Mubarak likely to quit, Brotherhood fears coup

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak looked likely to step down on Thursday after more than two weeks of protests against his 30-year rule and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood said it looked like there had been a military coup.

Egypt's military announced it was moving to preserve the nation and aspirations of the people after a meeting of the Higher Army Council which was not attended by Mubarak, a former air force commander, who was shortly to address the nation.

"It looks like a military coup," said Essam al-Erian of the Brotherhood which is banned and is seen as Egypt's biggest organized opposition group. "I feel worry and anxiety. The problem is not with the president it is with the regime."

State television showed footage of Mubarak, sitting behind his desk in silence, in a meeting with Vice President Omar Suleiman. The station said the meeting was on Thursday, although that was unclear from the footage.

The news that the 82-year-old may hand over power, or be otherwise unseated, in this key American ally in the Middle East provoked loud and emotional cheers in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the focal point for pro-democracy demonstrations. But some in the crowd were quick to protest they did not want military rule.

Major General Hassan Roweny told tens of thousands of protesters in Tahrir, or Liberation Square: "Everything you want will be realized."

People chanted: "The people demand the fall of the regime, The regime has fallen."

Others sang: "Civilian, civilian. We don't want it military" — a call for a freely elected civilian government. It remains to be seen how far the armed forces, which have provided Egypt's post-colonial rulers for six decades, are ready to accept that.

"We're going to have to wait and see what's going on," said US President Barack Obama, for whose country Mubarak has been a vital ally against radical Islam for three decades.

Asked if Mubarak would step down, an Egyptian official told Reuters: "Most probably."

The BBC quoted the head of Mubarak's political party as saying that the president might go before the day was out.

General Roweny urged the crowds to sing the national anthem and keep Egypt safe. US-built Abrams tanks and other armored vehicles stood by.

Anthony Skinner of the Maplecroft political risk consultancy said: "In the best case scenario, Suleiman would take over and there would be an accelerated transition to democracy. In a worst-case scenario, this turns into effectively a military coup and the military prove not keen on a transition to democracy."

Analyst Michael Hanna from the Century Foundation said on his Twitter feed: "Will people be satisfied under military rule?

"This could create splits among the opposition, and that is probably what the army is hoping for. "

The head of the US Central Intelligence Agency also said it was likely Mubarak would step down in the next few hours.

“There's a strong likelihood that Mubarak may step down this evening, which would be significant in terms of where the, hopefully, orderly transition in Egypt takes place," Leon Panetta told a congressional hearing in Washington.

Joining a chorus saying that Mubarak's departure could be imminent, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq told the BBC that the strongman may step down.

The president has been buffeted by widespread protests against poverty, repression and corruption that began on January 25 in an unprecedented display of frustration at his autocratic rule. It was partly inspired by the example of Tunisia, where street protesters toppled the strongman president on January 14.

Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand that Mubarak quit and clashes between protesters and security forces have killed at least 300 people.

Mubarak has clung on to power, promising on February 1 to step down in September. But that was not enough to end an uprising many now are calling the "Nile Revolution."

Mubarak, who has ruled under emergency laws since he took over when Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamist soldiers, also said his son would not stand for election, appointed a vice president for the first time and promised reforms.

Alaa el-Seyyed, 26, a member of a protest organizing committee, was asked about possibility of the army taking over. He said: "It is an accomplishment for us. But we will stay until all of our demands are realized — democracy and freedom."

“He is going down!" Zeina Hassan said on Facebook.

"We want a civilian state, civilian state, civilian state!" Doaa Abdelaal said on Twitter, an Internet service that many see as a vital catalyst for the protests in Tunisia and Egypt that have electrified oppressed populations across the Arab world.

"The army statement is wishy-washy. But we are confident that the day has come. Mubarak will step down, the people have won," said protester Mohamed Anees, who is in his late 20s.

"The army is worried that tomorrow on Friday the people will overpower state buildings and the army will not be able to fire back," Anees said. "The army now is pressuring Mubarak to resolve the situation."

Organizers had promised another major push on the streets on Friday when protesters said they planned to move on to the state radio and television building in "The Day of Martyrs" dedicated to the dead.

Washington pressured Mubarak to speed up the pace of reform but stopped short of demanding the resignation of the president of the country, which has a 1979 peace treaty with Israel and an army which receives about US$1.3 billion (806.4 million pounds) in US aid a year.

The possibility of unrest spreading to other authoritarian states in the oil-rich region has kept oil prices firm.

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