Egypt's military steps in as Mubarak totters

Egyptian TV interrupts programming to show senior military officers who said army 'will examine measures to be taken to protect nation', as official says Mubarak will 'probably' step down

 Members of Egypt's military supreme council attend a meeting  in this image taken from TV Thursday Feb. 10, 2011. President Hosni Mubarak will meet the demands of protesters, military and ruling party officials said Thursday in the strongest indication yet that Egypt's longtime president may be about to give up power and that the armed forces were seizing control. The military's supreme council was meeting Thursday, without the commander in chief Mubarak, and announced on state TV its "support of the legitimate demands of the people." (AP Photo/Nile TV via APTN)  EGYPT OUT TV OUT
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Egypt's military said today it would respond to the "legitimate" demands of the people as President Hosni Mubarak's regime tottered in the face of massive nationwide protests demanding his overthrow.

Egyptian television interrupted all programming to present footage of a panel of senior military officers, one of whom read out a statement described as "communique number one" of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

"In support of the legitimate demands of the people," the army "will continue meeting... to examine measures to be taken to protect the nation and its gains and the ambitions of the great Egyptian people," it said.

Mr Mubarak will "most probably" step down, an Egyptian official told Reuters after unprecedented nationwide protests against his 30-year rule. Asked if Egypt's president will step down, the official: "most probably"

The end of Mr Mubarak's reign has been the central demand of hundreds of thousands of people who have filled the country's streets in the two-week-old uprising.

The head of Mr Mubarak's ruling party, Hossam Badrawi had earlier told BBC the embattled president would "respond to the people's demands by tomorrow."

Mr Badrawi did not specify that he was referring to Mr Mubarak stepping down, but a senior military officer told AFP that troops were "awaiting orders that will make the people happy."

Tens of thousands of Egyptian workers went on strike on the eve of Friday's day of prayers, when pro-democracy groups had urged millions to turn out in what they hope will be the biggest show of defiance yet.

The strikes had swept private and public sector workplaces in cities across Egypt, labour unions said, as the opposition braved stark warnings from Mubarak's lieutenants that they could face a military crackdown.

In Cairo, some 3,000 health workers marched to join the anti-regime crowds that have blockaded parliament and occupied central Cairo's "liberated" Tahrir Square, symbolic centre of the popular revolt.

A security official confirmed union reports that thousands of employees in the public sector were staging strikes in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, the canal city of Suez and elsewhere on the north coast and the Red Sea.

Union leader Kamal Abbas said that since nationwide rallies erupted on January 25 to demand an end to Mr Mubarak's rule, "we have started to hear of the billions of dollars that officials hold in personal accounts.

"So many employees feel it is time to stand up and demand their rights."

Workers at Egypt's largest factory, the Misr Spinning and Weaving textile plant, which employs 24,000 people in the Nile Delta, padlocked the buildings and massed in front of the administrative offices.

"We are striking first of all to show solidarity with the protesters in Tahrir Square," one strike organiser, Faisal Naousha, told AFP by telephone. "We also want court rulings lifting the minimum wage to be implemented."

Around 100 lawyers in suits and ties and "revolutionary" youth marched to the Abdeen presidential palace near Tahrir Square but were stopped by the army, at which point they knelt in afternoon prayers at a crowded intersection.

"This is a legitimate revolution. It is our right to bring down this corrupt regime," Mohammed Mursi, one of the lawyers, said.

The strikes broke out as both sides in Egypt's conflict toughened their rhetoric, with the vice-president, Omar Suleiman, and the foreign minister, Ahmed Abul Gheit, tacitly threatening to turn to the military to regain control.

"Long live Egypt! Down with Hosni Mubarak!" protesters chanted in the street outside parliament, now lined with makeshift shelters and anti-regime posters.

"If we don't die here we'll die in prison. I'd prefer to die here," said Attiya Abuella, 24, an unemployed graduate.

He said he was jailed last year for 60 days, spending hours with his wrists chained to the ceiling or naked in his cell, for taking photographs during legislative elections that were widely seen as rigged.

In Tahrir Square, volunteers have erected portable toilets, indicating the protesters have no intention of leaving the area, now a sprawling tent city with sound stages, food vendors and a mobile phone charging station.

Hundreds of protesters from a run-down slum in the canal city of Port Said torched the police headquarters and burned police cars before storming the province headquarters for the second time in two days, witnesses said.

On Wednesday, the unrest stretched as far as the remote oasis of Kharga, where at least five people were killed and 100 wounded when security forces opened fire on demonstrators, a security official told AFP.

Mr Mubarak, 82, has charged Mr Suleiman, his long-time spy chief, with drawing selected opposition groups into negotiations on democratic reform before elections due in September, when he has said he will step down.

Some groups have joined the talks, but one formerly loyal party, the left-wing Tagammu, dropped out today, and the crowds in Tahrir Square insist that Mr Mubarak must go before they will leave the central plaza.