- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 10, 2011

CAIRO | Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced late Thursday that he had relinquished authority to his vice president but refused to step down, enraging thousands of protesters who had thought he would resign — and even had begun celebrating his departure in the hours before his speech.

“I decided to transfer powers of the presidency to the vice president, according to constitutional guidelines,” Mr. Mubarak said in a speech aired on state television.

Mr. Mubarak said he would continue to meet his presidential responsibilities in protecting the constitution and the people’s interests, as well as overseeing political reforms and a transition of power to newly elected officials in September. Egypt’s constitution allows the president to transfer authority to the vice president but does not require the president’s resignation.

Watching the speech on crackly monitors in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of 17 straight days of anti-government protests, demonstrators shifted from boisterous elation to silent confusion to deafening fury as it became apparent that the 82-year-old autocratic leader intended to remain in office.

As Mr. Mubarak spoke, protesters took off their shoes and held them in the air, symbolically saying, “Take a walk.”

Thunderous chants of “Get out, get out” began before the speech was over. When the president stopped talking, many people wept. Throngs of young men marched out of the square shouting, “Tomorrow, we are going to the Presidential Palace.”

Immediately after Mr. Mubarak’s address, Vice President Omar Suleiman, a former intelligence chief who is viewed by many as simply an arm of the Mubarak regime, addressed the protesters and pleaded for calm in the streets.

“Go back to your houses, go back to your work, the homeland needs your work,” Mr. Suleiman said. “We have a road map in order to achieve most of the demands.”

In Washington, President Obama openly and sharply questioned whether Mr. Mubarak’s pledge to shift power to his vice president is an “immediate, meaningful or sufficient” sign of reform for a country in upheaval.

In a written statement issued after the speech, he criticized Mr. Mubarak for not offering clarity to his people or a concrete path to democracy. He called on Egyptian government leaders to do so, declaring: “They have not yet seized that opportunity.”

“Too many Egyptians remain unconvinced that the government is serious about a genuine transition to democracy,” he said, “and it is the responsibility of the government to speak clearly to the Egyptian people and the world.”

Earlier Thursday, Egyptian government officials announced that Mr. Mubarak, who has been in power for nearly 30 years, would meet the demands of the protesters. What’s more, unconfirmed reports of a military takeover fed speculation that he would resign.

Because their No. 1 demand is Mr. Mubarak’s immediate ouster, many protesters assumed he would step down.

The earlier announcement was met with trepidation by some Egyptians, who feared a military takeover could tighten the government’s grip on the population rather than transition the country into democracy.

But for activists who have been protesting in Tahrir Square night and day for more than two weeks, the announcement was met with elation.

“I am so, so, so happy,” said Zeinab, a tour guide who hasn’t worked since the uprising began. “I don’t know about policy. I know about my life and my dignity.”

In his speech, Mr. Mubarak said the protesters’ demands for democracy are legitimate, but he added that he is sticking closely to a reform plan set up by Mr. Suleiman. But anti-government protesters have rejected the plan, saying it will not lead to any real democratic changes.

Mr. Mubarak said he had requested the amendment of five articles of the constitution to loosen conditions on who can run for president, to restore judicial supervision of elections and to impose term limits on the presidency, the Associated Press reported.

He also annulled a constitutional article that gives the president the right to order a military trial for civilians accused of terrorism. He said that step would “clear the way” for eventually scrapping an unpopular emergency law but with a major caveat — “once security and stability are restored.”

The emergency law, imposed when Mr. Mubarak came to power in 1981, gives police virtually unlimited powers of arrest, the AP reported.

An hour after the speech, chants of “the people demand the end of the regime” could be heard by marchers miles from Tahrir Square as enraged protesters fanned out across the city, many calling for Mr. Mubarak’s head.

In the square, others just sat stunned.

“I feel extremely disappointed,” Rana, an English literature student, said as she sat with her friends on pieces of cardboard in the square. “He changed nothing. He ignored our demands.”

Rana, who did not give her last name for fear of reprisal, said she hopes the crowd does not march on the palace. The fear is that if Mr. Mubarak’s home is invaded, the army, which so far has had a friendly relationship with the protesters, will have orders to disperse the people.

Mahmoud Magdi, a 23-year-old recent college graduate without a job, said he was furious that the president refused to resign and that he allowed masses of people to sing, dance and party for hours in the belief that their voices had been heard.

“He gave us hope that he was going to leave,” he said. “He wants to start a civil war.”

The Egyptian army has vowed not to attack protesters, but it also promised Thursday to step in if protests in Cairo turn into chaos.

Iman, an Egyptian doorman, said protesters are wrong to believe the army will not fight, adding that his 20-year-old daughter is an activist against the Mubarak regime. He said he hopes the uprising will end soon so Egypt can begin rebuilding its economy.

But without Mr. Mubarak’s resignation, the protesters and the government are at a stalemate, with activists vowing they will not rest until the president steps down.

With an estimated 300 dead and thousands injured during the protests, Iman said, he doubts Egypt can escape the calamity without more violence.

“They think the army is their friend,” he said, as he drank tea at his post. “But it is not.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.



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