Cairo: Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak looked likely to step down on Thursday after the military high command took control of a nation, shaken by more than two weeks of unprecedented protests, in what some called a military coup.

The armed forces, issuing what they labelled “Communique No.1", announced they were moving to preserve the nation and the aspirations of the people. The Higher Army Council met to try to calm an earthquake of unrest which has shocked the Middle East. Mubarak, a former air force commander, was not present at the council meeting. He was to address Egyptians on television. A government official said this was likely to take place at 1.30 am. It would be his third such address since the uprising started on 25 January. Last week, he pledged to step down in September, but that failed to appease the protesters.

“The fact that the army met without Mubarak who is the head of the armed forces means that the military has taken over power and I expect this to be announced shortly in Mubarak’s televised speech," Nabil Abdel Fattah, at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said.

State television showed footage of Mubarak, sitting behind his desk in silence, in a meeting with Vice President Omar Suleiman. The station said they met on Thursday, although that was unclear from the footage. Suleiman, a former intelligence chief, had also not been present at the army council.

Al Arabiya television said the generals planned to support a handover of effective power to Suleiman, a 74-year-old former intelligence chief who has long had the goodwill of Washington and Israel. The military would take action, the broadcaster said citing unspecified sources, if protesters rejected that plan.

Mubarak would announce constitutional procedures before handing over powers, Al Arabiya said.

Jubilation, Concern

The news that the 82-year-old Mubarak may hand over power, or be unseated, in this key American ally in the Middle East provoked loud and emotional cheers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the focal point for pro-democracy demonstrations. But some in the crowd were quick to protest they did not want military rule.

Washington’s approach to the turmoil in the most populous Arab nation has been based from the start on Egypt’s strategic importance -- as a rare Arab state no longer hostile to Israel, as the guardian of the Suez canal linking Europe and Asia and as a major force against militant Islam in the Middle East.

President Barack Obama, hailing history unfolding, said the United States would support an orderly transfer of power.

“We want all Egyptians to know America will continue to do every thing that we can to support an orderly and genuine transition to democracy in Egypt," he said.

Major General Hassan Roweny told tens of thousands of protesters in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square: “Everything you want will be realised."

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, which have provided Egypt’s post-colonial rulers for six decades, are ready to accept that.

Military Coup?

Asked if Mubarak would step down, an Egyptian official told Reuters: “Most probably".

Mubarak has refused to step down until September elections, saying this could lead to chaos in Egypt. He has also vowed not to go into exile. “This is my country ... and I will die on its soil," he said on Feb. 1, announcing he would go in due course.

On Tahrir Square, General Roweny urged the crowds to sing the national anthem and keep Egypt safe. U.S.-built Abrams tanks and other armoured vehicles stood by.

For many, a key question is whether Suleiman might take over effective control from Mubarak -- who might stay on in a figurehead role -- or whether serving officers in the armed forces would move in instead, possibly declaring martial law.

Suleiman, promoted to be Mubarak’s deputy less than two weeks ago, is not widely popular. But a key goal for many at the protests has been for changes to laws to ensure fair elections.

Anthony Skinner of the Maplecroft political risk consultancy said: “In the best case scenario, Suleiman would take over and there would be an accelerated transition to democracy. In a worst-case scenario, this turns into effectively a military coup and the military prove not keen on a transition to democracy."

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,"

Egypt’s sprawling armed forces -- the world’s 10th biggest and more than 468,000-strong -- have been at the heart of power since army officers overthrew the British-backed king in 1952.

The army quelled bread riots in Egypt in 1977 and halted a rampage by policemen over pay in 1986, but the scale of the past week’s uprising across the country dwarfs those events.

The head of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency also said it was likely Mubarak would step down in the next few hours.

Joining a chorus saying that Mubarak’s departure could be imminent, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq told the BBC that the 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.

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 with his promise to step down in September. But that was not enough to end an uprising many now are calling the “Nile Revolution".

Mubarak, who has ruled under emergency laws since he took over when Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamist soldiers, also said his son would not stand for election, appointed a vice president for the first time and promised reforms.

Alaa el-Seyyed, 26, a member of a protest organising committee, was asked about possibility of the army taking over. He 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.

“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.

Friday Protest

“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 planned to move on the state broadcasting 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.

Just eight weeks after young Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi primed the fuse for popular protests by setting fire to himself in the town of Sidi Bouzid on Dec. 17, the possibility of unrest spreading to other authoritarian states in the oil-rich region has kept oil prices firm. News that Mubarak might be about to quit, saw prices soften somewhat on Thursday, however.