CAIRO — Faced with an unprecedented popular revolt that drew record crowds of protesters to downtown Cairo on Tuesday, U.S.-backed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he'd step down before elections this fall, a humbling end to his 30 years of authoritarian rule.
"I will say, with all honesty and without looking at this particular situation, that I was not intending to stand for the next elections because I've spent enough time serving Egypt," Mubarak said in a televised speech. "I'm now careful to conclude my work for Egypt by presenting Egypt to the next government in a constitutional way."
Mubarak acted after President Obama sent a special envoy to Cairo, urging him not to seek re-election, and following calls from Turkey and Iran to step down.
Initial reaction was mostly negative among protesters in Tahrir Square, where earlier Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians — more than a million by some estimates — staged a festive rally to demand the president's ouster. "He's leaving! He's leaving!" some protesters shouted gleefully. More than an hour after he spoke, however, chants continued to echo from Tahrir Square as protesters vowed to keep flooding Egypt's streets until Mubarak heeded their demand to resign immediately.
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"We have only one condition: We need Mubarak to be out of our lives," said Mostafa Fathy, 28, an online journalist and activist. "He's supposed to be out of the game now."
The 82-year-old Mubarak appeared to make some concessions to the protesters, saying there should be presidential term limits and fewer restrictions on who can run for public office. But he didn't dissolve parliament, which is filled almost completely with members of his ruling party.
All day long, protesters had chanted, "Leave!" It came from the mouths of children draped in the Egyptian flag, bearded clerics in turbans, teenagers dancing to a drumbeat and elderly women with tears in their eyes. Long before the president's speech, cameras flashed and video recorders rolled as the protesters documented what they hoped would go down in Egyptian history as the end of Mubarak's regime.
"In my whole life, I've never known another president, and suddenly I can't imagine how he can stay for even one more day," said Tasneem Osman, 26. "He has to go. He will go."
Before Mubarak's appearance around 11 p.m., state TV stations mostly ignored the crowds in the square, instead airing call-in shows with government supporters and dismissing independent news coverage as tainted by foreign interests.
The government's intense pressure on the protesters continued: an Internet shutdown, spotty phone service, a nationwide curfew, closed banks, no trains from other provinces and a crackdown on journalists.
Despite the obstacles, this week-old rebellion with no clearly defined leadership drew massive crowds in an atmosphere that was peaceful and jubilant well into the night. Young protesters made up chants like freestyle rappers, playing with puns and rhymes. Placards depicted Mubarak as Hitler or with devilish horns. An effigy of the president dangled from a noose tied to a traffic light.
A young boy was perched on a man's shoulders, waving an Egyptian flag as he yelled a chant aimed at Suleiman. The newly appointed vice president is a strong contender for interim leadership should Mubarak leave sooner.
"We don't need America's man. Omar Suleiman, leave the country!" the boy shouted. More than a dozen adult protesters chanted along with him, cheering and snapping photos.
The anti-government movement has steadily grown more defiant — and more disciplined. While military tanks hung back on the outskirts of the square, citizen volunteers checked IDs and searched Egyptians streaming into the square. In the middle of the frenzy, ordinary people were collecting trash — a rare sight in Egypt even when the country is not in turmoil.
"I came for the liberation of my country," said Yahya Zakaria, 29, who took a bus several hundred miles from southern Egypt to Cairo to participate in the Jan. 25 protest, the first major rally. He's been camping in the square ever since, and on Tuesday he picked up garbage.
Zakaria's voice was hoarse from chanting slogans such as, "Mubarak, you are cheap; Egypt is worth more than you!" He needed a change of clothes, but he seemed convinced that the only president he's ever known was on his way out.
"Before, I didn't love my country," he said. "Now I love my country a lot."