Egypt’s military has thrown its weight behind President Hosni Mubarak’s decision not to resign but to transfer most of his powers to his vice president.
The statement is likely to further enrage protesters who have marched to Mr Mubarak’s Cairo palace and other key symbols of the regime in a new push to force the president out.
The statement – the second in two days – comes after a meeting of the military’s Supreme Council, led by the defence minister. The military said it endorses Mr Mubarak’s plan for a peaceful transfer of power and free and fair presidential elections later this year.
Meanwhile , protesters enraged by Mr Mubarak’s refusal to step down streamed into Cairo’s central square and promised to expand their push to drive the Egyptian president out. The stand-off posed a major test for the military as protesters stepped up calls for the army to intervene against Mr Mubarak, a former air force commander.
On Thursday night Mr Mubarak gave most of his powers to his vice president but refused to resign or leave the country, hours after the military made moves that had all the markings of a coup.
Organisers said protesters were already camped outside the presidential palace and buildings housing the Cabinet, parliament and state TV. They planned rallies at six separate protest locations, in addition to Tahrir Square, the centre of the mass rallies that began on January 25.
Several hundred thousand people had packed into Tahrir Square on Thursday, ecstatic with expectation that Mr Mubarak would announce his resignation. Instead, they watched in shocked silence as he spoke. Some broke into tears. Others waved their shoes in the air in contempt.
After the speech, they broke into chants of “Leave, leave, leave”. Around 2,000 protesters then marched on the state television headquarters several streets away from Tahrir, guarded by the military with barbed wire and tanks.
Prominent reform advocate Mohamed ElBaradei, whose supporters were among the organisers of the 18-day-old wave of protests, warned in a Twitter message that “Egypt will explode”.
“The army must save the country now,” the Nobel Peace laureate said. “I call on the Egyptian army to immediately interfere to rescue Egypt. The credibility of the army is on the line. We have really achieved significant political accomplishments in a short time but the youth’s demand of the ouster (of Mr Mubarak) has not been accomplished.”