CAIRO - Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak looked likely to step down on Thursday after the military high command took control of a nation gripped by more than two weeks of unprecedented protests in what some said was a military coup.
Egypt's military, issuing what it called "Communique No.1," announced it was moving to preserve the nation and aspirations of the people after a meeting of the Higher Army Council.
Mubarak, a former air force commander, was not present at the council. He was shortly to address the nation.
"The fact that the army met without Mubarak who is the head of the armed forces means that the military has taken over power and I expect this to be announced shortly in Mubarak's televised speech," Nabil Abdel Fattah, at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said.
State television showed footage of Mubarak, sitting behind his desk in silence, in a meeting with Vice President Omar Suleiman. The station said they met on Thursday, although that was unclear from the footage. Suleiman, a former intelligence chief, had also not been present at the army council.
Al Arabiya television said the generals planned to support a handover of effective power to Suleiman, a 74-year-old former intelligence chief who has long had the goodwill of Washington and Israel. The military would take action, the broadcaster said citing unspecified sources, if protesters rejected that plan.
The news that the 82-year-old Mubarak may hand over power, or be unseated, in this key American ally in the Middle East provoked loud and emotional cheers in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the focal point for pro-democracy demonstrations. But some in the crowd were quick to protest they did not want military rule.
Major General Hassan Roweny told tens of thousands of protesters in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square: "Everything you want will be realized."
People chanted: "The people demand the fall of the regime, The regime has fallen."
Others sang: "Civilian, civilian. We don't want it military" -- a call for a freely elected civilian government. It remains to be seen how far the armed forces, which have provided Egypt's post-colonial rulers for six decades, are ready to accept that.
Washington's approach to the turmoil in the most populous Arab nation has been based from the start on Egypt's strategic importance -- as a rare Arab state no longer hostile to Israel, as the guardian of the Suez canal linking Europe and Asia and as a major force against militant Islam in the Middle East.
President Barack Obama, hailing history unfolding, said he would support a "orderly and genuine" move to democracy.
Asked if Mubarak would step down, an Egyptian official told Reuters: "Most probably."
The BBC quoted the head of Mubarak's political party as saying that the president might go before the day was out.
Mubarak has refused to step down until September elections, saying this could lead to chaos in Egypt. He has also vowed not to go into exile. "This is my country ... and I will die on its soil," he said on February 1, announcing he would go in due course.
On Tahrir Square, General Roweny urged the crowds to sing the national anthem and keep Egypt safe. U.S.-built Abrams tanks and other armored vehicles stood by.
For many, a key question is whether Suleiman might take over effective control from Mubarak -- who might stay on in a figurehead role -- or whether serving officers in the armed forces would move in instead, possibly declaring martial law.
Suleiman, promoted to be Mubarak's deputy less than two weeks ago, is not widely popular. But a key goal for many at the protests has been for changes to laws to ensure fair elections.
Anthony Skinner of the Maplecroft political risk consultancy said: "In the best case scenario, Suleiman would take over and there would be an accelerated transition to democracy. In a worst-case scenario, this turns into effectively a military coup and the military prove not keen on a transition to democracy."
Analyst Michael Hanna from the Century Foundation said on his Twitter feed: "Will people be satisfied under military rule?
"This could create splits among the opposition, and that is probably what the army is hoping for,"
Egypt's sprawling armed forces -- the world's 10th biggest and more than 468,000-strong -- have been at the heart of power since army officers overthrew the British-backed king in 1952.
The army quelled bread riots in Egypt in 1977 and halted a rampage by policemen over pay in 1986, but the scale of the past week's uprising across the country dwarfs those events.
The head of the Central Intelligence Agency also said it was likely Mubarak would step down in the next few hours.
"There's a strong likelihood that Mubarak may step down this evening, which would be significant in terms of where the, hopefully, orderly transition in Egypt takes place," Leon Panetta told a congressional hearing in Washington.
Joining a chorus saying that Mubarak's departure could be imminent, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq told the BBC that the strongman may step down.
POVERTY AND REPRESSION
The president has been buffeted by widespread protests against poverty, repression and corruption that began on January 25 in an unprecedented display of frustration.
It was partly inspired by the example of Tunisia, where street protesters toppled the strongman president on January 14.
Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand that Mubarak quit and clashes between protesters and security forces have killed at least 300 people.
Mubarak has clung on to power with his promise to step down in September. But that was not enough to end an uprising many now are calling the "Nile Revolution."
Mubarak, who has ruled under emergency laws since he took over when Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamist soldiers, also said his son would not stand for election, appointed a vice president for the first time and promised reforms.
Alaa el-Seyyed, 26, a member of a protest organizing committee, was asked about possibility of the army taking over. He said: "It is an accomplishment for us. But we will stay until all of our demands are realized -- democracy and freedom."
"He is going down!" Zeina Hassan said on Facebook.
"We want a civilian state, civilian state, civilian state!" Doaa Abdelaal said on Twitter, an Internet service that many see as a vital catalyst for the protests in Tunisia and Egypt that have electrified oppressed populations across the Arab world.
"The army statement is wishy-washy. But we are confident that the day has come. Mubarak will step down, the people have won," said protester Mohamed Anees, who is in his late 20s.
"The army is worried that tomorrow on Friday the people will overpower state buildings and the army will not be able to fire back," Anees said. "The army now is pressuring Mubarak to resolve the situation."
Organizers had promised another major push on the streets on Friday when protesters planned to move on the state broadcasting building in "The Day of Martyrs" dedicated to the dead.
Washington pressured Mubarak to speed up the pace of reform but stopped short of demanding the resignation of the president of the country, which has a 1979 peace treaty with Israel and an army which receives about $1.3 billion in U.S. aid a year.
Just eight weeks after young Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi primed the fuse for popular protests by setting fire to himself in the town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, the possibility of unrest spreading to other authoritarian states in the oil-rich region has kept oil prices firm. News that Mubarak might be about to quit, saw prices soften somewhat on Thursday, however.
(Reporting by Samia Nakhoul, Tom Perry, Dina Zayed, Marwa Awad, Andrew Hammond, Alexander Dziadosz, Yasmine Saleh, Sherine El Madany, Patrick Werr, Edmund Blair, Jonathan Wright and Alison Williams in Cairo, Erika Solomon and Martin Dokoupil in Dubai, Arshad Mohammed in Washington, David Stamp in London and Brian Rohan in Berlin; Writing by Peter Millership; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)