CAIRO – Egypt’s army threw President Hosni Mubarak a lifeline on Friday, endorsing his plan to stay in office until September even as hundreds of thousands of angry protesters took back to the streets.
Demonstrators sobbed as they conducted the weekly Muslim prayers in massed ranks in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The preacher choked up as he gave the sermon and the crowd screamed “Leave! Leave!” at each mention of the hated president.
In a statement read out on state television a little earlier, the military said it would guarantee that Mubarak follow through with his promises to reform the constitution to ensure a fair presidential poll in September.
But 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 the 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.”
But Friday’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-criticised emergency law in force since Mubarak’s predecessor 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.
One demonstrator grabbed his microphone to berate the military. “You have disappointed us, all our hopes rested in you,” he shouted, as the crowd began to chant slogans calling for Mubarak to be put on trial.
“No, no, this is not a coup,” the colonel protested, insisting that the army would not take power itself.
In Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the daily protests in central Cairo, several kilometres (miles) away, hundreds of thousands of protesters packed in for the Friday prayer, galvanised by fury at Mubarak’s refusal to step down.
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 judgement 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.
Campaigners have called for Friday to see the biggest protests yet. Hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — were expected to march after the main weekly Muslim prayers.
Some protesters have suggested escalating the campaign by marching into their thousands to the heavily fortified presidential compound or the state television building, which would increase the risk of clashes.
“I think today we have to go to the palace. Here in Tahrir, this is endless,” 60-year-old Abdul Aziz Habib, a factory owner, told AFP.
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.
Inside the drawing a caption read: “We received your message and we know that you are a donkey.”
Mubarak was also on a collision course with the international community, and in particular Egypt’s key ally and donor, Washington.
In his speech on Thursday, he took a swipe at the United States and other countries that want a faster transition to democracy in the Arab world’s most populous nation, vowing: “I have never bent to foreign diktats.”
US President Barack Obama reacted with a flash of anger of his own, saying Mubarak had failed to map out “meaningful or sufficient” change, or to speak clearly enough to Egypt and the world.