Friday, February 11, 2011

Military council backs Mubarak; huge crowds angry but peaceful

By Craig Whitlock, Ernesto Londono and Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 11, 2011; 7:28 AM

CAIRO - As huge crowds packed central Cairo Friday, calling anew for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's military chiefs pledged to back the authoritarian leader's decision to remain in office.

The armed forces did not move against the demonstrators, however, and the statement from the supreme military council said it would guarantee "free and honest" elections and a lifting of Egypt's 30-year-old state of emergency once calm returned to the streets.

In a statement read on state television, the council endorsed Mubarak's move the night before to transfer most of his powers to his hand-picked vice president, Omar Suleiman. It also encouraged protesters to go home, citing the need to "return to normal life."

Instead, waves of people continued to course into Tahrir Square, and anger and frustration mounted as word spread of the military's stance.

"Mubarak must go! He is finished!" protesters shouted as a sea of people waved red-white-and-black Egyptian flags.

At a smaller demonstration at the presidential palace, in the affluent northern suburb of Heliopolis, Taha Nahas predicted that the military's statement would backfire and that Egyptians who had seen the armed forces as an honest protector of their interests would change their minds.

"This is what we've heard before from Mubarak and Omar Suleiman," said Nahas, 26. "We have lost our trust in the military. It's a corrupt organization."

A small group of counter-demonstrators congregated nearby, chanting support for the president and urging the other side to disperse. Soldiers kept the two sides separated. "We are afraid. If there is anarchy, looters will come to our homes," said Serge Simon, 60, an Armenian-Egyptian pianist from Heliopolis. "What we are seeing here is hooliganism."

With scores of thousands prostrating themselves to the muezzin's prayer call in Tahrir Square, many of them weeping, organizers of Egypt's popular rebellion predicted the biggest turnout so far in their 18-day revolt.

The plaza, next to the Nile River, has served as the heartbeat of the rebellion. Throughout the day, long lines of people coursed past army checkpoints into the square, where speakers egged on the angry but peaceful crowd.

"Down, down Hosni Mubarak," they called.

Dozens of ambulances were parked on nearby side streets.

Tensions soared after Mubarak, in a rambling televised speech late Thursday, ceded some authority to Suleiman but refused to quit, insisting that he would stay in office to oversee a drawn-out transfer of power. His defiance stunned and angered hundreds of thousands of protesters in the capital, who responded with chants of "revolution, revolution."

Enormous crowds, which had gathered in anticipation that Mubarak would announce his resignation, expressed disappointment and fury as the message sunk in that the president had no intention of leaving. Some masses moved tentatively toward the heavily guarded state television tower, while others vowed to march on the presidential palace, al-Ouruba.

"Oh Mubarak, be patient! The people will dig your grave," protesters shouted. As dawn broke Friday, the Muslim holy day and the start of the weekend here, more and more people came to the square.

The army, which rolled more tanks into the city center, did not move to impede the demonstrators. But the military's allegiance remained a question mark and appeared to swing back and forth between the president and the people.

Around 200 people had gathered at the palace at midday, outside a wall of barbed wire and two tanks. The mood was calm as soldiers directed traffic. But when an army officer attempted to read the supreme council's statement to protesters, he was heckled.

Mubarak "is an idiot," said Ahmed Suleiman, 62, a physician. "We're very upset about what he said yesterday.

Some protesters vowed to storm the palace. But others appealed for restraint, saying they would not clash with the military.

"The people and the army are continuing their march together!" they chanted.

Said Younis, a 26-year-old advertising executive, said he marched 10 miles from Tahrir Square to the presidential palace immediately after Mubarak's speech, arriving about 2 a.m. "He ridiculed us," Younis said. "We want him to hear our voices from up close."

Younis said military officers stationed at the palace offered their sympathy and support, providing tea and juice to the handful of protesters who pulled an all-night vigil. "They told us, 'Don't worry, we will never fire on you,' " he said.

Outside the palace gate, some protesters appealed to soldiers across the barbed wire to join their cause.

"I'm with you!" one officer shouted back.

"Then come to this side!" one woman demanded.

Mubarak's rejection of the rebellion capped a confusing day of contradictory messages, exultant expectations and, ultimately, flattened hopes. It left Egyptians and the rest of the world anxious and afraid of how the conflict would unfold in the hours and days ahead.

"This stalemate cannot continue forever," Finance Minister Samir Radwan told BBC radio. "I think the military is highly disciplined and they have taken a decision not to fire at the young people."

Some opposition leaders warned that Mubarak was risking a bloody revolt.

"There is no way the Egyptian people right now are ready to accept either the president or the vice president," Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and opposition leader, told CNN. "They have lost all authority, all legitimacy. . . . My fear is that the situation will turn violent."

The developments not only shocked Egyptians but seemed to catch the world by surprise, including the highest levels of the U.S. government. In a written statement, President Obama said "it is not yet clear'' whether the transition to democracy pledged by Mubarak would be "immediate, meaningful or sufficient.''

Earlier Thursday, CIA Director Leon Panetta told Congress that "there is a strong likelihood that Mubarak may step down this evening." In an afternoon speech to university students in Michigan, Obama gave no indication that he expected otherwise, calling the events in Egypt "a moment of transformation that's taking place because the people of Egypt are calling for change."

After 17 days of swelling protests and labor unrest, demonstrators in Cairo thought they were on the cusp of forcing Mubarak from power Thursday afternoon when Egypt's military chiefs pledged in unequivocal-sounding language that they backed the protesters' goals.

Crowds had thundered their approval when Gen. Hassan al-Roueini, military commander for the Cairo region, strode into the square and declared: "All your demands will be met today."

Anticipation soared even higher when Egypt's supreme military council announced that it had convened an emergency session - in its commander in chief's absence. In a statement, the military chiefs pledged "support for the legitimate demands of the people" and promised "to oversee their interests and security."

About five hours later, at 10:45 p.m., Mubarak addressed the nation on television from his palace. Standing next to an Egyptian flag, he tried to assure the public that he had heard their grievances.

He promised to investigate the deaths of an estimated 300 people during the demonstrations, which began Jan. 25. But he took no responsibility for the actions of his police and security forces, which have been widely accused of instigating the violence.

"I speak to the youth of Egypt in Tahrir Square and all around Egypt. I speak to you as a father speaks to his children," he said. "I say to you before anything else that the blood of your martyrs will not be in vain and that I will hold perpetrators to account."

"I say to you that my response to your message and your demands is a commitment that I will not go back on," he said. "I believe that the majority of Egyptians know who is Hosni Mubarak, and it hurts me how some Egyptians talk about me."

But as he continued for 15 minutes, he never uttered the lines that many assumed were coming, instead insisting that he would remain in office until the end of his term in September so he could oversee what he called a transition to "free and transparent" elections.

"This is the pledge that I've made before God and the nation, and I swear that I will honor this pledge," he said. "I have lived for the sake of this nation. I will not leave it nor depart it until I am buried in the ground."

Mubarak said he was transferring power to his vice president, Omar Suleiman, Egypt's longtime intelligence chief. He also said he had ordered several constitutional amendments. One would expand the field of candidates eligible to run to succeed him in September, and another would provide for judicial monitoring of elections.

Afterward, Sameh Shoukry, Egypt's ambassador to the United States, asserted that Mubarak had transferred all authority to Suleiman, making the latter the de facto president. "For undertaking all decisions and responsibilities under the constitution, it is Omar Suleiman," the ambassador told CNN.

But there were few signs that Mubarak was about to recede into the background, and few Egyptians believed that he had entirely relinquished his control of the state.

Shortly after Mubarak finished speaking, Suleiman followed with a televised address in which he defended his boss and tried to soothe widespread concerns that Egypt's revolutionary struggle could turn ugly.

"The president puts the supreme interests of the country above everything else. He has empowered me to preserve its achievements and restore stability and happiness," Suleiman said. "We have opened the door to dialogue, and the door is still open to dialogue."

Earlier in the week, Suleiman had made public statements in which he warned protesters that they faced a choice between a "coup" and a "dialogue" and implied that a military crackdown was possible. On Thursday night, he once again urged demonstrators to back off, saying it was for the good of the country.

"Youth of Egypt, go back home. Go back to work. The nation needs your efforts to create and build a bright future," Suleiman said. "Do not listen to television and radio reports and foreign influences whose aim is just to cause chaos and tarnish Egypt's image."

The allusion to outside intervention echoed a warning from Mubarak, whose advisers have expressed anger with the United States, Egypt's longtime ally, for sternly urging the Cairo regime to repeal its state-of-emergency law and to embrace democratic reforms.

"We will prove that we are not followers or puppets of anybody, nor we are receiving orders or dictations from anybody," Mubarak said. "No one is making the decision for us."

The audio of Mubarak's speech was broadcast on loudspeakers mounted in Tahrir Square. His remarks were repeatedly interrupted by the crowd, which shouted, "Go away, go away," even as most people strained to listen so they could comprehend the president's message.

As Mubarak concluded, the response was instantaneous and ear-splitting. "The people want to put the president on trial," the crowd roared. There seemed to be little doubt that the speech had set the stage for decisive and possibly violent confrontation.

"He was provoking us," said Osama Hassan, a 35-year-old Cairo resident. "What he's doing is putting us in conflict with the military. This here is a camp of revolution. And he will need the military to get us out."

After the speech, the European Union signaled a tougher line on Mubarak's handling of the unrest.

"The demands and expectations of the Egyptian people must be met," said Catherine Ashton, the E.U. high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. She added: "The time for change is now."

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol and staff writer Linda Davidson in Cairo and staff writer William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.

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