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Anger in Egypt as Mubarak Cedes Power, but Refuses to Quit

 

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Thursday he had passed authority to Vice President Omar Suleiman, but will not step down before September elections, an announcement that did little to silence the voices calling for his immediate ouster.

The move, announced in a nationally-televised address, means he will retain his title of president and ensures the regime will continue to control the reform process after massive protests in the streets of Cairo.

Earlier reports had suggested Mubarak intended to step down immediately. So when the protesters learned Mubarak intended to remain as president -- even if in name only -- they responded with chants of "Leave! Leave! Leave!"

The protests are expected to grow on Friday, with some fearing they could get out of control.

Mohamed ElBaradei, a key opposition figure who aims to end Mubarak's regime, predicted "Egypt will explode" via twitter after the authoritarian leader's speech.

"Army must save the country now," said a tweet from ElBaradei's account.

After Mubarak's speech announcing he had passed power on to Suleiman -- who was named vice president less than two weeks ago -- Suleiman addressed the nation and urged protesters to return to their homes.

"To the youth of Egypt, and the heroes of Egypt, go back to your home and your works, the nation needs you so that we can build and develop and innovate," said Suleiman.

"Let us walk together, hand in hand, in a new path that achieves the hope of the youth and all generations for a new life, a stable life, and a safe life," he added.

Mubarak said the demands of the protesters calling for his immediate ouster are legitimate. He said he requested the amendment of five articles of the constitution to loosen the restrictive conditions on who can run for president, restore judicial supervision of elections, and impose term limits on the presidency. He also said that he would lift hated emergency laws -- but only when security permitted.

Although Mubarak is still the president from a legal perspective, Suleiman is now "the de facto president," Egyptian Ambassador to the U.S. Sameh Shoukhry told Fox News.

"He has all the responsibilities of the office of the president and undertakes all the decisions of the office of the presidency, as stipulated under the constitution," Shoukhry said in a telephone interview Thursday night.

President Obama said his administration urges the Egyptian government "to move swiftly to explain the changes that have been made" in a statement released Thursday night.

"The Egyptian people have been told that there was a transition of authority, but it is not yet clear that this transition is immediate, meaningful or sufficient," the statement said. "Too many Egyptians remain unconvinced that the government is serious about a genuine transition to democracy, and it is the responsibility of the government to speak clearly to the Egyptian people and the world. The Egyptian government must put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy, and they have not yet seized that opportunity."

Obama said earlier Thursday at a new wireless initiative event in Michigan that "we are witnessing history unfold." 

"The people of Egypt are calling for a change," Obama said.

The president also said the U.S. will do anything it can to support a smooth transition of power in Egypt.

"We want all Egyptians to know America will continue to do every thing that we can to support an orderly and genuine transition to democracy in Egypt," he said.

Mubarak's address came after protests 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.

Hundreds of lawyers in black robes broke through a police cordon Thursday and marched on one of Mubarak's palaces -- a first for the protesters. The president was not in Abdeen Palace, several blocks from Tahrir Square. The lawyers pushed through a line of police, who did nothing to stop them.

Tens of thousands were massed in Tahrir Square 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," said one of the lawyers, Said Bakri.

Suleiman has led the regime's management of the crisis since he was named to the vice president post after protests first 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.

Youth activists organizing the protests planned to up the pressure on the streets even further, calling for an expanded rally on Friday and hoping to repeat a showing earlier this week that drew about a quarter-million people. Protesters planned six separate rallies around Cairo that would all lead to Tahrir Square, said Khaled Abdel-Hamid, speaking for a coalition of groups behind the protests.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.