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Egyptian Military Addresses Protesters Amid Reports Mubarak May Step Down


Antigovernment protesters shout slogans outside the Egyptian parliament.
Reports say Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak could step down as soon as tonight after the country's powerful army issued a televised statement saying it would "respond to the legitimate demands of the people."

The army statement -- read on state television -- says the military will "take the necessary measures to protect the nation."

The statement came as Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq told the BBC that President Hosni Mubarak could step down and that the situation will be clarified soon.

Leon Panetta, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, said in Washington that there is a "strong likelihood" Mubarak will step down tonight.

The developments come as thousands more Egyptian demonstrators joined a growing wave of protest against Mubarak's regime in cities across the country, despite threats of a government crackdown.

Doctors in white lab coats and lawyers in black robes streamed into Cairo's Tahrir Square -- linking labor strikes with antigovernment protesters to create a powerful new momentum for calls to oust Mubarak.

With government efforts to manage the crisis failing, Mubarak's regime has threatened that the army could impose tougher restrictions on protesters by imposing martial law.

The demonstrators now hold two protest camps in Cairo, expanding their presence to block the parliament building as well as occupying Tahrir Square for a 17th consecutive day as army troops look on.

Army reinforcements, meanwhile, were deployed today on the grounds of the parliament building.

Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman
Vice President Omar Suleiman has implicitly threatened to use the military to regain control, saying that if protests continue and talks with opposition leaders fail to resolve the crisis, there could be a military "coup" that would bring "hasty steps, including lots of irrationalities."

All Eyes On Friday Prayers

In response to Suleiman's threat, the protesters have moved to reinforce their blockade of the parliament and their tent city camp at Tahrir Square. Youth activists are calling for demonstrations on February 11 to be the largest ever, saying they hope to bring huge numbers out on the streets across the country after Friday Prayers.

Meanwhile, one of the few groups that did enter the latest negotiations with Suleiman on a democratic transition, the leftist Tagammu Party, announced today that it had broken off contacts in anger over the coup threats. Tagammu is one of the official, government-sanctioned opposition parties that have little public support and have had no role in the protests.

On Tahrir Square itself, there is growing talk among protesters of expanding their Cairo demonstrations to block the headquarters of state-controlled TV and even, possibly, to march on Mubarak's heavily fortified presidential palace.

The protesters appear energized by news that labor unions in recent days have launched demonstrations across the country against corruption and poverty -- issues that, together with human rights abuses, spawned the initial antigovernment demonstrations in January.

U.S. Trying To 'Impose Its Will'

Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit today, in an interview with Al-Arabiyah television, warned that the military could intervene if "adventurers" took over the process of reform.

Earlier, Gheit criticized U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's call for the regime in Cairo to immediately lift a decades-old state of emergency. Emergency rule gives sweeping powers to security forces -- including the authority to detain people without charge.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has taken a strong line in favor of reform in Egypt.
Speaking on February 9 to the PBS television program "Newshour," Gheit said Washington was trying to "impose its will" and needed to better understand the sensitivities of the Egyptian crisis.

"Egypt and the president of Egypt, the government of Egypt, have already started [reforms]," Gheit said. "The Egyptian president laid down a road map and allowed or asked the [Egyptian] vice president to engage in discussions on the road map with the different opposition groups. And the road map is moving forward."

Gheit criticized Biden's call for the Egyptian government to stop harassing protesters, journalists, and human rights activists.

"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 [lift] that emergency law while I'm in difficulty," Gheit said. "Give me time. Allow me to have control, to stabilize the nation, to stabilize the state, and then we would look into the issue."

Egypt's neighbors in the region also are pressing Washington not to drop its support for Mubarak too hastily or to throw support behind the democracy movement in a way that could further destabilize the Middle East by empowering radical Islamists.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah -- who spoke by telephone with U.S. President Barack Obama on February 9 -- reportedly said he was ready to prop up Mubarak's regime if the United States withdrew its support.

Those reports follow other signals that Washington is increasing pressure on Egypt to speed up political change.

Gibbs: 'Immediate Steps'

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Washington was waiting for "real, concrete" moves to speed up the transfer of power from the 82-year-old Mubarak -- a message he said Obama reinforced in his telephone conversation with King Abdullah.

He said Obama emphasized the need for "immediate steps toward an orderly transition that is meaningful, lasting, legitimate, and responsive." Washington has previously expressed support for Vice President Suleiman to manage that transition.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was at the White House February 9 for talks with top members of Obama's security team. Israel also supports Suleiman -- the former head of Egypt's intelligence services and the man who oversaw Egypt's prison system for decades -- as the Egyptian official best suited to manage Egypt's democratic transition.

Alexander Vershbow, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, told a security conference in Israel that Washington would continue to support the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel with a policy aimed at "countering violence and extremism" throughout the Middle East.

Alexander Vershbow says a strong Egyptian military can be a force for moderation.
"A strong Egyptian military, buttressed by robust defense relations with the United States, can be a force for moderation and for continued support of the peace treaty with Israel as Egypt makes the transition,” Vershbow said.

Meanwhile, Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said that the United States was not dictating outcomes for Egypt -- but does stand for a "set of principles" and a process to make reforms happen.

"[We've] seen a number of steps taken already, just in the last period of several days, that constitute a degree of change from the situation two weeks ago that is not insignificant,” Rhodes said. “That said, it still clearly does not meet this threshold of entering into a meaningful and irreversible set of steps in terms of transition to a more democratic Egypt."

With concerns growing in other Arab nations that discontent across the region could jeopardize their own autocrats, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the best way for other Arab countries to protect themselves is to begin addressing the grievances of their people.

written by Ron Synovitz, with contributions from agency reports
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