EGYPTIAN President Hosni Mubarak wrong-footed global expectations by refusing to quit office, prompting furious demonstrators in Cairo to vow their most spectacular protests yet.
On the 17th day of a popular uprising against his 30-year rule, Mubarak announced he was delegating presidential power to Vice President Omar Suleiman, but said he would remain nominally in charge until September.
And in a swipe at the United States and other countries that want a faster transition to democracy in the most populous Arab nation, he said in a televised speech: "I have never bent to foreign diktats."
Leading a chorus of international indignation at the veteran strongman, US President Barack Obama said Mubarak had failed to map out "meaningful or sufficient" change or to speak clearly enough to Egypt and the world.
And in Tahrir Square in the heart of the Egyptian capital, tens of thousands of anti-government protesters voiced their anger, some brandishing their shoes as a sign of contempt.
The square had earlier been bathed in a carnival atmosphere, as the crowds gathered to celebrate what they hoped would be Mubarak's final speech of his autocratic reign.
The military had announced hours earlier that it would intervene to ensure the country's security and see that the people's "legitimate" demands were met.
In the United States, CIA chief Leon Panetta stoked the speculation by saying "there's a strong likelihood that Mubarak may step down this evening".
But when the Tahrir Square masses realised the 82-year-old leader was refusing to resign, the mood of the 200,000-plus crowd darkened rapidly.
Demonstrators vowed to step up their protests in Cairo on Friday to press for the immediate departure of Mubarak and his deputy.
"Down, down with Mubarak" they chanted.
"He is still speaking to us as if we were fools," said protester Ali Hassan. "He is a general defeated on the battlefield who will not retreat before inflicting as many casualties as he can."
"Egypt will explode," leading Egyptian dissident Mohamed ElBaradei warned on the Twitter website. "Army must save the country now."
Many protesters called for an immediate general strike and angrily called on the military - which has deployed large numbers of troops and tanks around the square - to intervene on their behalf.
Following Mubarak's speech, the bulk of the crowd began to disperse, but most vowed to return on Friday, which has already been declared a "day of rage".
A hard core of several thousand protesters remained in the sprawling tented encampment that has occupied the square since January 28.
"We won't leave until he leaves," declared 32-year-old accountant Ayman Shaky. "I don't think it's stupidity, it's arrogance. He lost his last chance to leave with his dignity intact."
In his speech, Mubarak said only that he had "decided to delegate power to the vice president based on the constitution".
"I am conscious of the dangers of this crossroad... and this forces us to prioritise the higher interests of the nation," he said.
In a short speech following Mubarak's address, Suleiman told the protesters to go home.
But as many of them peacefully filed out of Tahrir Square, the chants grew more ominous. "To the palace we are heading, martyrs by the millions!" they shouted.
Obama issued a strongly worded statement after Mubarak's speech, demanding an "unequivocal path toward genuine democracy" in Egypt, which has long been supported by massive US aid.
"The Egyptian people have been told that there was a transition of authority, but it is not yet clear that this transition is immediate, meaningful or sufficient," the US president said.
"Too many Egyptians remain unconvinced that the government is serious about a genuine transition to democracy, and it is the responsibility of the government to speak clearly to the Egyptian people and the world."
Who is Omar Suleiman?
OMAR Suleiman was Egypt's intelligence chief before he came out of the shadows to be named President Hosni Mubarak's first-ever deputy.
More at home in a tailored suit than a military uniform, Suleiman -- always impeccably dressed and sporting a groomed moustache -- is regarded as a Mubarak loyalist.
He is also a discreet negotiator who favours working behind the scenes -- a talent that will be put to the test as he tackles the aftermath of the Egyptian uprising and the many challenges facing the Arab world's most populous nation.
Suleiman, 77, who received military training in the former Soviet Union, was for years a highly enigmatic figure for the world at large and in Egypt, where the all-powerful military's activities are shrouded in secrecy.
But he increasingly acquired a public face in recent years, being tipped even before the uprising as a potential successor to Mubarak, himself a former head of the air force five years Suleiman's senior.
Symbolising the unparalleled role of the military in governing Egypt, Suleiman saluted Mubarak when, on January 29, he took the oath as Egypt's first vice president since Mubarak himself had the job in 1981.
Mubarak automatically became president when his predecessor Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamists in the same year.
Born in 1936 to a well-off family in the southern Egyptian town of Qena, Suleiman graduated from Cairo's military academy in 1955.
Appointed aide to Egypt's military intelligence chief in 1988, he replaced his boss a year later.
Suleiman has been a negotiating partner for the United States, Israel and the Palestinians, orchestrating a series of albeit short-lived truces between the Middle East foes over the past 10 years.
But while he may be liked and trusted abroad, many in Egypt regard Suleiman as part of Mubarak's inner circle, and as such a pillar of a corrupt regime.
When it became clear Thursday night that Mubarak wasn't stepping down and that he was instead delegating powers to his deputy, an angry crowd at Cairo's central Tahrir square tellingly chanted: "Neither Mubarak nor Suleiman!"
In 1995, Suleiman advised Mubarak to ride in an armoured car during a visit to Addis Ababa that shielded him from the fire of Islamist gunmen which killed the car's driver.
During the 1990s and following the botched Ethiopian assassination attempt, Suleiman joined the efforts of the CIA and other foreign intelligence agencies to crack down on Islamists, at home and abroad.
He also proceeded to target home-grown Islamist groups Gamaa Islamiya and Jihad after they carried out a attacks on foreigners that hit Egypt's vital tourism industry hard.
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