Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mubarak spurns opposition demands to leave power immediately

By Craig Whitlock, Ernesto Londono and Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 4:14 PM

CAIRO - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, defiantly rejecting opposition demands that he leave power immediately, vowed late Thursday that he would follow through with his plans to transfer authority to an elected government after his term ends in September and would continue efforts to amend Egypt's constitution in the meantime.

In a televised address to the nation, the 82-year-old president indicated that he was taking steps to lift a widely despised emergency law. But the speech fell far short of demands that he give up the office he has held for nearly 30 years start an immediate transition to democracy.

As Mubarak spoke, a huge crowd in Cairo's Tahrir Square shouted angrily, "Get out, get out."

Mubarak's speech came after 17 days of massive citizen demonstrations. Earlier in the day, Egypt's military said the longtime leader would meet protesters' demands, and CIA director Leon Panetta told U.S. lawmakers that Mubarak could step aside as soon as Thursday night.

Although much uncertainty remained, the military seemed to be taking a leading role in a potential transfer of power, announcing on state television that it would "consider what procedures and measures" could be taken "to protect the nation and the achievements and aspirations of the great people of Egypt."

Testifying in Washington before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday morning, Panetta said, "There is a strong likelihood that Mubarak may step down this evening."

Egypt's information minister later told state television that Mubarak would not resign. But - given the plethora of statements by other officials, and the fact that Egypt's constitution says a presidential resignation triggers an automatic succession process - observers said the minister's statement did not negate reports that some sort of power transfer was underway.

In a speech in Michigan, President Obama told university students Thursday afternoon that "America will continue to do everything that we can to support an orderly and genuine transition to democracy in Egypt." Saying it was clear that "we are witnessing history unfold," Obama described the events in Egypt as "a moment of transformation that's taking place because the people of Egypt are calling for change." He said it was "young people who've been at the forefront, a new generation, your generation, who want their voices to be heard."

Obama's remarks were carried live by Egypt's state-run television, signaling a shift in the tenor of its coverage.

One possibility discussed before Mubarak's address was that he would cede some or most of his powers to another entity - possibly his newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, or the military, a powerful force in Egyptian society. Another possibility was that the army was trying to force Mubarak out.

About 6:30 p.m. in Cairo (11:30 a.m. in Washington), state television announced that Mubarak would address the nation within hours. State television also reported that Mubarak was at the presidential palace in Heliopolis, north of Cairo, meeting first with Suleiman and then with Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq.

Those reports suggested that, if a transfer of power was imminent, it was proceeding in an orderly way.

In an interview at midday, opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei told Foreign Policy magazine that he had no confidence in the ability of Suleiman or other government or military officials to oversee a transition to democracy.

"They don't understand, let alone are willing to move Egypt into democracy, unless we keep kicking their behinds," he said. Saying that Mubarak's departure was "nonnegotiable, ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who formerly headed the International Atomic Energy Agency, called for creation of a three-member "presidential council" to head a "transitional government of national salvation." He also urged Western nations "to be very clear that they are siding with the people."

As word that Mubarak might step down swept through Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the unprecedented protests, organizers cautioned tens of thousands of jubilant demonstrators to remain calm and refrain from violence.

Thousands of demonstrators gathered around a large white sheet used as a projection screen as they waited for the president's speech.

They waved flags and chanted slogans demanding Mubarak's ouster. Many families brought children to the square, and some painted their faces with the colors of the egyptian flag -- red white and black.

"Leave, leave, leave," they screamed in unison.

There were no immediate signs that soldiers were changing their cordial, and at times friendly, stance. Troops mounted on tanks waved demonstrators past as they poured through the streets in droves, chanting "the army and the people are hand in hand."

"Good morning, Mubarak. Today is your last day," the crowd shouted. As the sun set, the protesters called out, "Freedom is coming!"

Inside tents in Tahrir Square, people waved their arms and sang in celebration in anticipation that Mubarak would step down. Rumors flew through the crowd that the president had already left Egypt and had prerecorded his speech.

"We won!" cried Manal Ghannamy, 40, a professor of French who has slept in the square for days and has protested since Jan. 25. She waved her arms in the air singing with others: "Mubarak's last night."

Outside, a female folk singer sang, "Victory is coming," to the vast crowd.

But Mubarak's departure would be only a first step, demonstrators said. Many expressed worry about the future military role.

Masara Omar, 28, was detained by military police last week and beaten in Tahrir Square. His head was bandaged from a battle with pro-Mubarak forces last week, and his eyes were still black from being punched in the face. He said he would continue to fight until the nation is democratic and civilian-led.

"We're all very excited, but we're also worried," Omar said. "What role will the military play, and will it try to dominate public and private life?"

He said he saw first-hand that the military, too, is willing to violate human rights. "Everything depends on the future of the military," he said.

Members of Egypt's political and business elite had urged Mubarak in recent days to transfer authority to Suleiman, whom he had tapped as vice president last month after a long career as Egypt's spy chief. Suleiman has a close working relationship with the CIA and the State Department.

Under Egypt's constitution, however, if Mubarak were to simply resign or abdicate, the speaker of the parliament would take over as president. Elections then would have to be held within 60 days.

Some in the crowd at Tahrir Square warned that turning over power to Suleiman would not appease demonstrators, unless the vice president promised to step down after elections are held. "If he takes over, that will be a big issue," said lawyer Marwan Alashaal, 32. "This city is going to be swimming in blood."

If Mubarak did not step down, Alashaal added, demonstrators would march toward the presidential palace Friday. "We will destroy it completely and clash with the presidential forces," he said.

"The dream is coming true now," a man said into a microphone as people waited anxiously for Mubarak's announcement. "Don't let anyone steal the dream."

He exhorted the masses not to leave the square until Egypt's 30-year emergency rule is replaced by a free and open democracy.

"Shall we go if the constitution is the same?"

"No!" the crowd yelled.

"Shall we go if the [ruling party] is still in its position?"

"No!"

"Even if Mubarak left the country, will we go?"

"No!"

"Tahrir until change."

The military's supreme council met all day Thursday - without Mubarak, its commander in chief - and said it would remain in "continuous session" to fulfill the army's responsibility "to protect the people, and to oversee their interests and security," according to a written statement.

A spokesman for the council told state television that the council would "support the legitimate demands of the people."

Gen. Hassan al-Roueini, military commander for the Cairo area, told the crowds in Tahrir Square that "all your demands will be met today." Roueini did not offer specifics, but the protesters' central demand is for Mubarak to cede power.

However, after the army statement was broadcast, Shafiq phoned the state television channel and said that he could neither confirm nor deny any changes at the top.

"The president is in his position, and we have not received any decision by him to indicate anything new," Shafiq said.

As recently as Wednesday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Mubarak would not budge from his refusal to step down before the next elections are held.

Outside the parliament building, where protesters had blocked a street and camped out in anticipation of even bigger demonstrations Friday, people shouted and kissed the ground after hearing news reports that Mubarak might relinquish power.

But their emotions swung into reverse moments later, when chants of "false report, false report" dashed their hopes.

Throughout Thursday, revolutionary fervor tightened its grip on the country, as doctors, lawyers, bus drivers and factory workers marched through the streets. The state-run media continued to cover the protests more openly than they had before, as the rupture between Egypt's autocratic government and the popular rebellion seemed to edge ever closer to rupturing.

Protesters have insisted they will not disband until Mubarak is gone, and over the past 2 1/2 weeks, the authoritarian ruler has responded to them with a combination of fist and glove. Security forces rounded up hundreds of activists and harassed journalists last week. Since then, Suleiman has tried to engage in talks with protest leaders.

The government's offers of vague or limited political concessions have done little to stem the demonstrations, which have been united in their calls for Mubarak's ouster.

Earlier Thursday, Egypt's foreign minister warned that the army could seize control of the country if protesters do not halt the anti-government demonstrations that have been underway for 17 days, a prospect that he called "very grave."

Demonstrators had called for a "million man" protest Friday.

Staff writer William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.

whitlockc@washpost.com londonoe@washpost.com fadell@washpost.com

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