Thousands of Egyptian protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square erupted into chants of “Down with Mubarak!” and waved their shoes above their heads in disgust after President Hosni Mubarak’s speech Feb. 10, which defied nearly universal expectations that he would accede to demands the he step down. Instead, he said he would stay on until September elections, while delegating most powers to Vice President Omar Suleiman. Protesters immediately spread out from Tahrir Square, surrounding the parliament building, council of ministers headquarters and other top government offices—all guarded by thick ranks of army troops and tanks. Facing off with the troops, they chant: “Egyptian army, the choice is now, the regime or the people!”
Hours before the speech, the military had announced through bullhorns at Tahrir Square that the address would accede to the protesters’ “legitimate” demands—creating a hopeful, carnival-like atmosphere in the occupied plaza.
Bizarrely, Mubarak’s speech began by posing himself as a champion of democratic reform, saying the “martyrs’ blood will not go in vain,” calling the Egyptian people his “sons and daughters” who he was “proud of” for demanding “change.” Implying that calls for his resignation were coming from foreign powers, he said he would “not to listen to talk coming from abroad” (rendered in some translations as “never bend to foreign diktats”). Towards the end of the rambling speech, he said he had “decided to delegate power to the vice president based on the constitution.” He added: “I am conscious of the dangers of this crossroad…and this forces us to prioritize the higher interests of the nation.”
In a short speech following Mubarak’s address, Suleiman told the protesters to go home, saying that their demands had been met. They replied with chants of: “To the palace we are heading, martyrs by the millions!”
ElBaradei foresees “explosion”
Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei posted a Twitter message after Mubarak’s speech: “Egypt will explode. Army must save the country now.”
Calling Mubarak’s speech an “act of deception,” ElBaradei later told CNN: “There is no way the Egyptian people right now are ready to accept either Mubarak or his vice president. And my fear right now is this will start violence.” He called on “the army, to come to save the country…from…going down the drain.”
Obama reaction —still equivocal
Immediately after Mubarak’s speech, President Barack Obama called an emergency meeting of his national security team.
In a Michigan speech just before Mubarak’s speech, Obama expressed support for the protesters: “We are witnessing history unfold. It’s a moment of transition that’s taking place because the people of Egypt are calling for change. They’ve turned out in extraordinary numbers, representing all ages and all walks of life but its young people who have been at the forefront.”
Xenophobia, instability cards played
Egypt’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit complained to PBS News Hour about comments from US Vice President Joe Biden, who called for a “prompt” transition in Egypt. “When you speak about ‘prompt,’ ‘immediate,’ ‘now’…you are imposing your will on him,” Aboul Gheit said of his boss Mubarak.
Aboul Gheit expressed special outrage at Biden’s call for lifting of the state of emergency: “When I read it this morning, I was really amazed, because because right now, as we speak, we have 17,000 prisoners loose in the streets out of jails that have been destroyed. How can you ask me to sort of disband that emergency law while I’m in difficulty? Give me time, allow me to have control to stabilize the nation, to stabilize the state and then we would look into the issue.” (CNN, Feb. 9)
Suez on strike
A 6,000-strong wildcat strike by workers in the Suez Canal zone will not affect the canal’s operations, officials insisted. (Labor Notes, Feb. 10; Reuters, Feb. 8) Hundreds of protesters from a poor area of the canal city of Port Said torched the local police headquarters and burned police cars before storming the provincial government headquarters for the second time in two days. (Labor Notes, Feb. 10; AFP, Feb. 11)
Violence in the south
At least five people have been killed and 100 wounded in two days of clashes between police and protesters at El Kharga in the southern New Valley region. When police fired on a demonstration, protesters burned seven official buildings, including two police stations, a police barracks, a courthouse and the local headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party. (Daily Times, Pakistan, Feb. 10)