Egypt unrest: Mubarak moves to restart economy

Protesters in Tahrir Square, 5 Feb Substantial numbers of protesters remain in Cairo's Tahrir Square

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has held talks with ministers to try to revive an economy hit by a wave of anti-government protests.

Banks will reopen on Sunday. Finance Minister Samir Radwan says the economic situation is "very serious".

Analysts say the uprising is costing the country at least $310m a day.

In a separate development, the politburo of the ruling National Democratic Party has resigned en masse.

Hossam Badrawi, seen as a liberal, became the party's new secretary-general and also took over a position held by Mr Mubarak's son Gamal, Reuters news agency reported.

Meanwhile the army has tried to secure one of the entrances to Tahrir Square, where protesters remain encamped since Friday's mass rally.

Dozens of soldiers were seen trying to remove barricades in what appears to be an attempt to restore order ahead of the new working week.

A senior army official tried to negotiate the army's moves which led to arguments with the protesters, who accused them of attempting to retake control of the square.

Earlier there were reports of an explosion at a pipeline that supplies gas to Israel and Jordan. The blast caused a fire near el-Arish, Egyptian state television reported.

'Solid base'

Mr Mubarak has said he will not stand for re-election in September but insists he must stay until then to prevent chaos in the country. Protesters are demanding that he goes immediately.

On Saturday, the president met the prime minister, finance minister, oil minister and trade and industry minister, along with the central bank governor.

At the scene

There are still substantial numbers in Tahrir Square - it was a relatively peaceful night although there was some gunfire for a short period.

The strategy now seems to be to kill the protest with kindness. The authorities have used rubber bullets and baton charges and - some strongly suspect - paid thugs and nothing has worked, so they are saying 'it's ok, you can protest as long as you like'.

The government is encouraging people to go back to work - the banks will open again - and the hope is things will go back to normal and the whole thing fizzles out. They may think a hard core will remain in Tahrir Square which they can whittle down - but they may have underestimated how much they have lost control of much of the country - many other cities are close to chaos - whether it can return to a level where it can function normally is hard to predict.

But President Mubarak is not going to resign unless absolutely forced to and the opposition fears if he can make it to the autumn, he can last even longer.

Trade Minister Samiha Fawzi Ibrahim said exports were down 6% in January and that the authorities were providing extra food to try to stabilise prices and curb shortages.

Banks and the stock exchange have been closed for days, and many factories in the major cities have shut.

State media said the stock market would not now open on Monday as planned.

The BBC's Kevin Connolly, in Cairo, says the paralysis induced by the protests is having a huge impact on the creaking economy. Tourists have been frightened away and the prices of basic goods like cigarettes and bread have been soaring.

He says many Egyptians are beginning to wonder aloud how quickly daily life will return to normal regardless of the outcome of the struggle for power.

Speaking to the BBC, Mr Radwan admitted the economy faced a "very serious" situation and that he was in constant touch with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

But he also said the economy had a "solid base" and "so far, we are coping".

Economists at Credit Agricole say the uprising is costing the country at least $310m (£192m) a day and they have revised down their economic growth estimate for Egypt this year from 5.3% to 3.7%.

Hotel businessman Adly el-Misikawi told the BBC his trade was down 30% and although he believed the demands of the protesters should be met he said Mr Mubarak should stay in office to oversee a smooth transition

Mr Radwan also said there would be a meeting with opposition groups to try to end the 12 days of protests.

Section of a map showing Tahrir Square

He said Vice-President Omar Suleiman and "almost certainly Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq" would attend, adding that they would have "sufficient authority to negotiate with the opposition".

He did not say which opposition groups would attend. Egyptian television said the al-Wafd and Al-Tajammu parties would be at the talks.

However, the BBC's Jon Leyne in Cairo says if only these parties were involved the dialogue would have little credibility.

Leading opposition politician Mohamed ElBaradei told Germany's Der Spiegel weekly he would like to hold talks "with army chiefs, preferably soon, to study how we can achieve a transition without bloodshed".

The biggest opposition group in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, has said it will take part in discussions provided the government submits political reform within a specified time frame. But it also insists Mr Mubarak must leave office immediately.

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Mr Radwan said the transition of power had already begun, with Mr Mubarak saying he would not run again for president.

"It is setting a process in place to ensure a smooth transition of power without falling into the trap of the chaos scenario," he said.

Saturday's pipeline explosion targeted supplies to Israel and Jordan from Egypt's Port Said.

Gas was shut off and the fire was brought under control by mid-morning, state television said.

It also reported that the curfew had now been shortened and would be in effect from 1900 to 0600 local time (1700-0400 GMT).

Also on Saturday, Reuters news agency said a senior Egyptian security source had denied reports on the Fox news network that there had been an assassination attempt on Mr Suleiman which left two of his bodyguards dead.

'Wrong approach'

On Saturday at a conference in Munich, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the "status quo" of undemocratic nations in the region was "simply not sustainable".

She said: "Governments who consistently deny people freedom will open the door to instability... free people govern themselves best."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UK PM David Cameron, also at the conference, both stressed the need for stability in Egypt.

Mrs Merkel added: "Early elections at the beginning of the democratisation process is probably the wrong approach."

On Friday huge crowds had demonstrated across Egypt for an 11th day.

More than 100,000 people - including large numbers of women and children - gathered in Tahrir Square for what was being called the "day of departure".

There were also demonstrations in Egypt's second city, Alexandria, and in the towns of Suez, Port Said, Rafah, Ismailiya, Zagazig, al-Mahalla al-Kubra, Aswan and Asyut.

However, there were suggestions that the protesters would now reduce their presence in central Cairo.

The UN believes more than 300 have died across Egypt since the protests began on 25 January, with about 4,000 hurt.

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