c.2011 New York Times News Service
CAIRO —The Egyptian military appeared to assert its leadership Friday amid growing indications that President Hosni Mubarak was yielding all power. A Western official said that Mubarak had left the capital, though that could not be independently confirmed.
The Associated Press, citing a local official, said that Mubarak had flown to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, where he maintains a residence.
As protesters swarmed into the streets Friday morning for what was expected to be the biggest and most volatile demonstrations in the three-week revolt here, the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces issued a statement over state television and radio indicating that the military, not Mubarak, was in effective control of the country. It was unclear whether the military would take meaningful steps toward democracy or embark on a new military dictatorship.
Western diplomats said that officials of the Egyptian government were scrambling to assure that a muddled speech Mubarak made on Thursday night that enraged protesters had in fact signaled his irrevocable hand over of presidential authority.
“The government of Egypt says absolutely, it is done, it is over,” a Western diplomat said, suggesting that the Egyptian military and government officials had expected Mubarak to make his exit clear last night, but that the president failed to deliver those lines. “That is not what anybody heard.”
The army announcement and diplomatic scrambling appeared intended to forestall the potential for violent confrontations as hundreds of thousands of protesters, angered by Mubarak’s refusal to step down on Thursday, flooded the streets demanding his full resignation — if not also his public trial for violence against them.
By about 1 p.m., state television was reporting that thousands had gathered around the state television building and were threatening violence against employees who entered. Their rage had been stoked when, after a day of mounting official signals that he was about to make an exit, the president failed to convey any such conclusion in either its tone or literal meaning.
Although he said that he was “delegating” his powers to his vice president, he did it in an aside that was easy to miss. He apparently referred to a provision of the Constitution that would have allowed him to reclaim those powers. And the rest of his speech sounded very much like he was an active president with no intention of resigning.
The statement Friday by the military’s Supreme Council struck a very different tone and appeared to assert that the military, not Mubarak, was now in control. The military said that first it would end the 30-year-old emergency law — used to detain without trial— “as soon as the current circumstances are over.” The protesters have demanded that the law be eliminated immediately, before any talks about ending the uprising.
The military also said that it would oversee the amendment of the Constitution to “conduct free and fair presidential elections.”
“The Armed forces are committed to sponsor the legitimate demands of the people,” the statement declared, and it vowed to ensure the fulfillment of its promises “within defined time frames with all accuracy and seriousness and until the peaceful transfer of authority is completed toward a free democratic community that the people aspire to.” And the military further promised the protesters — “the honest people who refused the corruption and demanded reforms” — immunity from any prosecution or “security pursuit.”
The statement urged a return to normalcy but made no threats to enforce it. Western diplomats and American officials say that the top military commanders, including the defense minister and the chairman of the armed forces, have told them for weeks that the Egyptian Army would never use force against Egyptians civilians to preserve the regime. And on Friday morning the military said that the defense minister, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, was presiding over the military’s Supreme Council, which appeared to have taken control of the state.
It has been “increasingly clear,” a Western diplomat said Friday, that “the army will not go down with Mubarak. ”
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The military statement, broadcast first by a civilian announcer on state television and then by a uniformed military spokesman, came as the city — and many other places in Egypt — began noon prayers on Friday, the Muslim holy day and the beginning of the weekend, a moment that has been the prelude for large-scale demonstrations since the revolt started.
Several hundred protesters gathered outside the presidential palace in the suburb of Heliopolis, news reports said, but troops backed by armored vehicles and razor wire barricades did nothing to prevent them from assembling.
In the upscale neighborhood of Mohandiseen, about a thousand protesters spilled out of the Mustafa Mahmoud mosque to march on the Radio and Television Building, even though shouting matches broke out as some Egyptians watching them urged them to call off their protest since Mubarak had repeated that he would leave in September when elections are scheduled. But one demonstrator, Mohamed Salwy, 44, said: “Mubarak doesn’t understand. I think these protests are going to have to go on for a long time.”
Once they arrived at the broadcasting center, they were joined by thousands of others, facing a ring of steel made up of a dozen armored personnel carriers and tanks forming a cordon. Soldiers with heavy machine guns looked down at them from a balcony.
Outside the capital, television images showed large numbers of protesters gathering under a sea of Egyptian flags in Alexandria, and there were unconfirmed reports of thousands of protesters surrounding government buildings in Suez.
The reaction abroad to Mubarak’s address was more measured, but also critical. President Barack Obama issued a statement Thursday night saying that “too many Egyptians remain unconvinced that the government is serious about a genuine transition to democracy.” European leaders also called for more fundamental change and urged that it happen faster.
Earlier in the day, even Obama seemed to believe that Mubarak would go further, celebrating his belief that Egypt was “witnessing history unfold.”
Instead, Mubarak, 82, a former general, struck a defiant, even provocative note in his speech. While he acknowledged for the first time that his government had made mistakes, he made it clear that he was still president and that reforms in Egypt would proceed under his government’s supervision and according to the timetable of elections in September.
Mubarak echoed the contention of officials in past days that foreigners might be behind the uprising, but he cited no evidence to support that allegation.
For hours before Mubarak’s speech, jubilant crowds, prematurely celebrating their victory, positioned themselves next to large speakers for what they assumed was a resignation speech. At about 10:45, the crowd quieted as Mubarak started his speech, which was transmitted via a tiny radio that someone held up to a microphone.
Soon, angry chants echoed through the square. People gathered in groups, confused, enraged and faced with Mubarak’s plea to endorse his vision of gradual reform. Some said his speech was intended to divide the protesters, by peeling off those who thought he had gone far enough. Others said it reflected the isolation of a president they had come to detest.
By midnight, about 3,000 protesters made their way from the square to the Radio and Television Building, which protesters loathe for propaganda that has cast them as troublemakers. In a sign of the confusion that reigned in Cairo, youthful opposition leaders sought to dissect the series of statements from the military command, Mubarak and Suleiman. Some believed that the army, long a player behind the scenes, was still intent on seeking power but had not yet mustered the leverage to force Mubarak from office.
It was unclear whether the military had tried to oust Mubarak and failed or was participating in a more complicated choreography in Egypt’s opaque system of rule.
Along with the protests, labor strikes have flared across Egypt, organized by workers at post offices, telecommunications centers, textile factories and cement plants. Clashes have occurred in distant parts of the country — from the New Valley west of the Nile to Suez, a city along the Suez Canal, which provides Egypt with crucial earnings.
While organizers have said Friday’s rallies may be some of the biggest protests yet, they spoke in darker tones about what they may represent now, given what many view as the determination of Mubarak to stay in office, whatever the numbers.
The anger was fueled in good part by expectations that Mubarak would be making his last address to the nation. For much of the day, people traded rumors about where he might be preparing to go to — Bahrain and Dubai were two rumored destinations — and then by a cascade of official statements suggesting that might be the case.
The first came from the civilian government. Around 3 p.m., Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq told the BBC that talks with Mubarak about his possible resignation were already under way.
Gen. Hassan al-Roueini appeared in Tahrir Square to tell protesters that “all your demands will be met today,” witnesses said, words that were quickly read by crowds around him to mean that Mubarak was on the way out.
A short time later, the military, still seen as potentially decisive in the conflict, announced that it was taking action in what sounded to many people like a coup.
“In affirmation and support for the legitimate demands of the people, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces convened today, 10 February 2011, to consider developments to date,” an army spokesman declared on state television, in what was described as communique No. 1 of the army command, “and decided to remain in continuous session to consider what procedures and measures that may be taken to protect the nation, and the achievements and aspirations of the great people of Egypt.”
Around the same time, Gen. Sami Hafez Enan, the chief of staff of the armed forces, appeared in Tahrir Square to tell the protesters the same thing, to roars of celebration.
The reports seemed increasingly convincing, to both protesters and even high-ranking officials. Hossam Badrawy, the top official of the ruling party, said in a television interview that he had personally told the president he should resign. And, though Mubarak did not respond, Badrawy said he believed he would go. “That is my expectation, that is my hope,” he added in an interview. The news electrified protestors in the square and Mubarak opened his speech with words that suggested he was staying. “I am addressing all of you from the heart, a speech from the father to his sons and daughters,” he said. He expressed what he described as pride for them.
“Can this man be serious or did he lose his mind?” asked George Ishak, a longtime opposition leader. Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition leader and Nobel laureate, was blunter. “I ask the army to intervene immediately to save Egypt,” he wrote on his Twitter feed. “The credibility of the army is being put to the test.”
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, ANTHONY SHADID and ALAN COWELL
David D. Kirkpatrick and Anthony Shadid reported from Cairo, and Alan Cowell from Paris. Reporting was contributed by Kareem Fahim, Liam Stack, Mona El-Naggar and Thanassis Cambanis from Cairo, and Sheryl Gay Stolberg from Marquette, Mich.