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Mubarak digs in heels, protests continue

CAIRO, Feb 2 – Embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was digging in his heels on Wednesday after defying a week of massive protests calling for him to step down immediately and saying instead he would not run for re-election in September.

The veteran president\’s announcement on television late on Tuesday drew angry jeers from demonstrators who again defied a curfew to spend the night in the capital\’s Tahrir Square — epicentre of eight straight days of protests.

Despite years of ambiguity over whether he would seek a sixth term and his refusal until this week to even name a vice president, the 82-year-old Mubarak insisted he had never intended to stay in office beyond this year.

"I say in all honesty, and without taking into consideration the current situation, I was not planning to present myself for a new presidential term," he said.

"This country — I have lived in it, I have gone to war for it, and history will judge me," he said to boos from the thousands still gathered in Tahrir Square.

Egypt is "the nation I have defended and in which I will die," he said, rejecting the possibility he might flee as veteran Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali did in January after a popular revolt ended his iron-fisted rule.

Mubarak said the country had a choice "between chaos and stability" after the clashes between protesters and security personnel that have left an estimated 300 people dead and more than 3,000 injured.

These demonstrations "went from a civilised expression of freedom of opinion to regrettable confrontations, moved by certain political forces which sought to escalate matters and add fuel to the fire," he said.

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"My first responsibility is now to bring security and stability to the nation to ensure a peaceful transition of power."

Mubarak pledged to introduce amendments to the constitution to limit the president\’s term of office and to make it easier for people to field candidates for the office.

Opposition leaders have long demanded such reforms but the ambitions of the protest movement go much further.

"Leave, leave," peaceful demonstrators chanted in Tahrir Square after the speech.

US President Barack Obama, who spoke to Mubarak after the speech, went on television to say he had told the Egyptian president that an orderly transition needed to begin immediately.

"What is clear, and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now," Obama said.

Obama also made a gesture towards those who reacted angrily to Mubarak\’s speech.

"To the people of Egypt, particularly the young people of Egypt, I want to be clear, we hear your voices. I have an unyielding belief that you will determine your own destiny," Obama said at the White House.

The US leader also commended Egypt\’s all-powerful military for its professionalism and urged it to "continue its efforts to help ensure that this time of change is peaceful."

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Earlier on Tuesday, opposition groups said there could be no negotiations with the regime until Mubarak left.

And former UN nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei, who some consider as a potential figurehead for the protest movement, had even said Friday had been set as "departure day" for the veteran president.

But Mubarak\’s announcement did go a long way to meeting quietly voiced US calls for him to make his future plans plain. A US official described it as significant but raised doubts about whether it would be enough.

"The president\’s announcement is significant, but the question is whether it will satisfy the demands of the people in Liberation (Tahrir) Square," the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said ahead of Obama\’s remarks.

"What\’s clear is that this is a movement that is gaining momentum; it\’s not going to go away. And it\’s not likely to be enough," the official added.

"The message was that his time in office was coming to an end. The question is whether he leaves now or leaves later, but our message simply was that you\’ve got to recognize what your people are telling you.

"What\’s happened today shows that there\’s some recognition but the real question is will they (protesters) demand more, and it\’s entirely possible they will."

The angry eight-day revolt in Egypt has sent jitters throughout the Middle East and Obama called a top-level meeting at the White House shortly before Mubarak\’s speech.

In Jordan, King Abdullah II sacked his government after weeks of demands for change, Yemen\’s president summoned parliament ahead of a "day of rage" called for Thursday, and a Facebook group of Syrian youth called for a peaceful revolution to start on Friday.

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