The military threw Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak a lifeline yesterday, endorsing his plan to stay in office until September even as hundreds of thousands of angry protesters took back to the streets.
In a statement read out on state television a little earlier, the military said that it would guarantee Mubarak followed through with his promises to reform the Constitution to ensure a fair presidential poll in September.
However, the protesters had wanted the army to go much further and unseat the 82-year-old autocrat, who has ceded unspecified powers to his vice president, but refuses to quit despite weeks of demonstrations against his 30-year rule.
The military’s decision could provoke a dangerous confrontation between troops and protesters, who are already livid that Mubarak failed to announce his resignation in an address to the nation on Thursday night.
The army’s Supreme Council had raised the hopes of many ahead of Mubarak’s televised address, announcing they would act “in support of the legitimate demands of the people” and “take steps to protect the nation.”
However, yesterday’s announcement, read aloud on state television, suggested the military has now thrown its weight behind Mubarak and the concessions he has so far offered in a bid to calm the revolt.
The army also vowed to lift the much-criticized emergency law in force since Mubarak’s predecessor Anwar El Sadat was assassinated in 1981, but only “as soon as the current circumstances are over.”
It also said it was committed to “safeguarding the legitimate demands of the people and will work to implement them ... for a peaceful transition of power and a free democratic society.”
The council stressed it would not arrest protesters, but warned against any “harm to the safety and security of the nation” and it urged striking state employees to head back to work.
Outside the presidential palace, protesters reacted furiously to the military’s announcement, which was read to the crowd by a colonel.
In a show of solidarity in at least lower levels of the army, three Egyptian officers shed their weapons and uniforms and joined the protesters.
An impassioned preacher addressed the military in his sermon, exhorting them to “act in a way that will be acceptable to God on judgment day,” shortly before fainting and being carried away through the crowd.
On Thursday night, hundreds of thousands had crowded into Tahrir to hear a speech that was widely expected to be Mubarak’s last as president.
Instead, he delegated some of his powers to his ally and Egypt’s former intelligence supremo, Omar Suleiman, while vowing he would stay in office until September and one day die in Egypt, ruling out a flight into exile.
His hotly anticipated declaration wrong-footed world leaders and enraged demonstrators.
Tahrir Square, earlier a scene of partying and celebration ahead of the expected resignation, erupted in anger, with protesters waving their shoes in disgust, even before Mubarak finished his televised address.
Some protesters have suggested escalating the campaign by marching in their thousands to the heavily fortified presidential compound or the state television building, which would increase the risk of clashes.
Despite the grimly defiant mood, protesters found lighter ways to express their anger at Mubarak. In the middle of Tahrir, someone had drawn a giant outline of a donkey on the ground.