Defiant Mubarak Steps Back, But Not Down
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak transferred his authority to his vice president while leaving his ongoing role in the government unclear. But he said again that he would stay in office until September, leaving unclear his own role in the government.
Tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators watching in central Cairo immediately broke into angry chants of "Get out! Get out!"
Mubarak, Suleiman Speak
The president addressed Egyptians as "sons and daughters," calling the demonstrators' demand for change "just and legitimate." But even as he transferred authority to Vice President Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's tone was as defiant as it was conciliatory.
"I have to respond to your calls," he said on state TV. "But I am also embarrassed and I will not listen to any foreign interventions or dictations, regardless of their sources.
"I have seen that it is required to delegate the powers and authorities of the president to the vice president as dictated in the constitution," Mubarak said near the end of a 15-minute address.
He conceded that "mistakes are apparent in any political system in any party, but what's important is owning up to our mistakes and fixing our mistakes and holding responsible those who need to be held responsible."
Shortly after Mubarak's speech, Suleiman, appearing on state TV, called on the nation to "join hands and march forward."
He criticized foreign television channels for fomenting the unrest.
"Do not listen to satellite television stations, whose main goal is to fuel sedition," he said. "Instead, listen to your own conscience."
The president's speech infuriated the crowd gathered in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, who responded with chants of anger and disappointment, calling the man who has ruled Egypt for 30 years "illegitimate." Before the speech was even over, anger and confusion swept through the crowd.
One of those protesters, Karim Kandil, told All Things Considered host Melissa Block that the crowd was angry that Mubarak had no intention of leaving office immediately.
Asked what the demonstrators might do now, he said, "Well, there have been some calls to head out to the presidential palace. However, there have been other calls to calm people down, and have them stand their ground here at Tahrir Square. This is our ground, and we're going to stand it."
Kandil said protests will continue in Cairo and across Egypt on Friday "to demand that Mubarak should step down once and for all, and have him tried for the crimes that he has committed."
NPR correspondent Eric Westervelt, reporting from in the square, said some people began throwing shoes. Others were leaving the square, saying they would be back on Friday for more demonstrations.
"There's also some talk of marching to the presidential palace," Westervelt said.
"I'm really afraid that things are going to turn much uglier now in Egypt," said Michele Dunne, of the Working Group on Egypt and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Dunne told NPR's Ari Shapiro that demonstrations could now escalate — and that protesters might begin marching on Mubarak's presidential residence.
If that were to happen, the Egyptian army would be under a great deal of pressure to find an appropriate way to handle the situation, Dunne said.
"I think actually having Mubarak come and speak today was worse than not having him speak at all," she said.
Ahead of the speech, hundreds of thousands celebrated as they waited for Mubarak to speak in hopes that he would cede power. Earlier, the military said on state TV that it had stepped in to "safeguard the country" after weeks of chaos and instability sparked by the nationwide protests.
Army Gen. Hassan al-Roueini, military commander for the Cairo area, told the crowd at Tahrir Square during the afternoon that "all your demands" would be met.
Within hours of the general's remarks, throngs of protesters had streamed into the square, which was a sea of Egyptian flags and camera flashes. But the jubilation for some was tempered by fears the country could be simply swapping one authoritarian regime for another and that it was too early to declare victory.
"I am not optimistic," said Ahmed Abdel-Hamid, one of the young protesters. "I am afraid that people will feel triumph and leave the square while in fact we have handed power from Mubarak to the army into a military abyss."
Communique No. 1
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 press agency MENA. TV footage of the meeting showed that it was chaired by Defense Minister Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi and not Mubarak, as is customary.
In what the council called "Communique No. 1," read on state television, the military said it 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," the statement said.
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.
"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.
The uncertainty over Mubarak's position left protest organizers' plans for a "march of millions" on Friday in limbo.
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.
President Obama, who spent part of Thursday at Northern Michigan University, watched Mubarak's speech in the conference room on Air Force One while returning to Washington. He was to meet with his national security team upon returning to the White House.
Before Mubarak's address, he said the U.S. stands ready "to support an orderly and genuine transition to democracy" in Egypt.
"What is absolutely clear is we are witnessing history unfold," Obama told students at Northern Michigan University. "It's a moment of transformation."
Also Thursday, CIA Director Leon Panetta appeared on Capitol Hill before the House Intellegence Committee where he was asked about reports that Mubarak would relinquish power.
"I got the same information you did, that there is a strong likelihood that Mubarak will step down this evening, which will be significant in terms of where the hopefully orderly transition in Egypt will take place,'' Panetta said.
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.
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.