CAIRO -- Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced today he would step down at the next election -- a statement welcomed by US President Barack Obama, who said he believed a transition to a new Egyptian government must begin straight away, but stopped short of publicly calling for Mubarak to resign immediately.
Speaking at the White House Tuesday evening, Obama said that while "it's not the role of any other country to determine Egypt's leaders," it was his belief "that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now."
“Furthermore, the process must include a broad spectrum of Egyptian voices and opposition parties. It should lead to elections that are free and fair. And it should result in a government that's not only grounded in democratic principles, but is also responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”
Obama also praised the Egyptian military for allowing protests there to continue and added that the US would continue to stand up for democracy across the world.
The remarks followed a 30-minute telephone conversation he had with Mubarak, in which Obama said the embattled leader "recognized that the status quo is not sustainable."
A White House official told Fox News Channel the president informed Mubarak that an orderly transition could not be prolonged and that the Egyptian leader may have to step down sooner rather than later.
In a taped, five-minute speech earlier Tuesday, Mubarak said he would not seek re-election when his term ends in September. The 82-year-old ruler, who has led the country for 29 years, said he will remain in office to preside over an orderly transition of power.
"I never want to run for president again. I say it clearly -- I will stay until the end of this term," he said on state TV, pledging amendments to Egypt's constitution that would make it easier for opposition groups to field candidates in September's election.
"I am now very determined to make sure that whatever I do, I carry out my duty by keeping the peace in Egypt. I will work during my remaining months as president to ensure that steps are taken to ensure the peaceful transition of power."
Hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters had rallied Tuesday in central Cairo's Tahrir Square in the biggest push yet to oust the autocrat.
The crowds in Tahrir Square roared as Mubarak spoke, greeting his declaration with chants of "leave, leave, leave." But given his decision to cling to power until September it looked likely the mass demonstrations, already in their second week, would rumble on.
AFP estimated that 500,000 people protested in the capital Cairo and at least 400,000 turned out in Alexandria, citing a security source.
As night fell, the square remained packed with protesters who ignored a government-imposed curfew. Reports likened the atmosphere to that of a rock festival, with protesters singing and chanting for an end to Mubarak's three decades in power.
Mubarak's decision not to fall on his sword immediately angered his Egyptian political opponents, with Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, declaring immediately afterward that "no one is satisfied" and that the protests would continue.
In comments aired earlier Tuesday, key opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei insisted Mubarak should go by Friday to avoid further bloodshed.
"I hope President Mubarak goes before this and leaves the country after 30 years of rule ... I don't think he wants to see more blood," ElBaradei told the Al Arabiya satellite channel.
A committee of opposition groups, including ElBaradei and the Muslim Brotherhood, also pledged there would be no negotiations with the regime until Mubarak leaves, a statement said.
The United Nations said Tuesday that as many as 300 people, according to unconfirmed reports, had died since the unrest began, more than doubling the widely reported estimate of 140 fatalities.
The US Department of State, meanwhile, ordered the departure of all non-emergency government personnel and their families from Egypt Tuesday.
"The Department of State will continue to facilitate the evacuation of US citizens who require assistance," State Department spokesman P.J.Crowley said.
Foreign tourists and workers continued to swarm to Cairo's airport in a scramble for flights out of Egypt, as other countries and corporations mounted evacuation operations.
Hundreds of people waited under a large white tent pitched for the passengers-in-waiting who failed to squeeze their way into the overcrowded airport halls, AFP reported.
The turmoil appeared to spread across the Middle East to Jordan, where King Abdullah II dismissed the government Tuesday after weeks of opposition protests demanding change. A new prime minister was charged with forming a government.
Meanwhile a Syrian online activist group called for a peaceful "2011 Syrian revolution," beginning after prayers on Friday and inspired by the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, to end what its members claim is corruption and tyranny.
Addressing President Bashar al Asad, the group said, "We are not against you as a person but against 'monocracy,' corruption and tyranny and the fact that your family and friends have grabbed riches.