CAIRO — Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced he is handing his powers over to his vice president, Omar Suleiman, and ordered constitutional amendments. But the move means he retains his title of president and ensures regime control over the reform process, falling short of protester demands.
Protesters in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, hoping he would announce his resignation outright, watched in stunned silence to his speech, slapping their hands to their foreheads in anger, some crying or waving their shoes in the air in a sign of contempt. After he finished, they resumed their chants of “Leave! Leave! Leave!”
“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 on state TV. The article is used to transfer powers if the president is “temporarily” unable to carry out his duties and does not mean his resignation.
Mubarak said that the demands of protesters are just and legitimate. He said he had requested six constitutional amendments to answer protesters’ reform demands and that he would lift hated emergency laws — but with the caveat, when security permitted, a promise that his vice president made earlier this week but was dismissed by protesters.
Suleiman has told anti-government protesters to go home and help rebuild the country in a nationally televised address after Mubarak transferred his powers.
Suleiman called on the nation to unite and look to the future.
Egypt’s military had announced on national television that it stepped in to “safeguard the country” and assured protesters that President Hosni Mubarak will meet their demands in the strongest indication yet that the longtime leader has lost power. In Washington, the CIA chief said there was a “strong likelihood” Mubarak would step down today.
The military’s dramatic announcement appeared to show that the military was taking control after 17 days of protests demanding Mubarak’s immediate ouster spiraled out of control.
Footage on state TV showed Defense Minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi chairing the military’s supreme council, with around two dozen top stern-faced army officers, seated around a table. Not at the meeting were Mubarak, the military commander in chief, or his vice president Omar Suleiman, a former army general and intelligence chief named to his post after the protests erupted Jan. 25.
That was seen as a sign that Suleiman, as well, was being pushed out of power.
“All your demands will be met today,” Gen. Hassan al-Roueini, military commander for the Cairo area, told thousands of protesters in central Tahrir Square. The protesters lifted al-Roueini onto their shoulders and carried him around the square, shouting, “the army, the people one hand.” Some in the crowd held up their hands in V-for-victory signs, shouting “the people want the end of the regime” and “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great,” a victory cry used by secular and religious people alike.
But protesters also chanted, “civilian not military,” a signal they do not want military rule. More people flowed into the square following the military announcement in the evening.
In the military’s announcement on state TV, the council’s spokesman read a statement announcing the military’s “support of the legitimate demands of the people.”
He said the council was 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.” That suggested Tantawi and his generals were now in charge of the country.
The statement was labeled “Communique No. 1,” language that also suggests a military coup.
The head of Mubarak’s ruling party, Hossam Badrawi, told the Associated Press that he expected that Mubarak would “respond to protesters’ demands” in his evening speech.
The moves came after protests today increasingly spiraled out of the control of efforts led by Suleiman to contain the crisis. Labor strikes erupted around the country in the past two days, showing that the Tahrir protests had tapped into the deep well of anger over economic woes, including inflation, unemployment, corruption, low wages and wide disparities between rich and poor.
In the past two days, state employees revolted against their directors, factories around the country were hit by strikes, riots broke out in several cities far from Cairo. Protesters angry over bread and housing shortages or low wages burned the offices of a governor and several police headquarters while police stood aside. Professionals and workers began joining the crowds of anti-Mubarak protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
On Thursday, hundreds of lawyers in black robes broke through a police cordon and marched on one of Mubarak’s palaces — the first time protesters had done so. The president was not in Abdeen Palace, several blocks from Tahrir. The lawyers pushed through a line of police, who did nothing to stop them.
Tens of thousands were massed in Tahrir itself, joined in the morning by striking doctors who marched in their white lab coats from a state hospital to the square and lawyers who broke with their pro-government union to join in.
“Now we’re united in one goal. The sun of the people has risen and it will not set again,” one of the lawyers, Said Bakri, said before the series of military announcements.
Suleiman has led the regime’s management of the crisis since he was named to the vice president post soon after protests erupted on Jan. 25. With his efforts failing to bring an end to protests, he and his foreign minister both warned of the possibility of a coup and imposition of martial law if the protesters do not agree to a government-directed framework of negotiations for reforms. The protesters demanded Mubarak step down first.
The protests were only gaining momentum, given a further push by the labor unrest. Strikes were flaring so quickly that protesters sent out messages to railroad workers not to halt trains with a strike because people in the provinces want to come to Cairo to join the Tahrir rallies.
Youth activists organizing the protests planned to up the pressure on the streets even further, calling for an expanded rally on Friday, hoping to repeat a showing earlier this week that drew about a quarter-million people. Friday’s protest was to be expanded, with six separate rallies planned around Cairo, all to eventually march on Tahrir, said Khaled Abdel-Hamid, speaking for a coalition of groups behind the protests.
Strikes erupted in a wide breadth of sectors — postal workers, electricity staff and service technicians at the Suez Canal, in factories manufacturing textiles, steel and beverages and hospitals.
A bus strike launched Thursday snarled traffic in Cairo, a city of 18 million where many of its impoverished residents rely on public transport. Few buses were seen on the streets, which were jammed and slow moving because of the extra reliance on cars.