CAIRO — Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak refused to step down Thursday but said in a nationally televised speech that he would hand more authority to his vice president, a move that drew rage and bewilderment from hundreds of thousands of protesters packed into Cairo's Tahrir Square.
The nation was anticipating an address that would mark the end of Mubarak's 30 years in power but instead was told he was going nowhere. Protesters shouted ""leave, leave,"" and chants of disapproval echoed across the Nile at the prospect that the 17-day standoff with the government was not over.
""For the benefit of this country,"" Mubarak said, ""I have decided to assign the tasks of the president to the vice president according to the constitution.""
Mubarak spoke like a leader aloof from the demands of millions of his people and increasing pressure from the United States and other Western powers. He said his government would work on constitutional reform, punishing abusive security forces and preparing a transfer of power leading to September elections.
None of that satisfied protesters whose central goal is for the 82-year-old former air force commander to leave office.
Delegating more authority to Vice President Omar Suleiman was viewed by many demonstrators as keeping intact the vestiges of Mubarak's ruling establishment. Mubarak did not make clear what duties Suleiman — the country's former intelligence chief and one of his confidants — would assume.
Hours before the speech, a senior army commander appeared in Tahrir Square and told protesters that all their demands would be met. Their rallying point has been Mubarak's removal from office. It was later announced that the president would be addressing the country. A mood of celebration settled over the square.
But after the speech, Tahrir filled with chants of ""Down, down with Mubarak!""
The announcement came after two days of warnings by top Egyptian officials, including Suleiman, 74, that the army might stage a coup if protests didn't stop.
Mubarak came to power in 1981 upon the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, by Islamic militants. He imposed a state of emergency throughout his three-decade-rule and used his ruling party and security forces to crush political opposition, winning re-election repeatedly in balloting that was widely condemned internationally as fraud-ridden.
If Mubarak's rule ends, it would reverberate across the Middle East, where protests and unrest in recent weeks have engulfed Yemen, Jordan and Algeria. It would mark the end of an era and leave the region without one of its most prominent leaders and a trusted U.S. ally in stemming Islamic terrorism and solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.