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Mubarak says to step down after election

Opposition says will talk only after he leaves country.

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February 2, 2011 9:58 by



Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said on Tuesday he would step down in a few months once a successor is elected, a move that responds to massive street protests but which may not satisfy many who want him out now.

A million people, maybe more, rallied across the country earlier in the day, clamouring for an end to the 30-year-rule of the former general who has towered over Middle East politics.

In Cairo’s Tahrir or Liberation, Square, there was cheering after the 82-year-old leader’s pugnacious broadcast on state television but also questioning about whether a transition of many months will be something the opposition will agree to.

“Leave, leave!” came the chant, showing Mubarak’s defiant insistence on serving out his fifth term did not go down well.

Looking calm in suit and tie, he said: “I say in all honesty and regardless of the current situation, that I did not intend to nominate myself for a new presidential term. I’ve spent enough years of my life in the service of Egypt and its people.

“I am now absolutely determined to finish my work for the nation in a way that ensures handing over its safekeeping and banner … preserving its legitimacy and respecting the constitution … I will work in the remaining months of my term to take the steps to ensure peaceful transfer of power.”

Mubarak has lost the support of key ally the United States, which has pushed hard for him to make way for a democratic handover, at least come September’s scheduled presidential election. He also appeared to lose wholehearted backing from the army, which has said protesters’ demands are “legitimate”. But his appeal to the nation of 80 million seemed designed to reach over the heads of the young, urban dissidents gathered in city centres to the wider population fearful of change and chaos. He accused opponents of being behind looting and disorder in the past week and recalled his military career as a defender of Egypt in war, saying he would not leave the country.

SPREADING UNREST

His departure may reconfigure the geopolitical map of the Middle East, with implications from Israel to oil giant Saudi Arabia. Unrest is stirring in other Arab countries like Jordan and Yemen, sending oil prices higher on fears of trouble in Saudi Arabia and on Egypt’s Suez Canal.

King Abdullah of Jordan replaced his prime minister on Tuesday following protests.

Egypt’s opposition, embracing the banned Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood, Christians, intellectuals and others, began to coalesce around the figure of Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace laureate for his work as head of the U.N. nuclear agency.

ElBaradei said on Tuesday Mubarak must leave Egypt before the reformist opposition would start talks with the government on the future of the Arab world’s most populous nation. His supporters spoke of forming a broad-based “board of trustees” to draft constitutional reforms and oversee free elections.

“There can be dialogue but it has to come after the demands of the people are met and the first of those is that President Mubarak leaves,” ElBaradei told Al Arabiya television.

Gauging the numbers of protesters was difficult. Reuters estimated it hit the million mark that activists had called for. “Mubarak wake up! Today is the last day!” some shouted.

Effigies of Mubarak were hung from traffic lights. The crowds included men, women and children from all walks of life, showing the breadth of opposition to Mubarak.

The demonstration was an emphatic rejection of Mubarak’s appointment of a new vice president, Omar Suleiman, a cabinet reshuffle and an offer to open a dialogue with the opposition.

U.S. ENVOY

Analysts said a transition was already under way but the military brass would want to grant Mubarak a graceful exit.

The United States and other Western allies were caught out by the uprising against a stalwart ally who has been a key figure in Middle East peace moves for decades. Washington called for reforms and free elections but is also concerned that Islamists could gain a slice of power should Mubarak be forced out.

The prospect of a hostile neighbour on Israel’s western border also worries Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But pressure on Mubarak also came from elsewhere.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said Mubarak should listen to the people’s demands.

Popular demands for more democracy could sweep across the Arab world from Yemen to Jordan, Morocco to Saudi Arabia.

“What is happening in Egypt is really lighting a fire across the whole region,” said analyst Maha Azzam in London.

“The problem is that the West has relied on these authoritarian regimes for too long. There is a lot of anger and now it is spilling over.”

Protesters were inspired in part by a revolt in Tunisia which toppled its president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14. But years of repression have left few obvious civilian leaders able to fill any gap left by Mubarak’s departure.

The hitherto banned Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood stayed in the background early in the uprising but is now raising its profile. Analysts say it could do well in any election.

At least 140 people have died since demonstrations began last Tuesday, most in clashes between protesters and police.

The price of oil, the most sensitive indicator of market unease about the Middle East, rose. Brent crude passed $102 a barrel on word of disruption at Egyptian ports.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Hammond, Patrick Werr, Dina Zayed, Marwa Awad, Shaimaa Fayed, Yasmine Saleh, and Alison Williams in Cairo and Angus MacSwan in London, writing by Alastair Macdonald, editing by Ralph Boulton)



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