Cairo: President Hosni Mubarak refused to step down or leave Egypt and instead handed most of his powers to his vice president on Thursday, enraging protesters who warned the country could explode in violence and pleaded for the military to take action to push him out.
The rapidly moving events raised the question of whether a rift had opened between Mubarak and the military command over the uprising demanding the President`s resignation. Hours earlier, a council of the military`s top generals announced it had stepped in to secure the country, and a senior commander announced to protesters in Cairo`s Tahrir Square that all their demands would soon be met, raising cries of victory that Mubarak was on his way out.
Several hundred thousand had packed into Tahrir Square, ecstatic with expectation that Mubarak would announce his resignation in his nighttime address. Instead, they watched in shocked silence as he spoke, holding their foreheads in anger and disbelief. Some broke into tears. Others waved their shoes in the air in contempt. After the speech, they broke into chants of "Leave, leave, leave."
Organisers called for even larger protests on Friday. After Mubarak`s speech, around 2,000 marched on the state television headquarters several blocks away from Tahrir, guarded by the military with barbed wire and tanks. "They are the liars," the crowd shouted, pointing at the building, chanting, "We won`t leave, they will leave”.
Hundreds more massed outside Mubarak`s main administrative palace, Oruba, miles away from Tahrir in the Cairo district of Heliopolis, the first time protesters have marched on it, according to witnesses and TV reports. The residence where Mubarak normally stays when he is in Cairo is inside the palace, though it was not known if he was there.
Prominent reform advocate and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, whose supporters were among the organisers of the 17-day-old wave of protests, issued a Tweet warning: "Egypt will explode”.
"The Army must save the country now," he said. "I call on the Egyptian Army to immediately interfere to rescue Egypt. The credibility of the Army is on the line."
President Barack Obama appeared dismayed by Mubarak`s announcement. He said in a statement that it was not clear that an "immediate, meaningful" transition to democracy was taking place and warned that too many Egyptians are not convinced that the government is serious about making genuine change.
"The Egyptian government must put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy, and they have not yet seized that opportunity," Obama said.
Hours before Mubarak`s speech, the military made moves that had all the markings of a coup.
The military`s Supreme Council, headed by Defence Minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, announced on state TV that it was in permanent session, a status that it takes only in times of war. It said it was exploring "what measures and arrangements could be made to safeguard the nation, its achievements and the ambitions of its great people." That suggested Tantawi and his generals were now in charge of the country.
The statement was labelled "Communiqué No 1”, language that also suggests a military coup.
Footage on state TV showed Tantawi chairing the council with his chief of state General Sami Anan and around two dozen of his topmost generals, sitting stern-faced around a table. Mubarak and Omar Suleiman, a former Army general and intelligence chief named to his post after the protests erupted January 25, were not present, the strongest indication during the day of a rift.
But there was no immediate reaction from the military following Mubarak`s speech, and their position remained ambiguous.
In his address on state TV, Mubarak showed the strategy he has followed throughout the days of upheaval, trying to defuse the greatest challenge ever to his nearly three-decade authoritarian rule. So far, he has made a series of largely superficial concessions while resolutely sticking to his refusal to step down immediately or allow steps that would undermine the grip of his regime.
Looking frail but speaking in a determined voice, Mubarak spoke as if he were still in charge, saying he was "adamant to continue to shoulder my responsibility to protect the Constitution and safeguard the interests of the people”. He vowed that he would remain in the country and said he was addressing the youth in Tahrir as "the president of the republic”.
Even after delegating authority to his vice president, Mubarak retains his powers to request constitutional amendments and dissolve Parliament or the Cabinet. The Constitution allows the president to transfer his other authorities if he is unable to carry out his duties "due to any temporary obstacle”.
"I saw fit to delegate the authorities of the president to the vice president, as dictated in the Constitution," he said.
Suleiman was already leading the regime`s efforts to deal with the crisis, though he has failed to ease the protests, which have only escalated in size and ambition, drawing crowds of up to a quarter-million people. In the past 48 hours they flared even further out of control, with labour protests erupting around the country and riots breaking out as impoverished Egyptians attacked and set fire to several police and governor headquarters in cities outside Cairo.
Mubarak insisted on the continuation of a government-dominated process for reform that Suleiman drew up and that protesters have roundly rejected because they fear it will mean only cosmetic change and not real democracy. Under that system, a panel of judges and lawyers put together by Suleiman recommends constitutional changes, while a separate panel monitors to ensure that state promises are carried out.
Suleiman has also offered dialogue with the protesters and opposition over the nature of reforms. He has not explained how the negotiations fit in if the judges panel, which is led by Mubarak supporters, is recommending amendments. In any case, the protesters and opposition have resolutely refused talks until Mubarak goes.
Mubarak called the protesters` demands legitimate and promised that September Presidential Elections — in which he says he will not run — will be "free and fair" with supervision to ensure transparency.
He said that on the recommendation of the panel, he had requested the amendment of five articles of the Constitution to loosen the now restrictive conditions on who can run for president, to restore judicial supervision of elections, and to impose term limits on the presidency.
He also annulled a constitutional article that gives the president the right to order a military trial for civilians accused of terrorism. He said that step would "clear the way" for eventually scrapping a hated emergency law but with a major caveat — "once security and stability are restored”.
The emergency law, imposed when Mubarak came to power in 1981, gives police virtually unlimited powers of arrest.