CAIRO — A day after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak again refused to cede power despite nearly three weeks of huge anti-government protests, the Egyptian armed forces on Friday said it would support his plan to serve until elections this fall while pledging to defend "the lawful demands of the people."
The message, which was read on state television shortly before record crowds of demonstrators were expected to gather at sites around the capital, did nothing to quell Egypt's popular uprising, which was rapidly expanding as thousands of protesters marched toward Mubarak's presidential palace east of downtown Cairo.
Large crowds chanting slogans against Mubarak and Vice President Omar Suleiman said that they were leaving Cairo's main Tahrir Square for the palace, which had been sealed off by Mubarak's presidential guard forces with tanks and razor wire. Hundreds more massed outside the headquarters of state television, and guests who were scheduled to appear on the air were reportedly unable to enter.
In its statement, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces said that it would serve as the guarantor of the constitutional reforms and free elections that Mubarak has so far only vaguely promised. But it defied one of the protesters' main demands by saying that it would lift the longstanding state of emergency only "once the current circumstances end."
The army said that it wouldn't pursue protesters through legal means — although human rights groups say they have reports of scores of people who were arrested and abused by military police — and again called on the pro-democracy movement to stand down.
The statement called for "the return of normal life to protect safety and private possessions and places."
The news dashed protesters' hopes that the Egyptian army would raise pressure on Mubarak to step down, and indicated that after several days of uncertainty the army brass had fallen in behind its patrons in the regime. But some analysts said that the decision by military leaders could be opposed by rank-and-file soldiers in the conscript force, many of whom count family members among the protesters and are believed to be sympathetic to their demands.
There were unconfirmed reports Friday that at least 16 army soldiers had put down their weapons and joined protesters in Tahrir Square.
"Top-level fissure between the regime and its military appears to have been averted and now top-down discipline within the (military) becomes a key focus," Michael Hanna, a Middle East scholar at the Century Foundation think tank wrote on his Twitter account.
Mubarak had been widely expected to resign Thursday night amid a flurry of reports from ruling party officials and state media that a handover of power was imminent. But in a sometimes confusing speech that was tone-deaf to the demands of the largest protests perhaps ever to shake Egypt, Mubarak said that he would hand presidential powers to Suleiman while remaining the head of state.
In a strongly worded statement Thursday evening, President Barack Obama urged Egyptian officials to "explain the changes . . . and to spell out in clear and unambiguous language" the steps that the regime is taking to address protesters' demands.
"The Egyptian people have been told that there was a transition of authority, but it is not yet clear that this transition is immediate, meaningful or sufficient," Obama said. "The Egyptian government must put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy, and they have not yet seized that opportunity."
Special correspondent Miret El Naggar contributed to this report.
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