The Egyptian military has thrown its weight behind Hosni Mubarak's decision not to resign as president and to transfer most of his powers to his vice-president.
In a statement read out on Friday morning, the military announced it would lift a 30-year-old state of emergency "as soon as current circumstances end", but gave no specific timeframe.
The statement – called "Communique No 2" – also said the military would guarantee changes to the constitution as well as a free and fair election, and it called for normal business activity to resume.
Lifting the state of emergency was a key demand of the demonstrators, but the decision to back Mubarak's process of slow transition is likely to enrage the protesters who have massed in Cairo's Tahrir Square and elsewhere every day for more than two weeks.
The army said it would protect the nation but repeated a call for protesters to go home so life could return to normal; protests and strikes have had a serious effect on the Egyptian economy.
The army "confirms the need to resume orderly work in the government installations and a return to normal life, preserve the interests and property of our great people".
The communique acknowledged the delegation of powers to Omar Suleiman, indicating that the military stood squarely behind the president's speech, and also pledged to "preserve the stability and safety of the nation".
Mubarak shocked demonstrators expecting his resignation by telling them he would not quit as president until elections in September.
The statement is the second in two days from the armed forces following a military "supreme council" meeting.
The army's role is seen as critical in shaping how the crisis will now develop in the coming days. Speaking before Communique No 2 was issued, Rosemary Hollis of City University, London, said there was "a distinct possibility" the armed forces would now split.
Hollis said there were a couple of ways this split could go. One would be a division between older, senior officers, and younger ones from the middle ranks.
"The most senior ranks are the same age as Mubarak and Suleiman," she said. "The younger men are their [the demonstrators'] generation. They will identify less with Mubarak and more with the future of the country they want to be part of."
Hollis said the other way the armed forces could split would be ideologically, between those who wanted to concentrate on "law and order" and a "managed transition under Mubarak and co" and felt this would be "preferable to the dangers of a transition to democracy", and on the other side those "embracing change with all its uncertainty".
She had been told that this ideological split could run along the lines of the air force – Mubarak's former service – and republican guard on one side, and "everyone else", including the regular army, on the side of change.
Hollis said: "Militaries aren't good at transitions to democracy. They're more comfortable with continuity." But, on the other hand, "the army has not been clearly on the side of Mubarak" during this crisis.
Whatever happens, she said, "the army will have the final say".
An Egyptian army officer who joined protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square told the Reuters news agency that 15 other middle-ranking officers had also gone over to the demonstrators.
"The armed forces' solidarity movement with the people has begun," Major Ahmed Ali Shouman said. "Some 15 officers … have joined the people's revolution," he said, listing their ranks ranging from captain to lieutenant colonel. Our goals and the people's are one."
Another army major walked up to Shouman while he was talking with the Reuters reporter in Tahrir and introduced himself, saying: "I have also joined the cause."