Army Backs Mubarak as Crowds Surge


CAIRO — As tens of thousands of chanting protesters thronged central Cairo and elsewhere on the 18th day of Egypt’s uprising, the powerful armed forces scrambled on Friday to offer assurances and concessions, endorsing President Hosni Mubarak’s refusal to step down while seeking to defuse the outrage and anger

But it was not clear whether the military’s position would satisfy demonstrators who have previously cast the military as an ally and who want Mr. Mubarak to leave immediately — a demand the military did not come near to supporting in a statement on Friday after a meeting of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

In the statement, read out on state television, the military appeared to support Mr. Mubarak’s insistence, laid out in a speech on Thursday night, that he would remain in power until elections are held, delegate some unspecified authority to Vice President Omar Suleiman and oversee constitutional change.

At the same time, in an effort to meet some of the protesters’ demands, the military said it would guarantee the lifting of Egypt’s emergency law once the current protests were over and would defend “the lawful demands of the people.” The law was imposed after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 — which enabled Mr. Mubarak, then the vice president, to take power. Protesters say it has been used to suppress opposition.

The military’s statement, labeled Communiqué No. 2, followed an announcement on Thursday offering “affirmation and support for the legitimate demands of the people.”

On Friday, the military also promised that the “honorable people who have rejected corruption” and who have demanded reform would not be “pursued.” Many demonstrators fear that if they call off their protests they will face arrest and punishment.

In a direct appeal to the demonstrators to end protests that have forced the autocratic Mr. Mubarak to make once unthinkable concessions, the military said that people should return to work and resume normal life. The turmoil has cost Egypt dearly in terms of its economy, the prestige of its leaders and its vaunted reputation for stability.

The president’s declaration Thursday night immediately enraged hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who had gathered in Tahrir Square in anticipation of his departure and set in motion a volatile new stage in the three-week uprising.

Western diplomats said that Egyptian government officials had assured them privately on Friday that they had expected Mr. Mubarak’s speech to signal that he was making a more complete exit, permanently and irrevocably delegating all his powers to his vice president.

But Mr. Mubarak’s speech confounded their expectations, leaving military officials and Egyptian diplomats scrambling to reassure their Western allies that Mr. Mubarak had indeed signaled a more definitive break with power, the diplomats said, speaking in return for anonymity because of the delicacy and fluidity of the deepening crisis.

Western diplomats and American officials say that Egypt’s top military commanders, including both the defense minister and the chairman of the armed forces, have told them for weeks that the Egyptian army would never use force against civilians to preserve the regime. Some depicted Mr. Mubarak’s speech as a sign that his power had effectively waned.

“The government of Egypt says absolutely, it is done, it is over,” a Western diplomat said, but “that is not what anybody heard,” in part because Mr. Mubarak’s delegation of power to his vice president did not seem to be irrevocable. But the developments nonetheless reopened the question of who wielded ultimate power in Egypt after the military’s growing intervention.

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 Mr. Mubarak 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.

Outside the capital, television images showed large numbers of protesters gathering under a sea of Egyptian flags in Alexandria.

it has provoked among protesters.


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