By Craig Whitlock, Leila Fadel and Ernesto Londono
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 10:58 AM
CAIRO -- President Hosni Mubarak will meet the demands of protesters, military and ruling party officials, the Associated Press reported Thursday, in the strongest indication yet that Egypt's longtime president may be about to give up power.
The military's supreme council was meeting Thursday, without Mubarak, its commander in chief, and announced on state TV its "support of the legitimate demands of the people," AP said.
A spokesman said the council was in permanent session to explore "what measures and arrangements could be made to safeguard the nation, its achievements and the ambitions of its great people."
Gen. Hassan al-Roueini, military commander for the Cairo area, told thousands of protesters in central Tahrir Square, "All your demands will be met today."
But the atmosphere remained tense and uncertain, as top government officials remained vague or gave contradictory statements about Mubarak's future.
After the Army's statement, Shafiq, the prime minister, phoned into state television 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.
There was no word from Mubarak himself.
Meantime, revolutionary fervor tightened its grip on the country as doctors, lawyers, bus drivers and factory workers marched through the streets.
Hossan Badrawi, the newly appointed secretary general of the National Democratic Party, told the BBC that Mubarak "may be stepping down" and could give a televised address this evening.
Badrawi later appeared on Egyptian state television and acknowledged that the government was considering constitutional amendments, including one related to a "peaceful transfer of power." Asked if that involved Mubarak, Badrawi replied: "No, I don't have specific information. All I can do is offer predictions. And I would predict that that would be a good thing."
Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq also confirmed that discussions were underway at the highest levels of government about Mubarak ceding at least some of his authority.
Egyptian state television reported that the High Council of the Egyptian armed forces met Thursday afternoon and issued a statement, recognizing the "legitimate demands of the people." The armed forces said they would meet later to discuss "all the necessary measures to preserve the nation." The statement did not mention Mubarak and was not more specific, but it heightened anticipation that major changes were in the offing.
Those reports spread quickly throughout the capital, as many tens of thousands of Egyptians converged on Tahrir Square, the plaza that has served as the epicenter of demonstrations that have convulsed the country for the past 17 days.
Outside the parliament, where protesters had blocked a street and camped out in anticipation of even bigger demonstrations on 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.
Protesters have insisted they will not disband until Mubarak is gone. 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, Vice President Omar Suleiman has tried to engage in talks with protest leaders. But 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 after 30 years of strongman rule.
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."
If "adventurers" take over the process of reform, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told the satellite channel Al Arabiya, according to the Associated Press, Egypt's military "will be compelled to defend the constitution and national security ... and we'll find ourselves in a very grave situation."
Demonstrators are calling for a "million man" protest Friday.
The Mubarak government had harsh words Wednesday for the United States, a longtime ally. In an interview with "PBS NewsHour," Aboul Gheit said he was "often angry" and "infuriated" with the White House for its criticism of the Egyptian government's response in the early days of the crisis.
He also said Mubarak would not budge on his refusal to resign before his term ends in September. "He thinks it would entail chaos and it would entail violence," Aboul Gheit said.
In Washington, the White House repeated its call for Egypt to take "immediate" steps, including an end to violence and suppression of opposition figures and journalists, the lifting of long-standing emergency laws that restrict civil rights, and a broadening of the government's dialogue with the opposition.
White House officials declined to say what action, if any, the administration would take if the Egyptian government continued to reject its entreaties.
"The Egyptian people are going to be the drivers of the process," said deputy national security adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes. "Our ability to dictate outcomes, that's not something we're able to do. But we are able to make very clear what we expect and what we stand for."
Egypt's opposition leaders met with Suleiman on Sunday, but they have refused to join in further talks, despite a pledge by the vice president to set up committees to study possible constitutional changes. The negotiations will go nowhere, the opposition leaders say, unless Mubarak quits or acts more decisively to meet their demands.
"What is taking place on the ground is a conflict of wills," said Mohammed Mursi, a senior figure with the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist movement that seeks to impose religious rule. "The steadfastness of the people is confronting the stubbornness of the man who heads the regime."
The size of the crowd in Tahrir Square Wednesday and Thursday was modest compared with the unprecedented numbers that packed the city center Tuesday. But organizers were calling for another huge turnout Friday, the start of the Muslim weekend.
Among those joining in the labor unrest were 2,500 textile and steel workers who staged a strike in Suez, following 6,000 workers in the canal zone who had walked out the day before. In towns across the Nile Delta, about 1,500 nurses held a sit-in at a hospital, 800 workers went on strike at a bottling plant and 2,000 more stopped work at steel factories, according to state media reports.
In the industrial city of Mahala, about 24,000 textile factory workers were planning a strike Thursday, said Kamal Abbas, head of the Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services. "These are spontaneous," he said.
Fresh demonstrations erupted in remote corners of the country, including one that led to a confrontation between security police and about 3,000 protesters in the New Valley region, in Egypt's western desert. At least three protesters were killed, state television reported. In Assiut province, about 8,000 protesters blocked the main highway and railroad to Cairo with burning palm trees, then pelted the provincial governor's vehicle with rocks when he tried to talk to them.
Mubarak has refused calls from Washington and European capitals to lift the 30-year-old emergency law and to order the security services to stop harassing activists and journalists. Suleiman also has made clear in recent public statements that the government thinks it has done enough to accommodate protesters.
Any acts of civil disobedience, the vice president said Wednesday, would be "very dangerous for society, and we can't put up with this at all."
Although Suleiman has been the government's public face in talks with opposition factions, Mubarak remains fully in charge, said a Western diplomat in Cairo, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing Egyptian officials. Mubarak has ignored calls to cede power to a transition council while elections are prepared.
Opposition leaders and Western diplomats said it is unclear when or if negotiations will resume. Suleiman "doesn't want to give people any hope that the government will give further inducements," said the diplomat in Cairo. But so far, the diplomat said, "it's not working for them."
"The ball is in their court," Essam el-Erian, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, said of the government.
One complicating factor, the diplomats said, is that the opposition is highly decentralized. No figure has emerged who can speak for a majority of the demonstrators, many of whom have been spurred on by a coterie of young, well-educated Egyptians who have had no previous involvement in politics.
"It's the challenge of dealing with this leaderless phenomenon," said the Western diplomat in Cairo. "These are names, we have to say, that we don't know who they are. And they could be the next leaders of Egypt."
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Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Cairo and staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.