Thursday, February 10, 2011
Egypt's uprising appeared to have reached a critical point Thursday, as senior military leaders and government officials told protesters in Cairo that "all your demands will be met."
Foremost among those demands is the departure of President Hosni Mubarak, who was expected to address the nation later Thursday. In the U.S., CIA Director Leon Panetta said there is a "strong likelihood" that Mubarak will step down Thursday evening, but later said he had "not gotten specific word that [Mubarak] … will do that."
Gen. Hassan al-Roueini, military commander for the Cairo area, told protesters massed in the capital's Tahrir Square that "all your demands will be met today." The crowds erupted in cheers, with demonstrators holding up their hands in V-for-victory signs and shouting, "The people want the end of the regime!" and, "Allahu akbar," or "God is great."
Hossan Badrawi, secretary general of the ruling National Democratic Party, told NPR that he had spoken to Mubarak and asked him to turn over his powers to Vice President Omar Suleiman.
State TV said a meeting between Mubarak and Suleiman was taking place and showed footage of the two leaders talking.
Badrawi said the mood in Tahrir Square "seems to be in response to the idea that the army is taking over," not the unpopular vice president who has been the public face of the regime throughout much of the protests.
In a sign of confusion, however, Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Shafiq told state television that Mubarak had made no such decision to resign."Everything is normal. Everything is still in the hands of the president," Shafiq said.
The uncertainty over Mubarak's position left protest organizers' plans for a "march of millions" on Friday in limbo.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One, said developments in Egypt remain fluid but refused to comment on Panetta's remarks. Gibbs said President Obama was monitoring events and had met with national security adviser Tom Donilon before leaving Thursday morning for an event in Michigan.
"We're going to have to wait and see what's going on," Obama later told reporters.
The announcement by Egypt's military followed a meeting of the country's Supreme Military Council in which the "necessary measures and preparations to protect the nation" were discussed, according to the state MENA news agency. TV footage of the meeting showed that Mubarak, who is head of the council, was not present.
A communique from the council read on state television said the military would "support the legitimate demands of the people." The council would remain in permanent session to explore "what measures and arrangements could be made to safeguard the nation, its achievements and the ambitions of its great people," according to the statement.
State TV also reported Thursday that a formal corruption investigation has been opened against three former Egyptian government ministers and a former ruling party leader.
Egyptians have been infuriated by newspaper reports that the Mubarak family has amassed billions, perhaps tens of billions of dollars in wealth while, according to the World Bank, about 40 percent of the country's 80 million people live below or near the poverty line of $2 a day. The family's true net worth is not known.
The council would remain in permanent session to explore "what measures and arrangements could be made to safeguard the nation, its achievements and the ambitions of its great people," according to the statement.
State television also reported Thursday that a formal corruption investigation has been opened against three former Egyptian government ministers and a former ruling party leader.
"We demand a trial of Mubarak and his regime; we are protesting corruption," said Mohammed Zarie, one of the marching lawyers, who said hundreds of lawyers arrived from provinces and planned to spend the night at the square.
Amid the demonstrations and fresh labor strikes, the government also telegraphed more warnings of a strong response to the popular uprising.
Speaking to the Arab news network Al-Arabiya, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said earlier Thursday that if "adventurers" take over the process of reform, the military "will be compelled to defend the constitution and national security ... and we'll find ourselves in a very grave situation."
Gheit's remarks echoed Suleiman's comments a day before implying that martial law could result if the protesters did not go home.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro said protesters had become increasingly concerned in recent days of a "stealthy crackdown" by soldiers. Until recently, the army has remained neutral, but there have been reports that soldiers have begun harassing protesters in the past few days.
"Some of the people that have been trying to get in supplies to the square have disappeared only to re-emerge later with allegations that they have been mistreated by the army," Garcia-Navarro said.
Youth activists organizing the protests had hoped the turnout at Friday's rally would match demonstrations over the past several weeks that have drawn an estimated quarter-million people or more.
The protesters filling streets of Cairo and other cities since Jan. 25 have already posed the greatest challenge to the president's authoritarian rule since he came to power 30 years ago. They have wrought promises of sweeping concessions and reforms, a new Cabinet and a purge of the ruling party leadership, but Mubarak had refused their demands that he step down before September elections.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has said about 300 people have been killed since the protests began, but it is still compiling a final toll.
Suleiman has proposed a gradual program for reform, holding discussions with the opposition over constitutional amendments to be approved by referendum by June, paving the way to an election in which Mubarak would not run.
But that outline also preserves a heavy regime hand in directing the reform process, raising suspicion that it will not bring real democracy. Youth activists organizing the Tahrir protests have refused to attend any negotiations on reform or to halt demonstrations until Mubarak goes. Not only have they fended off government attempts to fragment their ranks and draw some into talks, but also their protests have spread.
Despite the negotiations, "most people say they will not talk to the government until Hosni Mubarak is gone — and there's no sign of that happening," Garcia-Navarro said.
One of the few groups that did enter talks with Suleiman — the leftist group Tagammu — announced Thursday that it had broken off contacts over the coup threats. Tagammu is one of the official, government-sanctioned opposition parties that have little public support and no role in the protests, and are seen by protesters as little more than extensions of the regime.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro and Corey Flintoff reported from Cairo for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.