- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2011

CAIRO | Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced late Tuesday that he will not seek re-election in September, calling an end to his nearly 30-year rule on a day when hundreds of thousands of his countrymen flooded the streets of Cairo and demanded his immediate ouster.

In a nationally televised address, the 82-year-old Mr. Mubarak said he would complete the rest of his term to oversee a “peaceful” transition of power, a concession unlikely to appease the country’s pro-democracy demonstrators and opposition parties.

Clashes erupted between protesters and government supporters in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria soon after Mr. Mubarak’s speech, and gunshots could be heard in footage by Al Jazeera television, according to the Associated Press.

President Obama, who spoke with the embattled Egyptian leader for a half-hour Tuesday afternoon, praised Mr. Mubarak’s decision not to stand for re-election and urged the nation’s military to “ensure that this time of change is peaceful.”

But even as Mr. Obama said it’s not for any other country to determine Egypt’s leaders, the U.S. leader laid out several conditions that a transitional government should meet.

“An orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now,” he said in a brief statement from the White House. “The process must include a broad spectrum of Egyptian voices and opposition parties. It should lead to elections that are free and fair and it should result in a government that is not only grounded in democratic principles but that is also responsive to the needs of the Egyptian people.”

But Mohamed ElBaradei, the former International Atomic Energy Agency official and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has emerged as a key opposition figure, dismissed Mr. Mubarak’s offer, which would keep the president in power at least through the September election.

“He’s unfortunately going to extend the agony here for another six, seven months. He continues to polarize the country. He continues to get people even more angry and could [resort] to violence,” Mr. ElBaradei said in an interview on CNN.

Ayman Nour, a former presidential candidate and another leading opposition figure, said Mr. Mubarak clearly didn’t get the message from the days of mass protests in cities across the country.

“This is a unique case of stubbornness that will end in a disaster,” Mr. Nour told reporters. “It is only expected that he wasn’t going to run because of his age. … He offered nothing new.”

The political aftershocks of the Egyptian drama continued to be felt throughout the Arab world.

In Jordan, King Abdullah II on Tuesday fired his government, bowing to pressure from anti-government protests there. He appointed a new prime minister to “take speedy, practical and tangible steps to unleash a real political reform process that reflects our vision of comprehensive reform, modernization and development.”

Sparked by a popular uprising in Tunisia that resulted in the ouster of that country’s longtime autocratic leader last month, protests have swept across the Arab world, threatening the stability of several U.S. allies in the region.

In Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country and a key U.S. ally, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Cairo in the largest protest against Mr. Mubarak since the revolt began last week. Organizers called the event “the march of a million people.”

“You can’t imagine the number,” said activist Mohamed Aboulfotouh. “Today, I swear, I couldn’t even find a place to put my feet.”

Exhausted from a week of protesting, he said, he would take a few hours to recover and rejoin the demonstration. “We will never give up,” he said.

Protesters accuse the Mubarak regime of corruption, political oppression and cruelty. At the ongoing rallies in Cairo, they were quick to rail against U.S. support for the leader, and many carried empty bullet casings or tear gas cans found on the streets that stated they were made in America.

U.S.A: Stop supporting Mubarak,” said one sign. “We don’t want to hate the U.S.A.

President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and top officials from other Western nations reportedly had urged Mr. Mubarak privately to step aside and allow the political reforms that the protesters were demanding.

“I tell you in all sincerity, regardless of the current circumstances, I never intended to be a candidate for another term,” Mr. Mubarak said during his 10-minute address, adding that he would complete the rest of his term “to accomplish the necessary steps for the peaceful transfer of power.”

In a hurried effort to gauge what might follow in the wake of a regime collapse, the U.S. ambassador in Cairo, Margaret Scobey, spoke by telephone Tuesday with Mr. ElBaradei, the AP reported. There was no immediate word on what they discussed.

On Monday, Mrs. Clinton voiced her support for Egyptians’ right to protest and choose their leadership, but stopped short of calling for the leader’s resignation.

“There are many steps that can be taken by reaching out to those who have advocated a peaceful, orderly transition to greater democracy,” she said.

Also Monday, the Mubarak regime announced that it would begin negotiating with opposition parties after last week’s announcement that he would fire his ministers failed to quell the uprising.

Protesters called the proposed negotiations a small victory, but said they would accept no government that included Mr. Mubarak or members of his inner circle.

“We want to change the government, said 24-year-old Tariq Salema. “He made a slight change. Thirty years is enough. We need new blood. We need a democratic government.”

Ms. Clinton also joined Mr. Obama in urging demonstrators to remain peaceful. But protesters accuse the Egyptian government of staging violence in order to make what they call a “peaceful revolution” look like violent mobs.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Tuesday that unconfirmed reports suggest 300 people have been killed and as many as 3,000 wounded since the uprising began on Jan. 28. She also called on the Egyptian government to stop blocking communications, the Internet and transport systems.

Since last Friday, Egypt has had no Internet and limited mobile-phone service. Al Jazeera, an Arabic-language news network popularly watched as an alternative to state-run news, has been blocked.

“In the long term, genuine and lasting stability does not depend on a ruthless security apparatus, or a ring of military steel, but on the development of human rights and democracy,” Ms. Pillay said in a statement.

In Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the Cairo demonstrations, protesters and witnesses said government snipers were placed on nearby buildings to try to quell the uprising over the weekend.

In a makeshift clinic in an alley near Tahrir Square, Dr. Mohammad Magdi said he had been up for two days straight treating injured protesters. “Most people who died were shot with a bullet in the heart,” he said.

With an almost unified voice, protesters all over Cairo accused the police and internal security forces of causing the violence and looting that marred the first week of demonstrations.

“Unsafe conditions in the squares is a professional plan from the government to make people afraid,” said a protester who identified himself as Dr. Sawy. “So people will think the government and Mubarak will keep us safe.”

Since a vicious crackdown Friday, police forces have vanished from the streets, leaving the population vulnerable to looters and violence. Saturday night, as gunshots were heard across the city, locals carried clubs and kitchen knives in neighborhood patrols. By Sunday night, the vigilante groups appeared more organized, erecting checkpoints on every city block in some areas.

Ms. Pillay, of the United Nations, also called for a “full investigation into the role of security forces in the violence that occurred over the past few days.”

In contrast to the public’s opinion of the police, the army in Egypt is wildly popular. Over the weekend, soldiers posed for pictures with protesters on tanks, while crowds chanted, “The people and the army are one to take down Mubarak.”

Egypt’s military receives about $1 billion in U.S. aid annually.

Despite the frenetic atmosphere and optimism among the crowds, daily life is getting harder in Egypt. Businesses are closed, trains are not running, banks are running out of cash and people are not going to work. International businesses are evacuating their employees and several countries, including the U.S., have evacuated nationals.

City services in Cairo have come to a halt, but protesters have banded together to keep some services running.

Volunteers direct traffic, pick up trash on the streets, fight fires and take shifts guarding the neighborhoods. Others cart water and food to protesters, many who stay on the streets for days at a time.

• Kara Rowland and Ashish Kumar Sen, both in Washington, contributed to this report.