Cairo President Hosni Mubarak defied a quarter-million protesters demanding he step down immediately, announcing Tuesday he would serve out the last months of his term and “die on Egyptian soil.”
He said he would not seek re-election, but that did not calm the public fury as clashes erupted between his opponents and supporters.
The 82-year-old Mubarak, who has ruled the country for nearly three decades, offered little protesters had sought after a dramatic day in which a quarter-million Egyptians staged their biggest demonstration yet. And he insisted he wouldn’t have sought a fifth term in September even if the protests had never happened.
Mubarak’s halfway concession — an end to his rule seven months down the road — threatened to inflame frustration and anger among protesters, who have been peaceful in recent days but have made clear they will not end their unprecedented week-old wave of demonstrations until he is out.
Soon after his speech, clashes erupted between protesters and government supporters in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, and gunshots were heard, according to footage by Al-Jazeera television.
The speech was immediately derided by protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Watching his speech on a giant TV, protesters booed and waved their shoes over their heads at his image in a sign of contempt. “Go, go, go! We are not leaving until he leaves,” they chanted. One man screamed, “He doesn’t want to say it, he doesn’t want to say it.”
In the 10-minute address, Mubarak appeared somber but spoke firmly and without an air of defeat. He said he would serve out the rest of his term working “to accomplish the necessary steps for the peaceful transfer of power. He said he will carry out amendments to rules on presidential elections.
Mubarak, a former air force commander, vowed not to flee the country. “This is my dear homeland ... I have lived in it, I fought for it and defended its soil, sovereignty and interests. On its soil I will die. History will judge me and all of us.”
His speech came after a visiting envoy of President Barack Obama told Mubarak that his time in office was running out. Frank Wisner, a respected former U.S. ambassador to Egypt who is a friend of the Egyptian president, made clear to Mubarak that it is the U.S. “view that his tenure as president is coming to a close,” according to an administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the ongoing diplomacy.
The United States has been struggling to find a way to ease Mubarak out of office while maintaining stability in Egypt, a key ally in the Mideast that has a 30-year-old peace treaty with Israel and has been a bulwark against Islamic militancy.
Mubarak would be the second Arab leader pushed from office by a popular uprising in the history of the modern Middle East, following the ouster last month of the president of Tunisia — another North African nation.
The U.S. ambassador in Cairo, Margaret Scobey, spoke by telephone Tuesday with Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, the embassy said. ElBaradei, a pro-democracy advocate and one of the opposition’s most prominent leaders, has taken a key role in formulating the movement’s demands for Mubarak to step down and allow a transitional government paving the way for free elections. There was no immediate word on what he and Scobey discussed.
Only a month ago, reform activists would have greeted Mubarak’s announcement with joy — many Egyptians believed Mubarak was going to run again despite health issues. But after the past week of upheaval, Mubarak’s address struck many of his opponents as inadequate.
“The people have spoken. They said no to Mubarak, and they will not go back on their words,” said Saad el-Katatni, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Enough suffering. Let him go, and leave the Egyptians to sort themselves out.”
Ayman Nour, a former presidential candidate who is now a member of a committee formed to conduct any future negotiations on behalf of the protesters, said Mubarak clearly didn’t get the message.
“This is a unique case of stubbornness that will end in a disaster,” he said. “It is only expected that he wasn’t going to run because of his age... He offered nothing new.”
Tuesday’s protest marked a dramatic escalation that organizers said aims to drive Mubarak out by Friday. In a single day, the protesters’ numbers multiplied more than tenfold, with more than a quarter-million people flooding into Tahrir, or Liberation, Square.