It's not that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak wants to stay in power, you understand; he's "fed up" with being President but has no choice other than to carry on because if he quits, the result will be chaos and a Muslim Brotherhood takeover. That was Mubarak's spin, in an interview with ABC's Christiane Amanpour Thursday night, on his defiance of the demands from democracy protesters and increasingly from Western governments that he step down immediately. And in an extended interview on state-controlled Nile TV, Vice President Omar Suleiman Mubarak's intelligence chief and the power behind his throne made clear that the regime is digging in for a fight.
In language often chillingly Orwellian, Suleiman blamed the street protests on a "plot" by unnamed foreign and Egyptian elements, warned that the disruptions that had already cost Egypt more than $1 billion could no longer be tolerated, and ordered all opposition groups to accept that Mubarak would remain in control until the next election, which he said would be in August or September.
But as Friday's "day of departure" rally began to get going, it seems that the current regime remaining in control isn't what the people want. The weekly prayers were held in a relaxed fashion and then the crowd started chanting for Mubarak to go (the likes of, "The army and people are united," and "Leave! Leave! Leave!" were heard.) Tens of thousands flowed into Tahrir Square reportedly the largest crowd since Tuesday and they passed through a series of checkpoints. Egyptian Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi and senior army officials visited while soldiers checked IDs and performed body searches, which could be seen as a sign that the demonstration had been sanctioned. Indeed, the atmosphere seemed peaceful after the 48 hours of violence between pro- and anti-Mubarak crowds. On Friday, it wasn't so much weapons on show but rather fresh bread, water, fruit and other supplies. There is also a large protest taking place in Alexandria, where the situation is reportedly more tense, with other rallies occurring throughout the country.
The Egyptian opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei called upon Mubarak to, "hear the clear voice coming from the people and leave in dignity." He told reporters that there should be a yearlong transition to democracy with a presidential council of several people, including a representative from the military. A possible rival to ElBaradei, Arab League chief Amr Moussa, was in Tahrir Square, greeted by chants of "we want you as president, we want you as president." A former foreign minister under Mubarak, Moussa's elder statesman status will make him popular with some Egyptians, though the tough line he takes on Israel may make him less so with the U.S. administration.
Earlier, Vice President Suleiman laid out a rationale for what many expect will be a brutal effort to restore police control over Egypt's restive streets. And he dismissed calls from the U.S. and other foreign governments for restraint and for hastening the political transition, saying, "Intervention in our internal affairs is strange, unacceptable, and we will not allow it."
The New York Times reported late Thursday that U.S. and Egyptian officials were discussing various options, including one proposal under which Mubarak would hand power to Suleiman who would head a military-dominated transitional government to prepare for new elections. But, the paper noted, the Egyptian side has declined, so far, to accept any proposal that involved Mubarak stepping down.
Earlier, pro-Mubarak thugs fought through the night using stones, gasoline bombs and sometimes gunfire to drive the protesters from Cairo's Tahrir Square, but by dawn the anti-Mubarak forces not only held the square but had pushed the regime's supporters back. Fighting continued throughout the day, and while the army appeared at times to be doing more than it had on Wednesday to keep the sides, its intentions remained unclear. TIME received reports on Thursday claiming that in some areas around the square, the army appeared to be cooperating with the pro-regime forces. So while the protesters vowed to hold a massive march to Mubarak's residence on Friday to demand his resignation, the signals from Suleiman and Mubarak suggest that the authorities could be shaping up to reclaim control of the streets in a violent crackdown.
On Thursday night, an ambulance driver told TIME that he witnessed a tank open fire on anti-government demonstrators near the Egyptian Museum, where pro-Mubarak forces had launched attacks the previous day. "The army has started to cooperate with the pro-Mubarak people. I saw this with my own eyes," he told TIME. "I saw a tank open fire from the bridge onto the demonstrators below the bridge so that they would be scared and run."
The impression that regime tactics are about to get even uglier was underscored on Thursday by what appeared to be a campaign by the authorities to drive journalists off the streets. Many journalists have been arrested including CBS's Lara Logan and a number of reporters and networks have had their equipment seized by security officials. An official close to the government told TIME that the Ministry of Defense had issued orders for the arrest of foreign journalists.
While expressing regret over the chaos and violence and promising that it would be investigated, Suleiman said the army would be engaged in "implementing the curfew and protecting the civilians against thugs." Of course, Suleiman's definition of civilian appeared to cover both pro- and anti-Mubarak forces, and implementing the curfew would require that the military clear the streets by 6 p.m. every day.
Suleiman insisted that while Mubarak would eventually leave office, the President would remain in control until he could be constitutionally replaced after the election. Suleiman also claimed to have met with opposition groups, though a number had declined the invitation, including the Muslim Brotherhood. "They're still hesitant to enter dialogue, but I believe it's in their interests," he said on state TV. Mubarak, for his part, blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for the violence on the streets. The BBC reported that Suleiman and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq had, in fact, met with some opposition figures in Cairo on Thursday, in what diplomats called a "cordial but inconsequential" encounter.
Suleiman told his interviewer that the constitution made it impossible to heed the protesters' demand for Mubarak's immediate ouster and the dissolution of parliament. Instead, the regime's priority would be to restore order so that it could proceed with political reform ahead of the election.
Suleiman has thrown down a gauntlet to the Obama Administration and other Western allies of Egypt that have pinned their hopes on the Mubarak regime's beginning an immediate political transition. For now, the regime's plan is to hold on to power and put an end to the protest movement. And to do that, it will have to ignore Washington's demand that it refrain from violence in order to reclaim the streets. With protesters digging in to hold on to Tahrir Square, it's looking increasingly likely that if Suleiman's promises are implemented, there will be blood. The question is whether there's any further leverage that the U.S and its allies are willing or able to exercise in order to change Mubarak's mind.
The depth of Suleiman's cynicism was revealed by his closing remark: "I would say to the youth: We thank you for what you did; you were the spark that ignited reform in this time." Then he warned the protesters to go home, lest they become tools of a foreign plot that the Mubarak regime would quash.
With reporting by Abigail Hauslohner / Cairo