Egypt On Brink As Mubarak Refuses To Go

As the sun rose over the city, thousands of anti-Mubarak protesters gathered in Tahrir (Liberation Square) and troops in army tanks and armoured vehicles looked on. “We will hold him to account, we will hold him to account,” they chanted.

Others emerged from dozens of tents and makeshift shelters where they had bedded down for a night of frustration and disappointment having turned up for a resignation speech only to hear Mubarak say he planned to hand over powers to his deputy.

The national anthem played over the public address system ahead of noon (1000 GMT) prayers, after which the political rally demanding Mubarak steps down will start in earnest.

An increasingly sour confrontation after 18 days of unrest has raised fears of violence in the most populous Arab nation, a key U.S. ally in an oil-rich region where the chance of disorder spreading to other repressive states has troubled the West.

Troops have promised to protect the right to demonstrate. However, the lengthening showdown may test that resolve, with many Egyptians eager to end the economic disruption of the protests and the army command keen to show it can impose order.

The higher council of the armed forces met and will issue a statement later, the state news agency reported. The council convened on Thursday under the leadership of Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

MILITARY STATEMENT IMMINENT

Al Arabiya television said the council would issue “an important statement in a short while”, without giving details.

“My great fear is that if the demonstrations don’t end, that the military begins to split over this. You may have younger commanders who don’t want to go down with the ship,” said Elliott Abrams, a former U.S. deputy national security adviser.

“If the demonstrations build … then you once again face the army with the choice they have sought to avoid — put the demonstrations down or get rid of Mubarak. They have managed so far not to make that choice, but if the people stay in the streets then they are going to have to make that choice.”

The presidential palace was heavily reinforced with armour and extra troops and razor wire after protesters said they would march on Friday to Mubarak’s official residence to demand he step down immediately.

U.S. President Barack Obama also sounded less than satisfied by Mubarak’s latest concessions, saying he must explain changes he was making and do more to offer a path toward democracy.

For some hours on Thursday there had been euphoria in Tahrir Square, after a military communique that many read as a prelude to an army move to strip the 82-year-old former air force commander of the power he has held for 30 years.

Some believed the pledge to protect the nation by a high command which is respected throughout Egypt was effectively a military coup designed to force the president’s hand.

JOY, DESPAIR THEN ANGER

Rallies in Cairo and other cities turned festive expecting that Mubarak was about to resign in a televised address.

Within minutes of his broadcast starting, however, protesters were waving shoes and jeering in contempt as Mubarak launched into a lengthy explanation of his role in supervising a review of constitutional arrangements before he would quit, as he had said, at a presidential election due in September.

Vice President Omar Suleiman, a 74-year-old former intelligence chief who has maintained close relations with the United States and Israel, later appeared on television himself to promise a “road map” to democratic elections.

Although he has handed over powers, the president said the transfer was in line with the constitution which leaves him in ultimate charge, and able to return.

The vice president, if delegated powers, cannot dissolve parliament, request constitutional amendments or sack the cabinet according to article 82. There is a dispute over whether the president could hand him even those powers if he chose.

Demonstrators, who two weeks ago could scarcely have dreamt of winning such concessions, were not satisfied and said they would continue to press for Mubarak’s immediate departure and an end to the military-dominated system in place for six decades.

“No to Mubarak. No to Suleiman. One is an agent and the other a coward,” chanted protesters camped out again overnight in central Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Some tried to march towards Mubarak’s residence in Cairo overnight but army roadblocks barred their way with razor wire. The army has been on the streets for two weeks, since police attacked protesters on January 28 and then pulled back.

Soldiers appeared to let some 200 people through to demonstrate outside the state broadcasting building overnight.

Businessman Naguib Sawiris, chairman of Orascom Telecom and one of the so-called Wise Men who have been trying to mediate a way out of the crisis, urged an end to protest.

“The continuation of this anarchy … will lead to destruction,” he told Al Arabiya television, saying people should go home. “We must preserve the dignity of the president.”

But Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel peace prize winner and former U.N. diplomat who runs a liberal political movement, wrote on Twitter: “Egypt will explode. Army must save the country now.”

Egypt’s ambassador to Washington said it was clear that Suleiman was now “de facto president”. But Egyptian analysts said Mubarak still appeared to be able to call the shots.

“Mubarak still holds the reins to power and he can easily and at any time retrieve presidential powers from Suleiman,” said Hassan Nafaa, a commentator and government critic.

The army, from politically plugged-in generals to poor conscripts and junior officers, is key to what happens next.

“This poses a real dilemma for the army,” said Rosemary Hollis at London’s City University. “Are they going to allow the demonstrators to escalate their demonstrations so that they push the point that Mubarak has got to go, and that means the army definitely does split with Mubarak? The demonstrators are very disappointed and there will be violence.”

WASHINGTON WARY OF TUMULT

Washington’s approach has been based on Egypt’s strategic importance: a rare Arab state no longer hostile to Israel, the guardian of the Suez Canal linking Europe and Asia and a major force against militant Islam in the Middle East.

Obama said before Mubarak spoke that the United States would support an “orderly and genuine transition to democracy”. Washington would be publicly uncomfortable if the army held on to power, and also does not want Islamist rule.

After the speech, Obama said in a statement: “The Egyptian people have been told that there was a transition of authority, but it is not yet clear that this transition is immediate, meaningful or sufficient.”

Washington has pressed Mubarak to speed the pace of reform but stopped short of demanding his resignation. Reuters