PRESIDENT Hosni Mubarak’s last chance of survival appeared to vanish last night when the all-powerful Egyptian Army declared that it would not use force to crush the popular uprising against his regime.
In a dramatic intervention, a statement on state television told the Egyptian people: “Your armed forces, who are aware of the legitimacy of your demands, affirm that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody.”
As Mr Mubarak’s regime faced the prospect of the biggest protest so far on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria today, the army’s address made clear to marchers: “The presence of the armed forces on the street is for your good and for your safety and security and it will not use force against this great people.”
The intervention came as Europe and the US appeared to abandon their support for the man who has long been the West’s staunchest ally in the Arab world.
Mr Mubarak sought to appease the protesters by swearing in a new Cabinet shorn of its most hated ministers, but the opposition dismissed the gesture as too little, too late.
For the seventh day tens of thousands of protesters packed Tahrir Square in central Cairo to demand his resignation.
Without military force Mr Mubarak appears to have no means left of crushing the uprising.
Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, raised the spectre of Egypt becoming another Iran. He said he hoped that Israel’s historic 1979 peace treaty with Egypt could survive the upheaval in the world’s most populous Arab nation, but continued: “Our real fear is of a situation that could develop, and which has already developed in several countries including Iran … repressive regimes of radical Islam.”
The uprising may not have been inspired by religious extremism, he said, but “in a situation of chaos, an organised Islamist body can seize control of a country. It happened in Iran. It happened in other instances”.
His remarks contrasted, however, with statements from Washington and Brussels suggesting that the US and Europe recognise that Mr Mubarak cannot survive and are seeking a peaceful transition to a government that commands broad popular consent.
President Obama called for an “orderly transition to democracy”. Yesterday the European Union’s 27 foreign ministers issued a statement urging the regime to “embark on an orderly transition through a broad-based government leading to a genuine process of substantial democratic reforms [and] paving the way for fair and free elections”.
In interviews with Western reporters the protesters in Tahrir Square have repeatedly stressed the inclusive nature of their ranks, with Muslims and Christians, the secular and the devout, standing side by side.
That unity will be on show again later today when hundreds of thousands are expected to join a “million-man march” through Cairo towards the presidential palace.
The authorities have cancelled all train services and grounded domestic flights but protesters responded by calling for another march today in Alexandria.
Mr Mubarak dropped Habib al-Adly, the Interior Minister held responsible for so much repression, and several unpopular business tycoons from the Cabinet. He also ordered Ahmad Shafiq, his new Prime Minister, to make constitutional reforms and economic improvement his priority.