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Friday, February 11, 2011

Army Backs Mubarak as Crowds Surge - NYTimes.com

flag of the Kingdom of Egypt (1922–1958).Image via WikipediaArmy Backs Mubarak as Crowds Surge - NYTimes.com

By ANTHONY SHADID, DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK and ALAN COWELL
CAIRO — As tens of thousands of chanting protesters thronged central Cairo and elsewhere on the 18th day of Egypt’s uprising, the powerful armed forces scrambled on Friday to offer assurances and concessions, endorsing President Hosni Mubarak’s refusal to step down while seeking to defuse the outrage and anger it has provoked among protesters.

But it was not clear whether the military’s position would satisfy demonstrators who have previously cast the military as an ally and who want Mr. Mubarak to leave immediately — a demand the military did not come near to supporting in a statement on Friday after a meeting of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

In the statement, read out on state television, the military appeared to support Mr. Mubarak’s insistence, laid out in a speech on Thursday night, that he would remain in power until elections are held, delegate some unspecified authority to Vice President Omar Suleiman and oversee constitutional change.

At the same time, in an effort to meet some of the protesters’ demands, the military said it would guarantee the lifting of Egypt’s emergency law once the current protests were over and would defend “the lawful demands of the people.” The law was imposed after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 — which enabled Mr. Mubarak, then the vice president, to take power. Protesters say it has been used to suppress opposition.

The military’s statement, labeled Communiqué No. 2, followed an announcement on Thursday offering “affirmation and support for the legitimate demands of the people.”

On Friday, the military also promised that the “honorable people who have rejected corruption” and who have demanded reform would not be “pursued.” Many demonstrators fear that if they call off their protests they will face arrest and punishment.

In a direct appeal to the demonstrators to end protests that have forced the autocratic Mr. Mubarak to make once unthinkable concessions, the military said that people should return to work and resume normal life. The turmoil has cost Egypt dearly in terms of its economy, the prestige of its leaders and its vaunted reputation for stability.

The president’s declaration Thursday night immediately enraged hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who had gathered in Tahrir Square in anticipation of his departure and set in motion a volatile new stage in the three-week uprising.

Western diplomats said that Egyptian government officials had assured them privately on Friday that they had expected Mr. Mubarak’s speech to signal that he was making a more complete exit, permanently and irrevocably delegating all his powers to his vice president.

But Mr. Mubarak’s speech confounded their expectations, leaving military officials and Egyptian diplomats scrambling to reassure their Western allies that Mr. Mubarak had indeed signaled a more definitive break with power, the diplomats said, speaking in return for anonymity because of the delicacy and fluidity of the deepening crisis.

Western diplomats and American officials say that Egypt’s top military commanders, including both the defense minister and the chairman of the armed forces, have told them for weeks that the Egyptian army would never use force against civilians to preserve the regime. Some depicted Mr. Mubarak’s speech as a sign that his power had effectively waned.

“The government of Egypt says absolutely, it is done, it is over,” a Western diplomat said, but “that is not what anybody heard,” in part because Mr. Mubarak’s delegation of power to his vice president did not seem to be irrevocable. But the developments nonetheless reopened the question of who wielded ultimate power in Egypt after the military’s growing intervention.

The military statement, broadcast first by a civilian announcer on state television and then by a uniformed military spokesman, came as the city — and many other places in Egypt — began noon prayers on Friday, the Muslim holy day and the beginning of the weekend, a moment that has been the prelude for large-scale demonstrations since the revolt started.

Several hundred protesters gathered outside the presidential palace in the suburb of Heliopolis, news reports said, but troops backed by armored vehicles and razor wire barricades did nothing to prevent them from assembling.

In the upscale neighborhood of Mohandiseen, about a thousand protesters spilled out of the Mustafa Mahmoud mosque to march on the Radio and Television Building, even though shouting matches broke out as some Egyptians watching them urged them to call off their protest since Mr. Mubarak repeated that he would leave in September when elections are scheduled. But one demonstrator, Mohamed Salwy, 44, said: “Mubarak doesn’t understand. I think these protests are going to have to go on for a long time.”

Once they arrived at the broadcasting center, they were joined by thousands of others, facing a ring of steel made up of a dozen armored personnel carriers and tanks forming a cordon.

Outside the capital, television images showed large numbers of protesters gathering under a sea of Egyptian flags in Alexandria.

The president’s 17-minute speech itself underlined a seemingly unbridgeable gap between ruler and ruled in Egypt: Mr. Mubarak, in paternalistic tones, talked in great detail about changes he planned to make to Egypt’s autocratic Constitution, while crowds in Tahrir Square, with bewilderment and anger, demanded that he step down.

Mr. Mubarak seemed oblivious. “It’s not about me,” he said in his address. When he was done, crowds in Cairo waved the bottoms of their shoes in the air, a gesture intended to convey disgust, and shouted, “Leave! Leave!”

The reaction abroad to Mr. Mubarak’s address was more measured, but also critical. President Obama issued a statement on Thursday night saying that “too many Egyptians remain unconvinced that the government is serious about a genuine transition to democracy.” European leaders also called for more fundamental change and urged that it happen faster.

Earlier in the day, even Mr. Obama seemed to believe that Mr. Mubarak would go further, celebrating his belief that Egypt was “witnessing history unfold.”

Instead, Mr. Mubarak, 82, a former general, struck a defiant, even provocative note. While he acknowledged for the first time that his government had made mistakes, he made it clear that he was still president and that reforms in Egypt would proceed under his government’s supervision and according to the timetable of elections in September.

Mr. Mubarak echoed the contention of officials in past days that foreigners might be behind the uprising, but he cited no evidence to support that allegation.

For hours before Mr. Mubarak’s speech, jubilant crowds, prematurely celebrating their victory, positioned themselves next to large speakers for what they assumed was a resignation speech. At about 10:45, the crowd quieted as Mr. Mubarak started his speech, which was transmitted via a tiny radio that someone held up to a microphone.

Soon, angry chants echoed through the square. People gathered in groups, confused, enraged and faced with Mr. Mubarak’s plea to endorse his vision of gradual reform. Some said his speech was intended to divide the protesters, by peeling off those who thought he had gone far enough. Others said it reflected the isolation of a president they had come to detest.

By midnight, about 3,000 protesters made their way from the square to the Radio and Television Building, which protesters loathe for propaganda that has cast them as troublemakers. In a sign of the confusion that reigned in Cairo, youthful opposition leaders sought to dissect the series of statements from the military command, Mr. Mubarak and Mr. Suleiman. Some believed that the army, long a player behind the scenes, was still intent on seeking power but had not yet mustered the leverage to force Mr. Mubarak from office.

It was unclear whether the military had tried to oust Mr. Mubarak and failed or was participating in a more complicated choreography in Egypt’s opaque system of rule.

Along with the protests, labor strikes have flared across Egypt, organized by workers at post offices, telecommunications centers, textile factories and cement plants. Clashes have occurred in distant parts of the country — from the New Valley west of the Nile to Suez, a city along the Suez Canal, which provides Egypt with crucial earnings.

While organizers have said Friday’s rallies may be some of the biggest protests yet, they spoke in darker tones about what they may represent now, given what many view as the determination of Mr. Mubarak to stay in office, whatever the numbers.

The anger was fueled in good part by expectations that Mr. Mubarak would be making his last address to the nation. For much of the day, people traded rumors about where he might be preparing to go to — Bahrain and Dubai were two rumored destinations — and then by a cascade of official statements suggesting that might be the case.

The first came from the civilian government. Around 3 p.m., Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq told the BBC that talks with Mr. Mubarak about his possible resignation were already under way.

Gen. Hassan al-Roueini appeared in Tahrir Square to tell protesters that “all your demands will be met today,” witnesses said, words that were quickly read by crowds around him to mean that Mr. Mubarak was on the way out.

A short time later, the military, still seen as potentially decisive in the conflict, announced that it was taking action in what sounded to many people like a coup.

“In affirmation and support for the legitimate demands of the people, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces convened today, 10 February 2011, to consider developments to date,” an army spokesman declared on state television, in what was described as communiqué No. 1 of the army command, “and decided to remain in continuous session to consider what procedures and measures that may be taken to protect the nation, and the achievements and aspirations of the great people of Egypt.”

Around the same time, Gen. Sami Hafez Enan, the chief of staff of the armed forces, appeared in Tahrir Square to tell the protesters the same thing, to roars of celebration.

The reports seemed increasingly convincing, to both protesters and even high-ranking officials. Hossam Badrawy, the top official of the ruling party, said in a television interview that he had personally told the president he should resign. And, though Mr. Mubarak did not respond, Mr. Badrawy said he believed he would go. “That is my expectation, that is my hope,” he added in an interview. The news electrified protestors in the square and Mr. Mubarak opened his speech with words that suggested he was staying. “I am addressing all of you from the heart, a speech from the father to his sons and daughters,” he said. He expressed what he described as pride for them.

“Can this man be serious or did he lose his mind?” asked George Ishak, a longtime opposition leader. Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition leader and Nobel laureate, was blunter. “I ask the army to intervene immediately to save Egypt,” he wrote on his Twitter feed. “The credibility of the army is being put to the test.”

David D. Kirkpatrick and Anthony Shadid reported from Cairo, and Alan Cowell from Paris. Reporting was contributed by Kareem Fahim, Liam Stack, Mona El-Naggar and Thanassis Cambanis from Cairo, and Sheryl Gay Stolberg from Marquette, Mich.

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