An image from President Hosni Mubarak's address on Egyptian state… (Egyptian State Television…)
Reporting from Cairo — Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, unable to calm a week of unrest and unprecedented protest against his government, announced Tuesday night that he would not seek reelection, but indicated he would remain in power "for the next few months."
"I tell you in all sincerity that I did not intend to seek reelection," Mubarak said in a national address on state television. "But I am keen to end my presidency in a manner that will enable whoever succeeds me to take over the country in a stable climate."
Mubarak was not clear if he would stay in power until the September presidential election.
He blamed unnamed "political forces with private agendas" for exploiting what he deemed "legitimate demands" of the people for democratic reforms. He said the forces bent on creating chaos "threw oil on the fire."
The president's statement, coming hours after more than 200,000 protesters streamed into Cairo's Tahrir Square, was the latest dramatic development as he maneuvered to stay in power amid demonstrations, international pressure to resign and an economy that has slid into turmoil. The decision may ease a bit of the public fury against him, but it was unlikely to stop calls for him to immediately step aside.
Earlier in the day, a special U.S. envoy and former ambassador to Egypt, Frank G. Wisner, met with Mubarak to deliver a message from Washington that he needed to resign and make way for a new government to take shape without him, according to Middle East experts who discussed the matter with the Obama administration. The sources said Wisner was rebuffed by Mubarak.
During a day billed by protesters as a million-strong march on Cairo, Army tanks and soldiers took positions across the city, but as on other days, there was little tension between the military and the protesters. Demonstrators at checkpoints helped troops examine identification cards of those flowing into the square. Voices blared from megaphones as the crowd chanted the Egyptian national anthem, while military helicopters buzzed overhead.
The Mubarak government in recent days has offered concessions, such as opening talks with opposition groups and reforming the constitution, but they have done little to placate a nationwide revolt calling for the president's removal. There seems scant compromise between the government and the masses, while the military balances precariously between the two.
The unrest in Egypt has mesmerized the region. Some wonder whether Mubarak -- who for 30 years in power has skillfully crushed dissent -- might be forced to step down or risk pulling the nation into a prolonged crisis that could further damage its economy, most notably tourism. More than 120 people have died over the last week.
In harsh words aimed at Mubarak, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an increasingly pivotal figure in Middle Eastern affairs, said Tuesday: "No government can survive against the will of its people. The era of governments persisting on pressure and repression is over. … We are all passing and will be judged on what we leave behind."
Protesters came from all ages and walks of life: high school students; workers, medical professionals, married couples and gray-bearded Islamists.
"Leave Mubarak," they chanted. "We don't want you."
Ahmed Ali, a businessman in a gray suit, said he had come to the square because he was tired of government corruption. Ali, who imports marble from abroad, complained about the ritual of government bribes he must pay every time he goes to the airport to pick up goods.
"I have to pay them money at the airport because their salaries are so low," he said. "The government pushes them to demand kickbacks."
Mohammed, a 22-year-old tennis coach dressed in a blue track suit, had come even after being caught up a week ago in clashes with police who raided a mosque where he was praying.
"We can't find work. We have problems with bread, problems with electricity," he said. "Our biggest problem is to get Mubarak to go away."
The huge crowd descended on the square after protest organizers called for a million compatriots to flood the streets.
Egyptian authorities shut down Internet traffic and cellphone service ahead of the protest, in the apparent hope that it would prevent demonstrators from coming to the square.
Al Arabiya reported that authorities had blocked the road between the cities of Suez and Cairo to stymie the flow of protesters. The ruling National Democratic Party also has called for a counter-demonstration in support of Mubarak. Meanwhile, a coalition of Egyptian human-rights groups has issued a call for Mubarak to step down.
Crowds inside the key expanse at the heart of the Egyptian capital have been growing day after day since Saturday, when security forces stopped trying to halt demonstrators from gathering in the square.