CAIRO – Egypt's military announced on national television it had stepped in to secure the country and promised protesters calling for President Hosni Mubarak's ouster that all their demands would soon be met. The CIA director said Mubarak appeared poised to hand over his powers to his vice president, Omar Suleiman.
Tens of thousands of protesters packed in central Tahrir broke into chants of "We're almost there, we're almost there" and waved V-for-victory signs as thousands more flowed in to join them well after nightfall. But euphoria that they were nearing their goal of Mubarak's fall was tempered with worries that a military takeover could scuttle their wider demands for true democracy. Many vowed to continue protests.
State television said Mubarak will speak to the nation Thursday night from his palace in Cairo. Information Minister Anas el-Fiqqi said he would not resign, state TV reported, and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq said, "everything is in the hands of President Hosni Mubarak and no decisions have been taken yet."
That raises the possibility that Mubarak could announce a half-measure, such as keeping his title while relinquishing his executive powers, a move unlikely to satisfy protesters.
The developments created confusion over who was calling the shots in Egypt. The military's moves had some trappings of an outright takeover long enough to shepherd a transition of power. But Mubarak's planned speech and his meetings beforehand with Suleiman and Shafiq suggested they wanted to give the appearance of an orderly, constitutional handover of authority.
The dramatic developments capped 17 days of mass anti-government protests, some drawing a quarter-million people, to demand Mubarak's immediate ouster. What began as an Internet campaign swelled into the stiffest challenge ever to Mubarak's nearly 30 years of authoritarian rule, fueled by widespread frustration over the regime's lock on power, government corruption, rampant poverty and unemployment.
The protests had escalated in the past two days with labor strikes and revolts by state employees that added to the chaos, and in a sign of the government's distress, top officials were warning of a coup or the imposition of martial law.
The military's supreme council, headed by Defense Minster Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, appeared to hold the reins of leadership.
Footage on state TV showed Tantawi chairing the council with around two dozen top stern-faced army officers seated around a table. Not at the meeting were Mubarak, the military commander in chief, or his vice president Omar Suleiman, a former army general and intelligence chief named to his post after the protests erupted Jan. 25.
"All your demands will be met today," Gen. Hassan al-Roueini, military commander for the Cairo area, told thousands of protesters in central Tahrir Square.
The protesters lifted al-Roueini onto their shoulders and carried him around the square, shouting, "the army, the people one hand." Some in the crowd held up their hands in V-for-victory signs, shouting "the people want the end of the regime" and "Allahu akbar," or "God is great," a victory cry used by secular and religious people alike.
Beyond suggestions that Mubarak would go, however, the military did not directly address whether it intends to carry out the protesters' wider demands for full democracy — or if it would demand that protests stop.
Protesters in the square began chanting, "civilian not military," a signal they do not want military rule, and many vowed not to end their demonstrations. At one entrance to Tahrir, thousands who turned out after the military announcement lined up to join in.
"If he steps down, that's positive, but that doesn't mean our demands have been met," said one protester, 27-year-old Kareem Nedhat. "Handing power to the army is acceptable for a transitional period, but there are still demands that still need to be met. We need to stay in the square." He said protests should continue until the army lifts emergency laws, dissolves parliament.
Another, Sheikh al-Sayed Abu Abdul-Rahman, warned, "This will amount to a coup. They want to turn it from a revolution into a coup. We want a civilian state with no discrimination and no military."
In the military's announcement on state TV, the council's spokesman read a statement announcing the military's "support of the legitimate demands of the people."
He said the council was in permanent session to explore "what measures and arrangements could be made to safeguard the nation, its achievements and the ambitions of its great people." That suggested Tantawi and his generals were now in charge of the country.
The statement was labeled "Communique No. 1," language that also suggests a military coup.
Protests on Thursday increasingly spiraled out of the control of efforts led by Suleiman to contain the crisis. Labor strikes erupted around the country in the past two days, showing that the Tahrir protests had tapped into the deep well of anger over economic woes, including inflation, unemployment, corruption, low wages and wide disparities between rich and poor.
In the past two days, state employees revolted against their directors, factories around the country were hit by strikes, riots broke out in several cities far from Cairo. Protesters angry over bread and housing shortages or low wages burned the offices of a governor and several police headquarters while police stood aside. Professionals and workers began joining the crowds of anti-Mubarak protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
On Thursday, hundreds of lawyers in black robes broke through a police cordon and marched on one of Mubarak's palaces — the first time protesters had done so. The president was not in Abdeen Palace, several blocks from Tahrir. The lawyers pushed through a line of police, who did nothing to stop them.
Tens of thousands were massed in Tahrir itself, joined in the morning by striking doctors who marched in their white lab coats from a state hospital to the square and lawyers who broke with their pro-government union to join in.
"Now we're united in one goal. The sun of the people has risen and it will not set again," one of the lawyers, Said Bakri, said before the series of military announcements.
Suleiman has led the regime's management of the crisis since he was named to the vice president post soon after protests erupted on Jan. 25. With his efforts failing to bring an end to protests, he and his foreign minister both warned of the possibility of a coup and imposition of martial law if the protesters do not agree to a government-directed framework of negotiations for reforms. The protesters demanded Mubarak step down first.
The protests were only gaining momentum, given a further push by the labor unrest. Strikes were flaring so quickly that protesters sent out messages to railroad workers not to halt trains with a strike because people in the provinces want to come to Cairo to join the Tahrir rallies.
Youth activists organizing the protests planned to up the pressure on the streets even further, calling for an expanded rally on Friday, hoping to repeat a showing earlier this week that drew about a quarter-million people. Friday's protest was to be expanded, with six separate rallies planned around Cairo, all to eventually march on Tahrir, said Khaled Abdel-Hamid, speaking for a coalition of groups behind the protests.
Strikes erupted in a wide breadth of sectors — postal workers, electricity staff and service technicians at the Suez Canal, in factories manufacturing textiles, steel and beverages and hospitals.
A bus strike launched Thursday snarled traffic in Cairo, a city of 18 million where many of its impoverished residents rely on public transport. Few buses were seen on the streets, which were jammed and slow moving because of the extra reliance on cars.