CAIRO — President Hosni Mubarak announced Tuesday night that he would not run for another term in elections scheduled for the fall, appearing on state television to promise an orderly transition but saying he would serve out his term. In comments translated by CNN, he swore he would never leave Egypt but would "die on its soil."
Hours later, President Barack Obama strongly suggested Mubarak's concession was not enough, declaring that an "orderly transition" in Egypt "must begin now." In a 30-minute phone call to Mubarak just before his public remarks, Obama was more forceful in insisting on a rapid transition, the New York Times reported, citing unnamed officials familiar with the discussion.
U.S. officials were clearly disappointed by Mubarak's effort to stay in office for the next eight months, the Times reported, but Obama stopped short of demanding that Mubarak leave office immediately, saying, "It is not the role of any other country to determine Egypt's leaders."
But if Obama pushed Mubarak, he did not shove him, at least in his public remarks. He commended the Egyptian military for its "professionalism and patriotism" in refusing to use force against the protesters, comments that clearly undercut Mubarak's efforts to maintain control. He praised the protesters for their peaceful action, and he reinforced that "the status quo is not sustainable."
Obama was clearly hopeful Mubarak would decide to leave office sooner. But he warned there would be "difficult days ahead," a clear signal that he expected the transition period to be lengthy, and messy.
Mubarak's statement marked his most significant concession to a public uprising that he said had brought "difficult times" to Egypt. The gesture was immediately rejected as insufficient by protesters who believe they have gained unstoppable momentum in their struggle to bring an immediate end to Mubarak's three-decade reign.
"He needs to leave right now. We've already waited 30 years, and we don't want to wait anymore," said Amy Hashem, 23, who was among the thousands of demonstrators who have vowed to occupy Tahrir Square, Cairo's central plaza, until Mubarak leaves office.
Opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei demanded that Mubarak step down by Friday, and other opposition figures have said that Mubarak's resignation is a condition for any negotiations with the government.
"It would have been better for him to say, 'I love my people and I'm leaving,' '' ElBaradei said in an interview with the Washington Post. "Unfortunately, this will just extend the period of instability."
There were indications, however, that Mubarak's move might prove palatable to some critics. Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister, called the announcement "a very important step" that "should be considered carefully."
Under growing pressure at home and abroad, Mubarak, 82, had been left with little room to maneuver. His announcement will set off jockeying among potential successors, including ElBaradei and Moussa, as well as other candidates from a broad array of opposition factions.
Tuesday's protest marked a dramatic escalation, with more than 250,000 people flooding into Tahrir, or "liberation'' in Arabic, Square. The army, which on Monday night issued a statement calling the protesters' demands legitimate and vowing not to fire on their rally, worked with civilians to provide tight security, setting up ID checks and frisking stations at each entrance. The protests also attracted record crowds in cities across the country, and organizers said a nationwide strike would continue until Mubarak steps down.
"The game is over. He can't save himself anymore," said Mohammed Hussein, 27, a doctor.
The United States has ordered nonessential U.S. government personnel and their families to leave Egypt. They join a wave of people rushing to flee the country — over 18,000 overwhelmed Cairo's international airport and threw it into chaos. EgyptAir staff scuffled with frantic passengers, food supplies were dwindling and some police officers even demanded substantial bribes before allowing foreigners to board their planes.
Banks, schools and the stock market in Cairo were closed for the third working day, making cash tight. Bread prices spiraled. An unprecedented shutdown of the Internet was in its fifth day.
Opposition parties have nominated ElBaradei to negotiate with the government, and ElBaradei has put himself forward as a candidate to lead a transitional authority. And protesters said Tuesday they were already looking past Mubarak, pre-emptively rejecting any members of his inner circle — including the newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman — as their new president.
Protesters also continued to demand that the United States take a more vocal role in supporting their movement. They say fears of an Islamist takeover of Egypt are vastly overblown and emphasize that the nation's minority Christian community has been heavily involved in their movement. Although members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the nation's best organized opposition group, have turned up at the protests in greater numbers in recent days, the group is hardly driving the demonstrations.
"Washington has been very anxious about what's happening here, but it shouldn't be. It should be happy," said Mohammed Fouad, 29, a software engineer. "This will reduce terrorism. When people have their voice, they don't need to explode themselves."
Information from the Washington Post, New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.