CAIRO — Hours after President Hosni Mubarak offered to step down in September and President Obama urged a faster transition, Egypt’s powerful military signaled a shift on Wednesday, calling on protesters who have propelled tumultuous changes here to “restore normal life.”
On the streets, the tactics and calculations seemed to be shifting too, possibly spurring the military’s concern as pro-Mubarak demonstrators — some of them in apparently confrontational mood — turned out in larger numbers than in the past days of antigovernment tumult.
By the early afternoon, a potentially combustible mood seized Tahrir Square as hundreds of pro-Mubarak protesters converged on what has been the epicenter of the antigovernment demonstrations.
Heated debates between opposing demonstrators erupted for the first time, in some cases devolving into shoving matches. In places, antigovernment protesters locked hands to form lines in order to separate the groups and prevent any escalation into violence.
On state television, a military spokesman asked the government’s foes: “Can we walk safely down the street? Can we go back to work regularly? Can we go out into the streets with our children to schools and universities? Can we open our stores, factories and clubs?”
“You are the ones able to restore normal life,” he said.
“Your message was received and we know your demands,” the spokesman said. “We are with you and for you.”
The army’s role and its ultimate game-plan have remained opaque, with soldiers seeming to fraternize with protesters, without moving against the elite to which its officers belong. While the military has said it will not use force against peaceful protesters, the signs on Wednesday suggested that any gap between it and Mr. Mubarak was narrowing.
The announcement by a military spokesman appeared to be a call for demonstrators, who have turned out in hundreds of thousands in recent days, to leave the streets. It came as high-powered diplomacy between Cairo and Washington unfolded at a blistering pace and reverberations from the protest spread on Wednesday to one more corner of the Arab world in Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh promised to leave in 2013.
On Tuesday, after a 10-minute television address in which Mr. Mubarak pledged to step down within months as modern Egypt’s longest-serving leader, President Obama strongly suggested that Mr. Mubarak’s concession was not enough, declaring that an “orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now.”
While the meaning of the last phrase was deliberately vague, it appeared to be a signal that Mr. Mubarak might not be able to delay the shift to a new leadership.
In Tahrir Square, some pro-Mubarak supporters appeared genuinely convinced by the president’s speech. At the same time, there were widespread, though uncorroborated, allegations that many of those supporters were paid government plants.
In a separate development, Internet access, denied for days by official restrictions, began to return.
Hundreds of pro-Mubarak protesters converged on a square in the upscale Mohandiseen neighborhood on Wednesday morning, many of them carrying identical signs and banners praising the Egyptian president.
“With our blood, with our souls we sacrifice for you, oh Mubarak,” some chanted. Others carried a gold-framed portrait of the president. In Tahrir Square, sporadic clashes erupted between supporters of Mr. Mubarak and anti-government marchers, but the military took no immediate steps to intervene.
Messages sent to Egyptian cellphone users on Wednesday seemed intended to reinforce the official line. “Youth of Egypt beware of the rumors and listen to the voice of reason,” read one message. “Egypt is above all. Preserve it.”
The developments were part of a fast-moving sequence of events that could open a new and unpredictable chapter as President Mubarak seeks to reclaim the initiative after days of protests that have turned the center of the capital into a huge and sometimes festive display of opposition that almost left Washington behind. .
In a 30-minute phone call to Mr. Mubarak just before his public remarks late on Tuesday, Mr. Obama was more forceful in insisting on a rapid transition, according to officials familiar with the discussion.
Mr. Mubarak’s speech announcing he would step down came after his support from the powerful Egyptian military began to look uncertain and after American officials urged him not to run again for president.