Field Marshal Tantawi of Egypt takes up regional scene with U.S. Congress delegation

Egypt’s PM asserts ability to achieve democratic transformation

Confrontations continue in Syria as opposition rejects dealing with committee for the law on parties

UAE supports reform and stability in Syria

Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the chairman of Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), received this week in Cairo a U.S. House of Representatives delegation led by Steve Cohen.

The meeting tackled recent regional and international developments and the future of political transformation now taking place in Egypt as well as the areas of cooperation between Egypt and the United States and economic partnership in the coming stage.

Egypt’s Prime Minister Essam Sharaf asserted his country’s ability to achieve a democratic transition towards new vistas in the future.

Addressing an inaugural session of the democratic transition courses forum, held in the Egyptian capital Cairo, Sharaf said Egypt is now seeing rational ruling that would change citizens’ lives.

Egyptians took to the streets again last week, demanding faster reforms from a military junta that has ruled since the Feb. 11 ouster of Hosni Mubarak as president.

Protesters called for a "million-man march" on the capital's Tahrir Square, the center of 18 days of demonstrations that ended Mubarak's 30-year rule.

The rally underscores the divide between old and new political elements jockeying for power.

Some favor "a day of rage" or a "second revolution," pledging to remain in Tahrir until their demands are met. Islamist groups have urged their followers to stay home, much as they did in the early days of the uprising against Mubarak.

Many other Egyptians express concern about the slow pace toward democracy or a growing Islamist influence.

Ramy Shaath, who leads the left-liberal Free Egypt movement, insists Egyptians are united on "a quick removal of the army control over the nation." He says the army "is doing nothing" to erase the old political structure.

"There have been no trials for all the security and police who have tortured and killed throughout the years," says Shaath, 40. "The deputy interior minister is still in office."

Some groups want to replace the 19-man military junta with a council of four civilians and one general until elections are held.

Supporters of former United Nations nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei want a constitution to be written before parliamentary elections in September.

Shaath's Free Egypt movement favors the immediate election of a president and a council to draft a constitution.

Ahmed Masri, 45, an accountant bursting with energy, is a leader of the Revolutionaries of Tahrir movement. He wants quick, public trials for Mubarak and his followers, as well as civilian trials for activists arrested by the military. Yet Masri insists that the army is the revolution's guarantor.

"I adamantly refuse to try to bring down SCAF," he says, referring to the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. "Along with the current security chaos, that would also bring political chaos."

The military has urged Egyptians to refrain from protests and instead begin the hard work of political organizing. It also seems to be listening to protesters, offering concessions in a series of official communiqués.

Officials have said Mubarak and his imprisoned sons, Gamal and Ala'a, will be tried in civilian court and announced the opening of the Rafah border with Palestinian-ruled Gaza.

Both decisions are popular here. Many observers suspect the military took those steps to calm public tensions.

Hanan Abdel Sittar, 35, another Revolutionaries of Tahrir leader, worries that "infiltrators" might disrupt the rally. "A lot of people hate for Egypt to become a democratic state," Sittar says. "The danger inside the country is the counterrevolution made up of former regime elements and their thugs."

Masri accuses the ousted regime's followers and its now-dissolved National Democratic Party of fomenting "sectarian violence and ... economic problems to create chaos."

Indeed, many Egyptians worry about where their revolution is headed.

"We are now in this period ... of collapse," says Shawi Said, 38, an accountant from Mahalla, a Nile delta city that has witnessed numerous labor strikes.

The country, he says, is struggling to achieve political, leadership and economic reforms all at once.

Said fears Egyptians' inexperience with democracy "is what leads to sectarian violence. ... In the midst of this, the Islamic groups want to take control of the revolution because they are organized and have foreign support. We have no support and have to deal with a (local) governor (who) is still from the former ruling party."

Political activist and Internet blogger Mahmoud Salem, who writes under the name Sandmonkey, is pushing for an Egyptian bill of rights.

"I don't want to create a second revolution," Salem declares. "I don't want to have someone bartering with me over my rights."

If basic rights are constitutionally guaranteed, he says, "it doesn't matter what kind of laws they pass after that, people will be protected."

The Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful Islamic fundamentalist group, has refused to join the protest, warning that a "second revolution may cause unnecessary sedition and strife ... unnecessary clashes."

A skeptical Masri sees a different reason behind that decision: "The Muslim Brotherhood is getting their demands met, and they are already making gains."

Salafis, an even more extreme Islamist group that has emerged since Mubarak's ouster, decries the rally as "being organized by secularists, liberals, infidels and atheists, and we oppose them," according to the Egyptian newspaper al-Masry al-Youm.

Yet many here feel that going into the streets is the only way to be heard.

"The army has established a pattern -- 'We are not going to move until you move.' And then they punish us when we move," says blogger Salem.

Several activists in Cairo and other cities were arrested on Thursday as they distributed protest posters and fliers; some were released by nightfall.

The military had issued its 58th communiqué, confirming "the right for peaceful demonstration." It said troops will not be stationed near protesters in order to avoid confrontations.

"The Egyptian armed forces never have and never will use violence or shoot a single bullet toward the sons of this precious nation," the message stated.

Meanwhile, Syria's Interior Minister says the state will deal strongly and "decisively" with armed attacks on security forces.

Ibrahim Shaar says "we will not be silent" about attacks against the state, comments that appeared to be a prelude to an even stronger government crackdown against a popular uprising that began in mid-March.

He spoke in a terse statement broadcast on Syrian state television Monday after government reports that 80 policemen and security forces were killed in an ambush and confrontations with armed men in a tense northern town.

The reports said the armed groups in Jisr al-Shughour attacked a security post and set fire to government buildings.

Syria's government claimed 80 policemen were killed in an ambush and gunbattle with armed men in a tense northern town where the army has carried out deadly operations against protesters. An activist denied the uprising had turned violent.

Syria's military has been attacking the town of Jisr al-Shughour as part of a nationwide crackdown on an uprising calling for an end to President Bashar Assad's regime. Human rights groups said at least 42 residents have been killed in the town and surrounding areas since Saturday.

Communications appeared to have been cut to the area in Idlib province on Monday, but there have been unconfirmed reports in the past by residents and activists of Syrians fighting back against security forces, and of military defections.

The state television report said armed groups in the area carried out a "massacre." It said the groups ambushed police and security forces, blew up the post office, torched government buildings and mutilated bodies. Thirty-seven were killed at a security post, the report said.

There was no independent confirmation of the claims.

Human rights activist Mustafa Osso cast doubt on the government accounts.

"The protesters have so far been peaceful and unarmed," he said. Osso said there were unconfirmed reports of a few army deserters who switched sides and were fighting security forces.

Monday's state television report said the officers were ambushed as they responded to calls from residents for protection from armed groups. It said 20 policemen were initially killed, and then the groups blew up a post office, attacked a security post

"Armed groups have set fire to a number of government buildings in Jisr al-Shughour," the TV said. It added the groups were hiding in homes and firing at soldiers and civilians alike, using residents as human shields in an ongoing shootout.

It added the armed groups carried out a "real massacre," mutilating some bodies and throwing others in a river.

Osso said military operations continued Monday, adding his group had documented the names of at least 42 dead in the operation since Saturday and more than 200 wounded. He said some of the wounded were being treated in neighboring Turkey.

The TV reports could not be independently confirmed. The Syrian government has severely restricted the media and expelled foreign reporters, making it nearly impossible to independently verify events.

Details of the operations in Jisr al-Shughour and nearby Khan Sheikhoun have been sketchy and attempts to reach residents of the town were unsuccessful.

Human rights groups say more than 1,200 people have died in the brutal crackdown against anti-government protesters since March.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) supports the stability in Syria and the country needs to overcome its political crisis, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan said Sunday.

Sheikh Mohammed, who is also deputy supreme commander of the UAE's armed forces, made the remarks at a meeting with visiting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, the state news agency WAM reported.

The crown prince said that the UAE keenly followed the latest developments in Syria as part of its commitment to the interests of Syria and its people, according to the report.

"He also stressed that the demands of reform and the need for stability can go hand in hand as they can be reconciled," the report said.

During the meeting, al-Moallem briefed Sheikh Mohammed on the current situation in Syria, WAM said.

Syria has been in unrest for more than two months after the anti-government demonstrations broke out in the southern province of Daraa. The protests have spread to several other Syrian cities, leading to the death of dozens of protesters and security forces.