Mubarak defies expectations, refuses to step down
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak refused to step down Thursday, saying in a nationally televised speech that he would hand authority to his vice president in a move that enraged and bewildered hundreds of thousands of protesters packed into Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
The country was anticipating an address that would mark the end of Mubarak’s 30 years in power but instead was told that he was going nowhere. Protesters shouted, “Leave! Leave!” and chants of disapproval echoed across the Nile at the prospect that the 17-day standoff with the government was not over.
“For the benefit of this country,” Mubarak said, “I have decided to assign the tasks of the president to the vice president according to the constitution.”
The president spoke like a stern father or a leader aloof from the demands of millions of his citizens and growing pressure from Washington and other Western powers. He said his government would work on constitutional reform, punishing abusive security forces and preparing a “road map” for a transfer of power leading to September elections.
None of those promises satisfied protesters, whose rallying cry is for the 82-year-old former air force commander to leave office, or foreign critics, including President Obama.
In a written statement containing his most pointed criticism yet of Mubarak, Obama demanded that Egyptian officials “move swiftly to explain the changes that have been made, and to spell out in clear and unambiguous language the step-by-step process that will lead to democracy.”
It appeared that the unrest that has convulsed the nation would intensify Friday. Protest organizers said crowds would turn out to march on state radio and television offices.
“I don’t know what he wants from us,” said Tarek Bashir, an exasperated student in the square. “What else do we have to say to him and his regime so that they know they are not wanted? What can make that clear? We are here in the square and I will not leave, but if I have to I’ll march to the presidential palace to force him out.”
Nobel Peace Prize laureate and opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei said on Twitter: “Army must save the country now.
“I call on the Egyptian army to immediately interfere to rescue Egypt. The credibility of the army is on the line.”
Delegating authority to Vice President Omar Suleiman was viewed by many demonstrators as preserving the vestiges of Mubarak’s inner circle. Mubarak did not make it clear what duties Suleiman, the country’s former intelligence chief and one of his confidants, would assume.
The president’s decision was interpreted by some as another attempt to keep his dignity while gradually passing responsibility to Suleiman and the military. But the speech provoked more than it pacified a country that has endured protests and bloodshed as its future grows more uncertain.
Shortly after the address, Suleiman told outraged demonstrators: “Heroes. Go home, go back to work. The nation needs you to build, develop and create.”
U.S. officials, frustrated by the day’s developments, said they feared that the main result would be even larger protests.
The Egyptian military still could be an important part of the solution, U.S. officials said.
Hours before Mubarak’s 17-minute speech, a senior army commander appeared in Tahrir Square and told protesters that all their demands would be met. Conflicting scenarios and rumors quickly spread. The military announced that it was taking the “necessary measures to protect the nation and support the legitimate demands of the people.”
The statements came after two days of warnings by top officials, including Suleiman, that the army might stage a coup if protests persisted. A coup has not occurred here since 1952, when military officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the monarchy.
A mood of celebration had settled over the square at dusk as protesters considered the possibility that the army would push Mubarak out. But after the speech, shortly before midnight, none of that had come to pass.
Tahrir Square was filled with cries of “Down, down with Mubarak! The people want to bring down the regime!”
Mubarak’s speech rambled and was occasionally at odds with the events of recent days. He called protesters who died at the hands of his security forces “martyrs” and took responsibility for “mistakes.”
He said the nation needed to work with a “team spirit” to fix an economy badly damaged by the protests. “My dear citizens, the priority now is to restore the confidence in Egyptians themselves.”
In veiled comments aimed at Washington, he said Egypt was a proud country that had to resist foreign intervention.
“As president,” he said, “I am not embarrassed to listen to the young people in my country, but the real shame is listening to the dictates coming from abroad.”
Since Jan. 25, when protests swept through Cairo and other cities, the government has offered an array of concessions.
Pressure on the government intensified this the week as demonstrators pushed toward the parliament building, and workers, including doctors, clerks and mill hands, went on strike.
“Labor strikes and marches are growing like a contagion across the country,” said Seood Omar, a labor organizer in Cairo. “This is reflecting a growing political awareness by workers. They understand that the security forces and businessmen are at their weakest points, and now it’s time for workers to seize the opportunity. This could paralyze the whole country.”
Opposition leaders met with Suleiman on Sunday but have refused to negotiate further until Mubarak steps down.
Yasser Hawary, one of the activists, said in an interview that he told Suleiman that “the people didn’t elect us to speak for them. So we could only tell him our demands, not negotiate them.”
He and other protest leaders said they have opened communications with senior military officers in hope of keeping the army neutral.
The army has enjoyed respect from the protesters even as it has remained loyal to Mubarak. But there have been strains in recent days as opposition groups have accused the military of abuses and protesters have challenged the military’s control around the parliament building.
Times staff writer Bob Drogin and Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.
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