CAIRO, Feb 10 (Reuters) - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak looked likely to step down on Thursday after more than two weeks of protests against his 30-year rule and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood said it looked like there had been a military coup.
The armed forces, which have provided Egypt's post-colonial rulers for six decades, announced that they were taking measures to safeguard the nation and the aspirations of the people.
Word Mubarak was going provoked loud cheers in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the focal point for pro-democracy demonstrations, though there was also concern about the future role of the army.
Asked if Mubarak would step down, an Egyptian official told Reuters: "Most probably". State television said that Mubarak would speak to the nation from his Cairo palace on Thursday.
The BBC quoted the head of Mubarak's political party as saying that the president might go.
"I spoke to the new secretary general of the ruling National Democratic Party, Hossan Badrawi," a BBC reporter said. "He said: 'I hope the president is handing over his powers tonight'."
State television later showed Mubarak meeting new Vice President Omar Suleiman at his Cairo palace.
For the army, 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 are ready to accept that.
"It looks like a military coup," senior Muslim Brotherhood figure Essam al-Erian told Reuters. "I feel worry and anxiety. The problem is not with the president. It is with the regime."
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,"
General Roweny urged the crowds to sing the national anthem and keep Egypt safe. Tanks and other armoured vehicles stood by.
The head of the U.S. 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.
He added that he did not have "specific word" that Mubarak, a long-time ally of Washington, was about to resign.
Joining a chorus saying that Mubarak's departure could be imminent, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq told the BBC that the 82-year-old strongman may step down.
POVERTY AND REPRESSION
The president has been buffeted by widespread protests against poverty, repression and corruption that began on Jan. 25 in an unprecedented display of frustration at his autocratic rule. It was partly inspired by the example of Tunisia, where street protesters toppled the strongman president on Jan. 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, promising on Feb. 1 to step down in September. But that was not enough to end an uprising many now are calling the Egyptian Revolution.
On Thursday afternoon, Egypt's military announced it was taking measures to preserve the nation and aspirations of the people after a meeting of the Higher Army Council.
The meeting of the Higher Army Council was headed by the defence minister and Mubarak was not apparently present, according to television footage.
Alaa el-Seyyed, 26, a member of a protest organising committee asked, about possibility of the army taking control said: "It is an accomplishment for us. But we will stay until all of our demands are realised -- democracy and freedom."
"He is going down!" Zeina Hassan said on Facebook.
"The current Egyptian army is a client of the USA and Israel. It is not a national army. It doesn't deserve our respect," Mahmoud El Lozy tweeted.
"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."
Organisers had promised another major push on the streets on Friday when protesters said they planned to move on to the state radio and television 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.
"The army is facing the choice between standing with Mubarak and perhaps being swept aside or going with the popular flow. I think they will give away Mubarak almost as a fig leaf. Possibly (Vice President Omar) Suleiman as well, although he is not as unpopular as Mubarak. There is an element of regime preservation going on here from the army elite," Julien Barnes-Dacey, a Middle East analyst at Control Risks in London, told Reuters.
The possibility of unrest spreading to other authoritarian states in the oil-rich region has kept oil prices firm.
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