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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Hosni Mubarak vows to stand down at next election – but not now

Egypt's embattled president Hosni Mubarak has bowed to the pressure of millions of people massing on the streets, pledging to step down at the next election and pave the way for a new leader of the Arab world's largest country.

Mubarak, effectively abandoned by the US in a day of fast moving developments, said he would not be a candidate for a seventh term but would remain in power to oversee reform and guarantee stability — a position that was immediately rejected by angry crowds and promised yet more drama in Egypt's extraordinary crisis.

"In the few months remaining in my current term I will work towards ensuring a peaceful transition of power," Mubarak said. "I have exhausted my life in serving Egypt and my people. I will die on the soil of Egypt and be judged by history" – a clear reference to the fate of Tunisia's president who fled into exile last month.

Looking grave as he spoke on state TV in front of the presidential seal, Mubarak attacked those responsible for protests that had been "manipulated by political forces," caused mayhem and chaos and endangered the "stability of the nation."

In a defiant, finger-wagging performance the 82-year-old said he was always going to quit in September – a position he had never made public until now.

Opposition leaders had already warned throughout a dramatic eighth day of mass protests that only Mubarak's immediate departure would satisfy them. Shortly before his address it emerged the US had urged him not to seek re-election in the face of unprecedented protests that have electrified and inspired an Arab world desperate for political and economic change.

The shift in Washington in effect withdrew US support for its closest Arab ally and linchpin of its Middle East strategy.

"May it be tonight, oh God," chanted the crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square as they waited to hear the historic speech.

Mubarak's statement came at the end of a day that saw epic protests. Millions of people rallied across the country.

"Illegitimate," chanted the vast crowds choking Tahrir Square in central Cairo. "He [Mubarak] will leave, we will not leave," went another slogan, in a festive atmosphere that belied the tense stalemate that has emerged between the people and the regime over an extraordinary 48 hours.

With the army standing by its landmark pledge not to use force against demonstrators, Mubarak faced an intense and coordinated US campaign to persuade him and the powerful Egyptian military to effect "an orderly transition" — in part via a conversation between the US defence secretary Robert Gates and Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, his Egyptian counterpart.

But as troops barricaded the presidential palace with barbed wire, Egypt's fractured opposition rallied together to reject any talks with the ruling NDP party on political reform, insisting the president must stand down before any dialogue can get under way.

On Monday Mubarak ordered his new vice-president and intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, to begin a dialogue with opposition groups, including the powerful Muslim Brotherhood. "Omar Suleiman approached us, and we have rejected his approaches," Essam el-Arian, a Brotherhood spokesman, told the Guardian. "As long as Mubarak delays his departure, these protests will remain and they will only get bigger."

Mohammed ElBaradei, the former UN arms inspector who has been nominated to lead any negotiations, met protesters and the US ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey, insisting afterwards that no talks were possible whilst the president remained in power. "I hope to see Egypt peaceful and that's going to require as a first step the departure of President Mubarak," the 68-year-old told al-Arabiya TV. "If President Mubarak leaves then everything else will progress correctly."

Mass protests were reported across Egypt, including in Alexandria, Suez and many other cities.

Khaled Nasser, son of the late and still revered Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, triggered wild cheering when he appeared in Tahrir square, as military helicopters hovered overhead.

"These are the people of Egypt, the real people. God willing they have reached their goals," he said.

Smaller rallies were held in support of the government but they were dwarfed by the huge numbers swelling the ranks of a protest movement that last night looked within reach of achieving a revolutionary change that will echo far beyond Egypt.

Underlining the regional impact of the crisis, the Jordanian prime minister was sacked after weeks of protests over price rises and unemployment and inspired by events in Tunisia and now Egypt.

Britain, meanwhile, announced that it would send a charter flight to Cairo to bring home UK nationals but passengers will have to pay £300 to use the service.


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