CAIRO — In its latest effort to defuse public anger amid mass protests, embattled President Hosni Mubarak's regime set up a committee Tuesday to recommend constitutional changes that would relax presidential eligibility rules and impose term limits.
Mubarak's decrees were announced on state television by Vice President Omar Suleiman, who also said that Mubarak had decreed the creation of a separate committee to monitor the implementation of all proposed reforms. The two committees would start working immediately, but Suleiman did not give details about who would sit on the panels or how they would be chosen.
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The government has promised several concessions since an uprising began two weeks ago but so far they have fallen short of protesters' demands that Mubarak step down immediately instead of staying on through September elections. Tuesday's decision was the first concrete step taken by the longtime authoritarian ruler to implement promised reforms.
The same day, Egypt released 34 political prisoners, the state news agency said, the
first men set free since the government promised reforms to quell the
popular uprising, reported Reuters on Tuesday.
"Interior Minister Mahmoud Wagdy issued an order today releasing 34
political detainees considered to be among the extremist elements, after
evaluating their positions," Reuters reported the MENA agency as saying.
"They showed good intentions and expressed their desire to live peaceably with society," it added.
According to the Reuters report, the MENA agency said the political
prisoners had handed themselves over to the authorities after escaping
from jail during several days of disorder last month.
Mubarak also ordered a probe into clashes last week between the protesters and supporters of the president. The committee would refer its findings to the attorney-general, Suleiman said.
"The youth of Egypt deserve national appreciation," he quoted the president as saying. "They should not be detained, harassed or denied their freedom of expression."
Thousands of protesters, meanwhile, remained camped out in the central Tahrir Square, many hoping for an appearance by Google Inc. executive Wael Ghonim, who has emerged as a rallying point after he was released Monday after 12 days in custody.
About 90,000 people have joined a Facebook group nominating Ghonim to be their spokesman. Many demonstrators reject a group of officially sanctioned and traditional Egyptian opposition groups that have been negotiating with the government on their behalf in recent days.
Some on the square chanted "Wael Ghonim is coming today," although his planned afternoon appearance couldn't immediately be confirmed.
Tuesday's announcement came two days after Suleiman met for the first time with representatives of opposition groups, including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood — the country's largest and best organized opposition group — to debate a way out of the ongoing political crisis.
The fundamentalist Islamic group issued a statement before Suleiman's
announcement Tuesday calling the reforms proposed so far as "partial"
and insisting that Mubarak must go to ease what it called the anger felt
by Egyptians who face widespread poverty and government repression.
The Brotherhood also accused pro-Mubarak thugs of detaining protesters,
including Brotherhood supporters, and handing them over to the army's
military police who torture them.
"We call on the military, which we love and respect, to refrain from these malicious acts," said the statement.
The protesters have said they would not enter negotiations with the
regime before Mubarak's departure. Mubarak insists that he intends to
serve the remainder of his current, six-year term, which expires in
September, and that he would die in Egypt, thus rejecting any suggestion
that he should leave the country.
The president went on with official business Tuesday, receiving the
foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates. The official Middle East
News Agency said Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan delivered a message
from the UAE's president but gave no further details.