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Shashank Bengali: Millions of Egyptians reject Mubarak and Suleiman

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SHASHANK BENGALI, MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS: Protests began again today in Cairo for the 17th straight day. And by late afternoon, word began to spread from a few sources that Mubarak was going to be making a speech, and there were several conflicting accounts. A senior officer in the Egyptian military appeared in Tahrir Square to address the protesters and said, quote, “all your demands will be answered soon”. And then we heard a report from the secretary general of the ruling party saying that Mubarak was going to give a speech, suggesting that he would transfer powers to the Egyptian vice president, Omar Suleiman. So this filters very, very quickly through Cairo, through all of Egypt, and people began flocking to Tahrir Square in the evening as night fell over Cairo, waiting and expecting to hear President Mubarak give his valedictory resignation speech. The mood in Tahrir–I got there at about 8 p.m. The speech was scheduled for 10 p.m. So I had a couple of hours to wander around. People were jubilant. The mood was very celebratory. People were telling jokes, singing songs, banging drums. It was by far the largest nighttime crowd that’s come to Tahrir Square, and people were really ready for a party. By the time Mubarak spoke, it was about 10:45 p.m. People–I mean, the anticipation was in the air. People were sort of craning their necks to try to hear what’s coming from the speakers in the square. The mood just deflated so quickly. They heard the same stuff they’d been hearing from the previous speeches by Mubarak saying that the country was in crisis, that he was going to form a committee to study the various reforms that the protesters want. In the end he didn’t say the magic words, that he was going to leave, and people were just in shock, in anger. There was a large group that marched out of Tahrir Square toward the state TV headquarters, which are nearby. Another group of hundreds reportedly began marching to the east of the square, toward the presidential palace. The bottom line is no one really knows exactly what’s happened. There’s reports now from some Egyptian officials that Mubarak has actually delegated all of his powers as president to the prime minister. There are other reports saying that’s not the case; only some powers have been transferred. The bottom line is Mubarak remains the president of Egypt, he remains the head of state until the end of his term later this year, and that is going to do nothing to satisfy the protesters in the streets. Now, before all this began, Friday was scheduled to be another big day of mass protests, after Friday prayers in the afternoon. And combine that with what happened this evening in the speech, I think we will see probably the biggest turnout in nearly three weeks of protests occur tomorrow in Cairo, and the potential for confrontations with the military could be extremely high. So we’ll be watching to see. It could be a very unsettled day in Egypt tomorrow.

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Shashank Bengali reports for McClatchy from more than 25 countries and covered conflicts in Somalia, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and Georgia. Before moving to Africa in 2005, he was a roving correspondent for The Kansas City Star. Originally from the Los Angeles area, Shashank studied at the University of Southern California and at Harvard University, where he earned a Master's degree in public policy. He speaks French and broken Kiswahili.