Mubarak spurns opposition demands to leave office immediately

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011; A01

CAIRO - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ceded some authority to his vice president Thursday 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 in a televised address, 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.

"Oh Mubarak, be patient! The people will dig your grave," shouted protesters in the central Tahrir Square late into the night.

Mubarak's rejection of the rebellion, in a rambling late-night speech, 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.

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

Some 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, as many protesters vowed to organize marches to Mubarak's palace in Heliopolis, about 10 miles from Tahrir Square.

"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 in Cairo and staff writer William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company