CAIRO: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak wrong-footed global expectations Thursday by refusing to quit office, prompting furious demonstrators in Cairo to vow their most spectacular protests yet.
On the 17th day of a popular uprising against his 30-year rule, Mubarak announced he was delegating presidential power to Vice President Omar Suleiman, but said he would remain nominally in charge until September.
And in a swipe at the United States and other countries that want a faster transition to democracy in the most populous Arab nation, he said in a televised speech: "I have never bent to foreign diktats."
Leading a chorus of international indignation at the veteran strongman, US President Barack Obama said Mubarak had failed to map out "meaningful or sufficient" change or to speak clearly enough to Egypt and the world.
And in Tahrir Square in the heart of the Egyptian capital, tens of thousands of anti-government protestors voiced their anger, some brandishing their shoes as a sign of contempt.
The square had earlier been bathed in a carnival atmosphere, as the crowds gathered to celebrate what they hoped would be Mubarak’s final speech of his autocratic reign.
The military had announced hours earlier that it would intervene to ensure the country’s security and see that the people’s "legitimate" demands were met.
In the United States, CIA chief Leon Panetta stoked the speculation by saying "there’s a strong likelihood that Mubarak may step down this evening".
But when the Tahrir Square masses realized the 82-year-old leader was refusing to resign, the mood of the 200,000-plus crowd darkened rapidly.
Demonstrators vowed to step up their protests in Cairo on Friday to press for the immediate departure of Mubarak and his deputy.
"Down, down with Mubarak" they chanted.
"He is still speaking to us as if we were fools," said protestor Ali Hassan. "He is a general defeated on the battlefield who will not retreat before inflicting as many casualties as he can."
"Egypt will explode," leading Egyptian dissident Mohamed ElBaradei warned on the Twitter website. "Army must save the country now."
Many protesters called for an immediate general strike and angrily called on the military — which has deployed large numbers of troops and tanks around the square — to intervene on their behalf.
Following Mubarak’s speech, the bulk of the crowd began to disperse, but most vowed to return on Friday, which has already been declared a "day of rage".
A hard core of several thousand protestors remained in the sprawling tented encampment that has occupied the square since Jan. 28.
"We won’t leave until he leaves," declared 32-year-old accountant Ayman Shawky. "I don’t think it’s stupidity; it’s arrogance. He lost his last chance to leave with his dignity intact."
In his speech, Mubarak said only that he had "decided to delegate power to the vice president based on the constitution".
"I am conscious of the dangers of this crossroad… and this forces us to prioritize the higher interests of the nation," he said.
In a short speech following Mubarak’s address, Suleiman told the protesters to go home.
But as many of them peacefully filed out of Tahrir Square, the chants grew more ominous. "To the palace we are heading, martyrs by the millions!" they shouted.
Hundreds managed to reach the areas surrounding the palace and the state TV building, both heavily protected by the army. Protesters started a sit-in in both areas.
Obama issued a strongly worded statement after Mubarak’s speech, demanding an "unequivocal path toward genuine democracy" in Egypt, which has long been supported by massive US aid.
"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 US president 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."
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Mubarak’s speech "was not the hoped for step forward" and stressed: "The worries of the international community are rather bigger after this speech than before."