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Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak refused to step down or leave the country and instead handed his powers to his vice president Thursday, remaining president and ensuring regime control over the reform process. Stunned protesters in central Cairo who demand his ouster waved their shoes in contempt and shouted, “Leave, leave, leave.”
The rapidly moving events raised the question of whether a rift had opened between Mubarak and the military command. 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 Tahrir Square that all their demands would soon be met, raising cries of victory that Mubarak was on his way out.
After Mubarak’s speech, protest organizers called for the army to take action to oust him, and they vowed increased protests on Friday. 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, slapping their foreheads in anger and disbelief. Some broke into tears.
Around a 1,000 marched on the state television headquarters several blocks away, 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.”
Prominent reform advocate, Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, whose supporters were among the organizers of the 17-day-old wave of protests, issued a Tweet calling on the military to act.
“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.”
Mohammed Mustapha, a protest spokesman, said, “We are waiting for a strong reaction from the army to Mubarak’s speech.” He said “huge numbers” of protesters were expected Friday and that many wanted to march on the Oruba palace, Mubarak’s main presidential palace several miles away from Tahrir.
Immediately after Mubarak’s speech, Vice President Omar Suleiman called on the protesters to “go home” and asked Egyptians to “unite and look to the future.”
In his 17-minute speech on state TV, 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.”
“I saw fit to delegate the authorities of the president to the vice president, as dictated in the constitution,” said Mubarak, who looked frail but spoke in a determined, almost defiant voice.
Suleiman was already leading the regime’s efforts to deal with the crisis. The constitution allows the president to transfer his powers if he is unable to carry out his duties “due to any temporary obstacle,” but it does not mean his resignation. Even in that case, the vice president still cannot request constitutional amendments or dissolve parliament.
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 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.
Calling the protesters’ demands legitimate, he annuled 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.
Before the night’s dramatic developments, protests had gained a spiraling momentum, fueled by labor strikes that erupted around the country. Protesters had been gearing up for even more massive demonstrations on Friday, when they planned to march from squares around Cairo into Tahrir.
After the speech, some protesters drifted out of Tahrir, tears of disappointment and anger in their eyes. But the majority of the crowd remained, planning to camp for the night and vowing to continue their campaign.
“The speech is a provocation,” said Muhammed Abdul Rahman, a 26-year-old lawyer who had joined the protesters for the first time Thursday. “This is going to bring people together more, and people will come out in greater numbers.”
Hazem Khalifa, a young chemist in the crowd, vowed protests would continue. “He’s tried to divide people before, now the people understand him and they’ve learned his ways,” he said.
Hisham Bastawisi, a pro-reform judge, called on the military to take power.
“The president has lost his legitimacy long time ago,” he said. “The ball now is the army’s court. The armed forces must interfere and oust him before it is too late, today before tomorrow.”
There was no immediate reaction from the military.
Hours before Mubarak’s speech, the military made moves that had all the markings of a coup — without Mubarak or Suleiman on board.
The military’s Supreme Council, headed by Defense 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 labeled “Communique No. 1,” language that also suggests a military coup — and raised anticipation of a “Communique No. 2,” though there was no sign of one after Mubarak’s speech.
Footage on state TV showed Tantawi chairing the council with around two dozen top stern-faced army officers seated around a table. Mubarak and Suleiman, a former army general and intelligence chief named to his post after the protests erupted Jan. 25, were not present.
“All your demands will be met today,” Gen. Hassan al-Roueini, military commander for the Cairo area, told thousands of protesters in central Tahrir Square.
The protesters lifted al-Roueini onto their shoulders and carried him around the square, shouting, “the army, the people one hand.” Some in the crowd held up their hands in V-for-victory signs, shouting “the people want the end of the regime” and “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great,” a victory cry used by secular and religious people alike.
The dramatic developments capped 17 days of mass anti-government protests, some drawing a quarter-million people, to demand Mubarak’s immediate ouster. What began as an Internet campaign swelled into the stiffest challenge ever to Mubarak’s nearly 30 years of authoritarian rule, fueled by widespread frustration over the regime’s lock on power, government corruption, rampant poverty and unemployment.
The protests escalated in the past two days with labor strikes and revolts by state employees that added to the chaos.
AP correspondents Maggie Michael, Hadeel al-Shalchi, Lee Keath and Marjorie Olster.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press