Egypt in flames: Mubarak orders VP to begin talks with opposition for some reason

What is there to talk about? Is there some as-yet unexplored common ground between the protesters’ “let’s kill Mubarak” position and the regime’s “let’s not”?

Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s recently appointed Vice President, said the government is prepared to start a dialogue with protesters as calls for regime change appear to reach a new level of intensity since the military vowed not to harm protesters that continue to march in defiance of government curfews.

Speaking on State television late Monday, Mr Suleiman said President Hosni Mubarak had asked him to open “immediate” dialogue with the opposition…

A quick transition of power away from Mr. Mubarak to an interim government would likely stem the financial and security concerns that the last week of insecurity has brought, according to Hashem Qassem, a newspaper publisher and political analyst. “Speed is essential,” says Mr. Qassem.

A crisis committee from Egypt’s coalition of opposition parties met Monday afternoon to discuss their strategy in anticipation of Mr. Mubarak’s ouster. People briefed on the meeting said that the focus was to hammer out a negotiating strategy with the army and the newly named Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman, the long-time intelligence chief who constitutionally would take over if Mr. Mubarak left office.

Among the members of the “crisis committee” are ElBaradei, liberal Ayman Nour, and our old friends in the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, help me figure this out: What leverage, precisely, does Mubarak have in these “negotiations”? The army’s already said that it won’t fire on the protesters, and it’s inconceivable that Mubarak would be retained as a monarchical figurehead for a new democratic government. The public would never trust him to play nice and his identity as the face of repression would taint the new administration. Maybe he’s negotiating with them on an exit? If he wanted to do that, though, he could just hop a plane. No doubt the Saudis would accept him. Or maybe he’s bargaining for assurances that Egypt won’t prosecute him? Fleeing to the Kingdom would solve that problem too, though, since they could protect him the way they did Idi Amin.

Maybe watching the world around him collapse has sent this guy ’round the bend to the point where he still thinks he has cards to play. If tomorrow’s mega-protest ends up being as big as the organizers hope, that ought to finally snap him out of it. Here’s Gibbsy from this afternoon’s briefing still insisting that “we’re not picking between those in the street and those in government.” Have a look at this old quote from Hillary that Tapper dug up to see why pretending to be against Mubarak would be futile at this point anyway.

Update: Actually, maybe there is one card left to play. The army may be unwilling to crack heads to protect Mubarak but surely there are still plenty of loyalist goons in the state police willing to cause chaos if he’s forced out. In fact, maybe they’ve already started:

The other half of Mubarak’s strategy is to scare Egypt’s upper and middle classes into demanding a return of stability. On Friday, police forces mysteriously disappeared and thousands of prisoners suddenly escaped from several facilities. Reports of chaos and looting in the streets dominated state television, while the army did little to provide security beyond protecting government buildings. Neighborhoods have set up local watch groups, grabbing makeshift weapons like kitchen knives, baseball bats, and even, I saw in one report, lacrosse sticks.

They’re back on the streets today, but after eight years in Iraq, we all know that yesterday’s “policeman” is tomorrow’s insurgent. Mubarak could be holding that over the opposition’s head in negotiations, but would he have any power at all over his goons in exile? And if so, what does he want in return for giving it up?