© Agence France-PresseDefence Minister Tantawi visited Tahrir Square, the focal point for the protests, last week
Egyptian military leaders have pledged that the country's emergency law will be lifted, but only "as soon as current circumstances end".

The promise was made as part of the Armed Forces Supreme Council's response to the mass protests which are intensifying after President Hosni Mubarak's latest refusal to step down.

In a statement read out on national television, the army leaders also pledged to support work towards peaceful transition of power, in the light of Mubarak handing over some powers to Omar Suleiman, the vice-president.

The third point made was that "the honest men who called for an end to corruption and for reform" will not be prosecuted.

The army generals also called for a return to normal life in the country, as thousands of protesters streamed into Cairo's central Tahrir Square.

Hussein Tantawi, the chief commander and defence minister, chaired Friday's meeting.

Demonstrators have stepped up calls for the army to intervene against Mubarak, a former air force commander and one of its own, and the role of the military is seen as key in the outcome of the crisis.

Meanwhile on Friday, an Egyptian army officer who has joined the protesters said 15 other middle-ranking officers had also gone over to the demonstrators.

"The armed forces' solidarity movement with the people has begun," Major Ahmed Ali Shouman told Reuters news agency. "Our goals and the people's are one."

Shouman said the officers would address the crowd after Friday midday prayers.

The army, sent onto the streets after police withdrew following their failure to crush protesters on January 28, has promised not to fire on demonstrators.

Pressure mounting

While refusing to resign or leave the country, Mubarak gave most of his powers to his vice-president late on Thursday, hours after the military made moves that had all the markings of a coup.

"We are waiting for a strong reaction from the army to Mubarak's speech," said Mohammed Mustapha, a protest spokesman. He said "huge numbers" of protesters were expected on Friday.

Organisers said protesters were already camped outside the presidential palace and buildings housing the cabinet, parliament and state TV. They planned rallies at six separate protest locations, in addition to Tahrir Square, the centre of the mass rallies that began on January 25.

"We are going to camp everywhere to put more pressure on the regime," said Abdel-Rahman Samir, an organiser.

Prominent reform advocate Mohamed ElBaradei, whose supporters were among the organisers of the 18-day-old wave of protests, warned in a Twitter message that "Egypt will explode".

"The army must save the country now," the Nobel Peace laureate said. "I call on the Egyptian army to immediately interfere to rescue Egypt. The credibility of the army is on the line."

Protesters' hopes that Mubarak would resign had been raised on Thursday when a council of the military's top generals announced it had stepped in to secure the country, and a senior commander told protesters in Tahrir Square that all their demands would soon be met.

Hints of rift

The military's Supreme Council said earlier on state TV that it was in permanent session, a status that it takes only in times of war.

It said it was exploring "what measures and arrangements could be made to safeguard the nation, its achievements and the ambitions of its great people." That suggested Tantawi and his generals were in charge of the country.

The statement was labelled "Communique No. 1," language that also suggests a military coup.

State TV showed Tantawi chairing the council with around two dozen top stern-faced army officers seated around a table.

Mubarak and Vice-President Omar Suleiman, a former army general and intelligence chief named to his post after the protests erupted, were not present, the strongest indication during the day of a rift.