Agence France-Presse

Protests rage as Mubarak remains defiant


CAIRO, Egypt — The tug of war between President Hosni Mubarak and the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Cairo continues.

Demonstrators erupted in anger Thursday night in Cairo’s Tahrir Square after Mubarak said he would not resign but would only transfer his power to his vice president and close confidant, Omar Suleiman.

In one line that led to jeers from the crowd, Mubarak said in a patriarchal tone, “I was a youth once too.”

The crowd, one of the biggest since the mass protests began more than two weeks ago, began to chant, “Get out! Get out!” And many protesters took off their shoes, hoisting them into the air in one of the most offensive gestures in the Middle East.

Thousands then left Tahrir Square and marched toward the presidential palace. Earlier in the day, some protesters handed out fliers that in Arabic said if Mubarak did not resign, a second phase of the movement would begin, which would include a general strike across the country and an expansion of the protests beyond Tahrir Square, where they have persisted continuously since Jan. 25.

The crowd had been electrified before the speech, anticipating that Mubarak would resign. During the speech, the protesters fell silent. Then after, they erupted in frustration.

“I am so surprised, we thought today was the day. It is just disappointing,” said Ahmed Rami, a protester in Tahrir Sqaure. “We will not leave this square. We are going to march to the presidential palace with all of our anger in our hearts to kick him out.”

Mubarak said, as he had in an earlier speech, that he would stay on to see the country through September's national elections and that he had begun a national dialogue with the military and opposition groups to address the protesters' concerns.

"I lived for this country protecting its safety. Egypt will stay above all until I hand it over to whoever is next," he said during the speech, which was aired live across the country and the world and was watched by tens of thousands in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

"Satisfied with what I have offered the nation in more than 60 years, I have announced I will stay with this post and that I will continue to shoulder my responsibilities," Mubarak said.

The rumors that Mubarak would possibly announce his resignation began earlier Thursday afternoon when a senior Egyptian military official said to protesters through local media that, “All your demands will be met today.”

The rumor quickly gained steam around the world as international news organizations picked up on the story. NBC reported that two independent sources had confirmed that Mubarak would step down and that his vice president, Omar Suleiman, would take over. CNN reported that CIA Director Leon Panetta also expected Mubarak to resign Thursday.

U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday urged Mubarak to immediately begin the process of handing over power, although he stopped short of calling for Mubarak to leave office right now.

"What is absolutely clear is that we are witnessing history unfold," he said in comments ahead of a scheduled speech at Northern Michigan University, adding that this was a "moment of transformation" for Egypt. Some observers are interpreting Mubarak's refusal to resign as a slight to Obama.

In Tahrir Square the excitement was palpable in the afternoon. Few protesters could believe that this grassroots movement might actually succeed in forcing Mubarak, who has held power for three decades, to resign.

Many of the protesters, old and young, were hugging and crying as they waited for Mubarak’s speech.

“I can’t control my emotions tonight, I can’t wait for Mubarak to leave,” said Mohamed Abdel Moez, 44, who sobbed as he videotaped the crowd with his camera phone. “I will be so happy.”

Moez, however, was not so lucky.

Robin Wright, a distinguished scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace Wilson Center who has interviewed Mubarak several times, said Mubarak's speech appeared desperate.

"It was out of touch, and it’s one of the vainest political acts I’ve witnessed in my lifetime,” she said. “This is a man who is so self-absorbed that he’s not ready to recognize what has become incredibly clear over the last 17 days — that his reign is finished.”

Angry demonstrators waved large Egyptian flags and several Tunisian flags. Egypt’s revolution was partly inspired by the uprising in Tunisia that forced out President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali after his 23-year reign.

A group of about 15 men stood on top of a burned out van that once belonged to the country’s feared security forces in a symbolic scene that demonstrated just how far the protesters had come since the first few days of demonstrations when police violently cracked down on the movement.

Rumors swirled around the square Thursday that a senior military commander might assume power, which was given some credence by reports in local media. The armed forces supreme council was said to have convened earlier Thursday to begin the orderly transition of power.

But after the speech it was unclear what role the military would now play and if it would stop the protesters from marching to the presidential palace.

Protesters made it clear Thursday that nothing short of a Western-style democracy would satisfy them, demanding the departure of the prime minister, the parliament, the president, vice president and refusing any system led by the military.

“We don’t want an army-led regime,” the crowd chanted at one point.

Some, after enduring more than three decades of unflinching rule, were rightly pessimistic earlier in the afternoon.

“I don’t think he will resign. He is too stubborn,” said Yasir, 47, who has been protesting everyday since the demonstrations began on Jan. 25. “He is only concerned with himself.”

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