these youths also lack a clear leadership and now face the challenge of regaining the momentum of the masses when many Egyptians are desperate for a return to normal life.

* What happens next?

The talks with the government could easily get bogged down in constitutional details about whether Suleiman could take over presidential powers and still deliver the reforms needed to hold a free and fair presidential election. There is a debate over two articles, one that says a vice president who has been delegated powers cannot dissolve parliament or change the constitution and another which says the president can appoint a vice president and "define their jurisdiction", possibly suggesting a deputy could be given full presidential powers.

Such a debate could take months, once again playing into the government's hands and ensuring Mubarak stays until September. As that period extends, Egyptians who wanted immediate change may become restless again and return in numbers to the streets.

After showing goodwill in joining talks, opposition groups could pull out of them if the government does not give enough ground. They have already said the government position is too rigid and a walkout might provoke further street action.

The resilience of the economy could also be a factor. If investors punish the Egyptian pound, that would swiftly lead to higher food prices, exacerbating an inflation problem that brought many Egyptians on to the streets in the first place. The speed at which tourism recovers will also be key, as that industry accounts for 11 percent of gross domestic product.

Financial markets have been relatively stable so far. Protests continue but are calm, and the dialogue has reassured investors, while the pound has weakened but only modestly. The stock market has yet to re-open and is likely to be hit when it does. But falls may focus on companies with links to the establishment and the size of a drop will probably be influenced by the fate of the pound.