CAIRO – Egypt's vice president met a broad representation of major opposition groups for the first time Sunday and agreed to allow freedom of the press, to release those detained since anti-government protests began nearly two weeks and ago and to lift the country's hated emergency laws when security permits.
Vice President Omar Suleiman endorsed a plan with the opposition to set up a committee of judiciary and political figures to study proposed constitutional reforms that would allow more candidates to run for president and impose term limits on the presidency, the state news agency reported. The committee was given until the first week of March to finish the tasks.
The regime also pledged not to harass those participating in anti-government protests, which have drawn hundreds of thousands at the biggest rallies. The government agreed not to hamper freedom of press and not to interfere with text messaging and Internet.
The meeting was broadest representation of Egypt's fragmented opposition to sit with the new vice president since the protests demanding the immediate ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak began on Jan. 25.
The new concessions followed a series of others that would have been unimaginable just a month ago in this tightly controlled country. All appear geared to placate the protesters and relieve international pressure without giving in to the one demand that unites all the opposition — Mubarak's immediate departure. The latest agreement makes no mention of any plan for Mubarak to step before a new election is held later this year.
Since protests began, Mubarak has pledged publicly for the first time that he will not seek re-election. The government promised his son Gamal, who had widely been expected to succeed him, would also not stand. Mubarak appointed a vice president for the first time since he took office three decades ago, widely considered his designated successor. He sacked his Cabinet, named a new one and promised reforms. And on Saturday, the top leaders of the ruling party, including Gamal Mubarak, were purged.
There were signs that the paralysis that has gripped the country since the crisis began was easing Sunday, the first day of the week in Egypt. Some schools reopened for the first time in more than a week, and banks did the same for only three hours with long lines outside.
There was no sign, however, that the growing list of government concessions will end the protests.
"We are determined to press on until our number one demand is met," said Khaled Abdul-Hameed, a representative of the protesters.
He said the activists have formed a 10-member "Coalition of the Youths of Egypt's Revolution," to relay their positions to politicians and public figures negotiating with the regime.
"The regime is retreating. It is making more concessions everyday," Abdul-Hameed said.
At the epicenter of the anti-government movement, Tahrir (Liberation) Square in central Cairo, some activists said they had slept under army tanks ringing the plaza for fear they would try to evict them or further confine the area for the demonstrations. The crowd of thousands in the morning swelled steadily over the day to tens of thousands in the late afternoon. Many were exhausted and wounded from fighting to stand their ground for more than a week in the square.
Mubarak is insisting he cannot stand down now or it would only deepen the chaos in his country. The United States shifted signals and gave key backing to the regime's gradual changes on Saturday, warning of the dangers if Mubarak goes too quickly.
The opposition groups represented at the meeting with Suleiman included the youthful supporters of leading democracy advocate Mohamed ElBaradei, who are one of the main forces organizing the protests. The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group, and a number of smaller leftist, liberal groups also attended the meeting, according to footage shown on state television.
The two sides agreed the government would open an office that would field complaints about political prisoners, according to the state news agency.
The government also pledged to commission judicial authorities to fight corruption and prosecute those behind it. In another concession, authorities promised to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the yet unexplained disappearance of police from Cairo's streets more than a week ago, which unleashed a wave of lawless looting and arson.
The agreement to eventually lift emergency laws when security permits would fulfill a longtime demand by the opposition. The laws were imposed by Mubarak when he took office in 1981 and they have been in force ever since. They give police far-reaching powers for detention and suppression of civil and human rights.
The two sides also agreed to set up a committee that includes public and independent figures and specialists and representatives of youth movement to monitor the "honest implementation" of all the new agreements and to report back and give recommendations to Suleiman.
Before the meetings, the Muslim Brotherhood made clear it would insist on Mubarak's immediate ouster. The fundamentalist Islamic group, which has been outlawed since 1954 but fields candidates in parliamentary elections as independents, did not organize or lead the protests currently under way and only publicly threw its support behind them a few days into the movement. It only ordered its supporters to take part when it sensed that the protesters, mostly young men and women using social networks on the Internet to mobilize, were able to sustain their momentum.
There have been no known discussions between the Brotherhood and the regime in years — one of many startling shifts in policy after years of crackdowns by the Western-backed regime against the Islamists.
Both Mubarak and Suleiman have blamed the Brotherhood as well as foreigners of fomenting the recent unrest. Mubarak is known to have little or no tolerance for Islamist groups and the decision to open talks with the Brotherhood is a tacit recognition by his regime of their key role in the ongoing protests as well as their wide popular base.
The Brotherhood aims to create an Islamic state in Egypt, but insists that it would not force women to cover up in public in line with Islam's teachings and would not rescind Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
The group, which fields candidates as independents, made a surprisingly strong showing in elections in 2005, winning 20 percent of parliament's seats. However, thousands of its members were arrested in crackdowns over the past decade and it failed to win a single seat in elections held late last year. The vote was heavily marred by fraud that allowed the National Democratic Party to win all but a small number of the chamber's 518 seats.
At Tahrir Square, hundreds performed the noon prayers and later offered a prayer for the souls of protesters killed in clashes with security forces. Later, Christians held a Sunday Mass and thousands of Muslims joined in.
Some of the worshippers broke down and cried as the congregation sang: "Bless our country, listen to the screams of our hearts."
"In the name of Jesus and Muhammad we unify our ranks," Father Ihab al-Kharat said in his sermon. "We will keep protesting until the fall of the tyranny," he said.
In the capital Cairo, home to some 18 million people, there were some signs of a return to normalcy. Traffic was back to near regular levels and more stores reopened across the city, including some on the streets leading to Tahrir Square. Protesters greeted some store owners and people returning to work with flowers.
In Zamalek, an affluent island in the middle of the Nile that is home to many foreign embassies, food outlets reopened and pizza delivery boys checked their motorbikes. Employees at a KFC restaurant wiped down tables. Hairdressers and beauty salons called their patrons to let them know they were reopening.
Associated Press reporter Salah Nasrawi contributed to this report from Cairo.