US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said forcing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave office quickly could complicate the already enormous challenges Egypt faces in transforming itself from autocracy to democracy.
Mubarak's government was to hold its first full meeting of a new cabinet on Monday since protests erupted against his rule with no sign yet of progress in talks with an opposition which wants him out.
In fact, Clinton said Mubarak's departure could affect "significant actions" he has himself taken to get the reform process started. She said he should be recognized for those steps even if they fall short of what angry protesters in the streets of Cairo are demanding and will not alone produce free and fair elections.
Returning to Washington from an international security conference in Munich, Clinton suggested that the Obama administration was now more focused on encouraging "orderly transition" in Egypt than in seeing Mubarak go quickly. And, she implied that Mubarak's continued, although less powerful, presence at the top of the Egyptian government may actually help complete the process.
She noted that if he resigned, Egypt's constitution would require an election within 60 days, a prospect even some Mubarak opponents have said would not allow enough time to organize a credible vote. In doing so, Clinton became the first senior US official to publicly recognize the pitfalls of demanding Mubarak's immediate ouster on constitutional grounds.
Meanwhile the banned Muslim Brotherhood was among the groups who met with officials over the weekend, a sign of how much has already changed in 13 days that have rocked the Arab world and alarmed Western powers.
But opposition figures reported little progress. While protesters are demanding that Mubarak must go immediately, many also worry that when he does go, he will be replaced not with the democracy they seek but with another authoritarian ruler.
The government said after the meeting, chaired by Vice President Omar Suleiman, they agreed to draft a road map for talks, indicating Mubarak would stay in power to oversee change.
It would also move to release jailed activists, guarantee press freedom and lift Egypt's emergency laws. A committee was set up to study constitutional issues.
But the opposition said the government failed to meet their demand for a complete overhaul of the political system.
Protest tents set up in Cairo (Photo: AP)
Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh, a senior Brotherhood figure, said the government statement represented "good intentions but does not include any solid changes".
Opposition activists reject any compromise which would see Mubarak hand over power to Suleiman but also serve out his term – essentially relying on the old authoritarian system to pave the way to full civilian democracy and saving his face.
Protesters sleep in tank tracks in Tahrir Square (Photo: AP)
Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who has emerged as a figurehead for the opposition coalition, criticized the fledgling negotiations and said he was not invited.
"It is all managed by the military and that is part of the problem." he told NBC television in the United States.
Meanwhile protesters at Tahrir Square stood their ground. Keen to get traffic moving around Tahrir Square, the army tried early on Monday to further squeeze the area the protesters occupied. Protesters rushed out of their tents to surround soldiers attempting to corral them into a smaller area.
Wary of the army's attempt to gain ground, dozens of protesters have slept inside the tracks of the army's vehicles.
"The army is getting restless and so are the protesters. The army wants to squeeze us into a small circle in the middle of the square to get the traffic moving again," Mohamed Shalaby, 27, a protester, told Reuters by phone.
In Washington on Sunday, President Barack Obama said he believed Egypt was "not going to go back to what it was", and that the time for change was now. But in an interview with Fox News, he said only Mubarak knew what he was going to do.
Obama also said he believed the Muslim Brotherhood was only one faction in Egypt and that strains of their ideology were anti-American – comments that could the anger the powerful Islamist group.