Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak says he’ll leave at the end of his term
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak bent to a week of deadly anti-government unrest, announcing in a nationwide speech that he would not seek reelection this year but that he intended to stay in power “for the remaining months” of his fifth term.
Mubarak’s late-night address, hours after more than 200,000 protesters had streamed into Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, marked a dramatic bid to maneuver through a nationwide revolt, growing international pressure and an economy that has slid into turmoil.
The decision may ease a bit of the fury against him, but it is not likely to stop the widespread calls for him to step aside immediately. A wave of anger swept the square just after the speech. Protesters who remained there shouted: “Leave! Leave!”
“We don’t want money or wealth; just respect us as human beings,” said Khalid Abdul Rahman, 25, who earns a meager living offering private English lessons. “We have just one word: Get out. Get out.”
Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who has become the symbolic head of the opposition movement, said Mubarak’s concession was insufficient. He told Al Arabiya television that the 82-year-old president’s continued presence would be destabilizing.
Mubarak, a close U.S. ally during his three decades in power, got the same message from an envoy sent by the Obama administration. White House officials said the envoy told Mubarak bluntly that he should quit before his term expires in September.
President Obama said he telephoned Mubarak to tell him that “an orderly transition must be meaningful, must be peaceful, and it must begin now.”
Mubarak cast his decision as an effort to launch reforms and ensure an orderly transition to a new, more broadly based government.
“I tell you in all sincerity that I did not intend to seek reelection,” Mubarak said. “But I am keen to end my presidency in a manner that will enable whoever succeeds me to take over the country in a stable climate.”
Mubarak blamed “political forces with private agendas” for exploiting what he deemed the “legitimate demands” of the people for democratic reforms. He said opponents who were determined to create chaos “threw oil on the fire.”
He indicated that he did not intend to flee the country, as did President Zine el Abidine ben Ali of Tunisia, whose ouster in January launched protests against repressive and corrupt governments throughout the Arab world.
“Egypt is the country I have lived in, defended and fought for,” Mubarak said. “I will die on its land — and history will judge what is for and what is against us.”
The protests in Tahrir Square on Tuesday were raucous but peaceful. Tanks and soldiers lined the perimeter, but, as on recent days, there was little tension between the army and the masses of demonstrators remarkable for their breadth and diversity. As military helicopters buzzed overheard, Islamists marched alongside businessmen, and students chanted with laborers.
It was a powerful reminder that Egypt, which under Mubarak’s rule has fallen in international prestige and struggled at home, was once the center of the Arab world. The demonstration didn’t approach the 1 million that organizers had hoped for, but it showed that the resolve of many Egyptians is stronger than the police state that has intimidated them for years.
“We are telling Mubarak: ‘For years you have told us you serve the people. Now you must serve them by going,’ ” said Eliwa Shoman, who works in the city’s metro system.
Mubarak previously had offered to open talks with opposition groups and reform the constitution. In his Tuesday night speech, he said he would ask parliament to debate constitutional amendments to make it easier for independent candidates to run — a key demand of ElBaradei, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work at the nuclear energy agency.
But there appears to be little compromise between the government and the masses, and the military remained balanced precariously between the two.
ElBaradei said there could be a dialogue between the government and the opposition, “but it has to come after the demands of the people are met, and the first of those is that President Mubarak leaves.”
The unrest in Egypt has mesmerized the world and had some wondering if Mubarak, who for 30 years has skillfully crushed dissent, might be urged to step down by the military before dragging the nation into a prolonged crisis that could further damage its economy, especially its tourism industry.
More than 120 people have died in the violence over the last week . Since the army stepped in to replace the reviled security police, however, the protest atmosphere has at times seemed like a sprawling block party.
Scenes of hundreds of thousands of Egyptians marching through the streets are troubling leaders across the Middle East. In Jordan, where protests have broken out over inflation and unemployment, King Abdullah II dismissed his government Tuesday.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is emerging as a key figure in regional affairs, made a less than subtle jab at Mubarak when he told his parliament: “No government can survive against the will of its people. The era of governments persisting on pressure and repression is over.”
The Obama administration, which has struggled to balance its allegiance to a loyal ally with the demands for greater democracy in Egypt, sent former Ambassador Frank Wisner to tell Mubarak that he should step aside. That message “was not well received,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Wisner was sent to Egypt because American officials were worried that Mubarak did not seem to fully grasp the extent to which his political situation had deteriorated, the administration official said.
“There was no indication he was hearing that from his inner circle and no indication he was hearing that from his counterparts in the region,” the official said. “It became clear that we had to find a way to make sure he knew, and that someone he trusted would give him the clear message that ‘Your time in office is coming to a close.’ ”
Mubarak “moved today, and now the question is, has he moved far enough?” the official said. “And that will be something that plays itself out over the next 24 hours.”
“It looks like we may need to keep pushing,” said a second official.
With Egyptians occupying Tahrir Square daily, the protest spirit has entered the consciousness of a country that until eight days ago had spent much of its time grumbling in private.
But the future is unclear: Opposition parties have yet to corral a mass movement motivated neither by politics nor religion. And the army, which craves the public’s respect but is loyal to the president, is navigating the precarious middle.
Protesters waved posters bearing scathing slogans that made it clear their patience had run out. One waved a poster with a Spider-Man mask pasted on and the words “Mubarak Fly to Tel Aviv.” Another offered a scathing commentary on Mubarak’s long reign, contrasting the Egyptian president’s picture with photographs of the six U.S. presidents that have been his allies.
In Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, more than 100,000 people took to the streets.
“This is the proudest time of my life as an Egyptian,” said Sami Ismail, 40, a human resources manager. “There is no going back now.”
Protesters in Cairo sang and chanted, others rolled out prayer rugs and prayed. Ahmed Ali, a businessman who imports marble, said he had come to Tahrir Square because he was tired of the ritual of bribing government officials every time he goes to the airport to pick up his goods.
“I have to pay them money at the airport because their salaries are so low. The government pushes them to demand kickbacks,” he said.
National flags fluttered amid effigies of Mubarak, dressed in a suit and swinging from street poles. A crowd shouted in a rhythmic chant: “Egypt, you are our mother and your children will defend you. Ask Mubarak how many dead people do you want to leave? How much is enough?”
Times staff writers Peter Nicholas, Christy Parsons and Paul Richter in Washington, Edmund Sanders in Alexandria, Egypt, Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo Bureau and special correspondent Doha Al Zohairy in Cairo contributed to this report.