CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's embattled President Hosni Mubarak said early Saturday that he had asked his Cabinet to resign, and promised reforms in his first response to protesters who have mounted the biggest challenge ever to his 30-year rule.
But Mubarak also defended the crackdown by police on tens of thousands of demonstrators that drew harsh criticism from the Obama administration Friday and even a threat to reduce a $1.5 billion program of foreign aid if Egypt escalated the use of force.
Somber president attacks protesters
A somber-looking Mubarak called anti-government protests "part of a bigger plot to shake the stability and destroy legitimacy" of the political system.
The steps announced in a nationally televised speech fell short of protesters' demands for his ouster that have been a constant mantra during four straight days of demonstrations.
"Out, out, out!" protesters chanted Friday in violent, chaotic scenes of battles with riot police.
They also demand remedies to widespread poverty in this nation of 80 million.
Want democracy, jobs, end of corruption
"We aspire for more democracy, more effort to combat unemployment and poverty and combat corruption," he said.
But those words were likely to be interpreted as an attempt to cling to power rather than take concrete steps to solve some of the more pressing problems facing many Egyptians, primarily unemployment and rapidly rising food prices.
Mubarak also defended the security forces' crackdown on protesters, saying he had given them instructions that the protesters be allowed to express their views. But, he said, acts of violence and vandalism left the security forces with no choice but to react top restore order.
Demonstrators run rampant in Cairo
He spoke minutes after the end of a day of protesters running rampant on the streets of Cairo, battling police with stones and firebombs, burning down the ruling party headquarters, and defying a night curfew enforced by a military deployment.
He said this week's protests struck fear in the heart of the majority of Egyptians concerned about the future of their country.
"Violence will not solve the problems we face or realize the objectives we aspire to," he said. "I will not shy away from taking any decision that maintains the security of every Egyptian," he vowed.
The government's attempts to suppress demonstrations appeared to be swiftly eroding support from the U.S. — suddenly forced to choose between its most important Arab ally and a democratic uprising demanding his ouster.
Despite Mubarak's address, the protesters were sure to be emboldened by their success in bringing tens of thousands to the streets in defiance of a ban, a large police force, countless canisters of tear gas, and even a nighttime curfew enforced by the first military deployment of the crisis.