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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mubarak Refuses to Step Down - NYTimes.com

Mubarak Refuses to Step Down - NYTimes.com



By ANTHONY SHADID AND DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
CAIRO — President Hosni Mubarak told the Egyptian people Thursday that he would delegate authority to his vice president, Omar Suleiman, but that he would not resign, enraging hundreds of thousands gathered to hail his departure and setting the stage for what protesters promised would be the largest demonstrations since the uprising began last month.

The declaration by Mr. Mubarak that he would remain president marked another pivotal turn in the largest popular revolt in Egypt’s history, and some protesters warned that weeks of peaceful protests might give way to violence as early as Friday’s demonstrations. The 17-minute speech itself underlined the yawning gap between ruler and ruled in Egypt: Mr. Mubarak, in paternalistic tones, talked specifics of constitutional reform, while sprawling crowds in Tahrir Square, in a mix of bewilderment and anger, demanded he step down.

“It’s not about Hosni Mubarak,” he said.

After the speech, the mood in Tahrir Square, celebratory throughout the day, suddenly turned grim, as angry protesters waved their shoes in defiance — considered a deeply insulting gesture in the Arab world — and began chanting “Leave! Leave!”

Mohamed ElBaradei, the opposition leader and Nobel laureate, called for the military to intervene to avoid an outbreak of violence. “Egypt will explode,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “Army must save the country now.”

Mr. Mubarak spoke after a tumultuous day in which the newly appointed head of his ruling party said the president had agreed to step down, and the military issued a communiqué in which it said it was intervening to safeguard the country, language some protesters and opposition leaders read as word of a possible coup d’état.

Instead, Mr. Mubarak, an 82-year-old former general, struck a defiant, even provocative note. While he acknowledged that his government had made some mistakes, he made clear he was still president and that reforms in Egypt would proceed under his government’s supervision and according to a timetable leading to elections in September.

He echoed the contention of his officials in past days that foreigners might be behind an uprising that has marked the most sweeping popular protests in the modern Middle East. “We will not accept or listen to any foreign interventions or dictations,” he said.

Even as he spoke, angry chants were shouted from the sprawling crowds in Tahrir Square, many of whom had gathered in anticipation of his resignation and were instead confronted with a plea from Mr. Mubarak to endorse his vision of gradual reform.

“Mubarak didn’t believe us until now, but we will make him believe tomorrow,” said Ashraf Osman, a 49-year-old accountant.

The president’s statement marked the latest twist and turn in a raucous uprising. Earlier in the day, the Egyptian military appeared poised to assert itself as the leading force in the country’s politics, declaring on state television that it would take measures “to maintain the homeland and the achievements and the aspirations of the great people of Egypt” and meet the demands of the protesters who have insisted on ending Mr. Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

Several government officials said during the day that Mr. Mubarak was expected to announce his own resignation and pass authority to Mr. Suleiman. Even President Obama seemed to believe Mr. Mubarak would go further than he did. In a speech in Michigan before Mr. Mubarak’s address, he said Egypt was “witnessing history unfold.”

The new leader of the ruling National Democratic Party, Hossam Badrawy, said he was sure the president would step down.

“I know it is difficult for him,” he said. But he added, “I think I convinced him to do that as soon as possible.”

Earlier in the day, the military’s chief of staff, Sami Anan, made an appearance in Tahrir Square, where he pledged to safeguard the people’s demands and their security. Thousands of protesters roared in approval, but they also chanted “Civilian! Civilian!”

Gen. Hassan al-Roueini, military commander for the Cairo area, also appeared in Tahrir Square and told the demonstrators, “All your demands will be met today.” Some in the crowd held up their hands in V-for-victory signs, shouting, “The people want the end of the regime” and “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great,” a victory cry used by secular and religious people alike.

Officials in Mr. Mubarak’s government had been warning for several days that protesters faced a choice between negotiating in earnest with the government on constitutional changes or having the military step in to guard against a descent into political chaos. Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit seemed to add a further ominous tone to those comments on Thursday, telling Al Arabiya television, “If chaos occurs, the armed forces will intervene to control the country, a step which would lead to a very dangerous situation.”

But if those words were meant to intimidate the protesters, they were ill-conceived. For weeks, the protesters have hoped the military would intervene on their side, even though it remained unclear whether the military would support democratic reforms that would threaten its status as the most powerful single institution in the country.

For much of its modern history, the military has played a powerful but behind-the-scenes role, reflecting its confidence that any government would protect its stature. Across the political spectrum, many wondered whether that posture had shifted after the military’s announcement.

“We’re excited and nervous,” said Ahmed Sleem, an organizer with an opposition group led by Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate. “If Mubarak and Suleiman leave, it would be a great thing. A six-month deadline for elections would be suitable.”

Asked about the possibility of a military takeover, he said he was not afraid. “We know how to force them to step down. We know the way to Tahrir Square.”

The overlapping statements by the military and civil authorities seemed to indicate a degree of confusion — or competing claims — about what kind of shift was underway, raising the possibility that competing forces did not necessarily see the power transfer the same way.

Reporting was contributed by Kareem Fahim, Liam Stack, Mona El-Naggar and Thanassis Cambanis from Cairo and Sheryl Stolberg from Marquette, Mich.

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