Egyptians vowed to hold their biggest demonstrations so far during the crisis over the country’s leadership after President Hosni Mubarak went on national television to defy calls for his immediate resignation.
Mubarak, 82, reiterated his intention to stay in office until elections in September, while handing day-to-day powers to Vice President Omar Suleiman in a bid to placate opponents who demand an end to his 30-year rule. Protesters erupted in a roar of disapproval as they listened to Mubarak’s evening speech in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. They said they’ll again mass in the square today after Muslim worshippers attend Friday prayers.
“In Cairo alone today it will be millions,” demonstrator Abdel Rahman Sabry, a 24-year-old engineering student, said in an interview. “Yesterday’s speech has really angered people. We tell him to go, he tells us: ‘I won’t go, you love me.’ Either he is crazy or we are crazy.”
Mubarak’s statement may reignite the unrest that the United Nations says has already resulted in 300 deaths over the past two weeks. The protests, inspired by the popular revolt that ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14, have sparked concern that further unrest will grip a region that holds more than 50 percent of the world’s known oil reserves.
Global stocks fell for a third day, U.S. index futures declined, and the dollar and oil rose, after Mubarak spoke. The cost of insuring Egyptian government debt soared 42 basis points to 379, the biggest increase in two weeks, according to CMA prices. Egypt’s 10-year bond yield jumped 29 basis points. The global depositary receipts of Orascom Construction Industries, Egypt’s biggest publicly traded builder, tumbled for a fourth day, falling as much as 5.6 percent.
Protesters gathered outside the presidential palace in the suburb of Heliopolis and at the headquarters of state television in Cairo. In the city of Alexandria, demonstrators chanted, “The people want to put the regime on trial,” live television pictures showed.
The crowds will grow in a reflection of widespread anger, Rime Allaf, associate fellow of the London-based Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program, said today in a phone interview from Vienna. Egyptians may have underestimated the determination of Mubarak and the institutions of his government -- including the military -- to stay in power, she said.
“There will be less leniency from the army,” she said. “There has been a naive wish to see the army take the side of the people. The regime and the army all have the same goals.”
The Supreme Military Council gathered in Cairo yesterday before Mubarak’s speech to “safeguard the interests” of the nation, sparking speculation about a military takeover.
The council said today it will guarantee the implementation of the measures announced by Mubarak, including the amendment of the constitution, and an end to the emergency law when the situation permits.
The army will also guarantee the peaceful transition to free and fair elections within the set timetable, according to a statement from the council. The army promised that protesters won’t be prosecuted. It warned against any threat to the security of the nation and its people.
Mubarak said he had asked parliament to amend six articles of the constitution. The changes would make it easier to run for president, set term limits on the presidency, and cancel the constitutional authority for anti-terrorism measures such as arbitrary arrest, searches and military tribunals.
Protesters demand the immediate lifting the emergency law, which has been in place without interruption since Mubarak took office after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
Gamal Fahmy, a journalist and a member of a newly formed alliance between young protesters and opposition figures, called for the army to “clearly side with the people, unseat Hosni Mubarak and oversee a civilian political process.”
President Barack Obama, in a statement issued after Mubarak spoke, said Egyptians were left “unconvinced” that the regime is “serious about a genuine transition to democracy.”
Mohamed ElBaradei, the former UN nuclear agency head and an opposition leader, said on Twitter that the country will “explode” and urged the army to intervene.
“After Friday prayers, people will go out from all the mosques across the country,” Medhat Mahmoud, a 39-year-old demonstrator, said in an interview. “After yesterday’s speech, we will make them understand that this is a revolution. It is not a protest.”
Obama, in his statement, urged the Egyptian government “to move swiftly to explain the changes that have been made, and to spell out in clear and unambiguous language the step by step process that will lead to democracy and the representative government that the Egyptian people seek.”
Mubarak retains the constitutional rights of a president to dissolve parliament and amend the constitution, Adel Quora, former head of the Supreme Judicial Council of Egypt, told state-run television.
Mubarak, who styled himself as a father speaking to his “sons and daughters,” said yesterday that the military will oversee the transition of power between now and September.
“I have declared that I would go on to shoulder my responsibility to protect the constitution and the interests of the people until the power and the responsibility are handed to whoever the voters choose,” Mubarak said.
He declared that he wouldn’t respond to foreign pressure, suggesting that outside forces were behind some of the unrest. The U.S. and other nations have called on Mubarak to quickly take action to show Egyptians that he and his regime are serious about a political transition.
The Muslim Brotherhood called today for the protesters to continue their demonstrations and demanded that Mubarak fully relinquish power.
“Continue with the revolution no matter how long it takes and whatever the sacrifices may be,” the group said in a statement. It said Mubarak’s speech was “shocking” and designed to “maneuver around the demands of the people.”
The group also said his continued presence would add to the country’s economic losses.
Suleiman, named vice president two weeks ago, has opened talks with opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. The discussions are the only alternative to the “chaos” of regime change, he said yesterday.
The crisis is threatening the outlook for an economy, which has been one of the biggest recipients of U.S. aid since Mubarak came to power. Egypt’s benchmark EGX 30 Index was closed as the unrest erupted and may reopen Feb. 13. The benchmark tumbled 16 percent in the week to Jan. 27. The country’s central bank intervened in currency markets three days ago to stem a decline in the pound and says it’s ready to do so again. The currency was little changed today at 5.8800 to the dollar.
“The one thing I worry about is a certain amount of capital outflow, especially when the stock market is reopened,” said Mohamed El-Erian, chief executive officer at Pacific Investment Management Co.
Mubarak has been pushed into repeated concessions by the protests. He made Suleiman Egypt’s first vice president in 30 years, dismissed his Cabinet and then said neither he nor his son would contest September’s election.
“What he’s been doing in the past two weeks is political striptease,” said Hisham Kassem, an independent publisher and political activist in Cairo. “He was taking off garment after garment and people are saying ‘no’. He just isn’t getting it.”
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