published Saturday, February 12th, 2011

Egypt's Mubarak steps down, cedes power to military

New York Times News Service
  • photo
    An Egyptian soldier kisses a boy atop an army vehicle as they celebrate the news of the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, who handed control of the country to the military, at night in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, Egypt Friday, Feb. 11, 2011. (AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill)

CAIRO -- Egypt erupted in a joyous celebration of the power of a long repressed people Friday as President Hosni Mubarak resigned his post and ceded control to the military, ending his nearly 30 years of autocratic rule.

Shouts of "God is Great" competed with fireworks and car horns around Cairo after Mubarak's vice president and longtime intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, announced during evening prayers that Mubarak had passed all authority to a council of military leaders, bowing to a historic popular uprising that has transformed politics in Egypt and around the Arab world.

Protesters hugged and cheered and shouted, "Egypt is free!" and "You're an Egyptian, lift your head."

"He's finally off our throats," said one protester, Muhammad Insheemy. "Soon, we will bring someone good."

The departure of Mubarak, 82, at least initially to his coastal resort home in Sharm el-Sheik, marked a pivotal turn in a three-week revolt that has upended one of the Arab's world's most enduring dictatorships.

The popular protests, peaceful and resilient despite numerous efforts by Mubarak's legendary security apparatus to suppress them, ultimately deposed a U.S. ally who has been instrumental in helping to carry out U.S. policy in the region for decades.

Mubarak's fall also came three weeks to the day after a sudden revolt toppled another enduring strongman, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, a domino effect that may appears to upend conventional wisdom about the passivity of the Arab street and the staying power of authoritarian governments in the region.

Monarchies and one-party dictatorships still hold sway in many countries in the region, including Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Yemen.

"Taking into consideration the difficult circumstances the country is going through, President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak has decided to leave the post of president of the republic and has tasked the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to manage the state's affairs," Suleiman, grave and ashen, said in a brief televised statement.

President Barack Obama reacted to the news Friday afternoon with praise for the Egyptian people, especially its youth.

"Egyptians have inspired us, and they've done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice is best gained through violence," he said.

Obama said the peaceful departure of Mubarak marked "a beginning" holding the promise of greater democracy for the world's most populous Arab nation. But he added soberly, "There will be difficult days ahead."

Mubarak's departure came after a 24-hour period that mixed celebration and anger, as Egypt and the outside world at first anticipated Mubarak's imminent resignation Thursday afternoon, then recoiled in outrage when he continued to cling to power in a combative televised address Thursday night.

Whether Mubarak's speech represented a real attempt to hold on to power, or a prideful, deluded assertion of influence in defiance of political reality, was not immediately clear. But Obama administration officials said Friday that Egyptian officials explained that Mubarak had in fact been removed from his posts in favor of a military council and that the transfer of power was well under way.

The shift leaves the military in charge of this nation of 80 million, facing insistent calls for fundamental democratic change and open elections. The military has repeatedly promised to respond to the demands of protesters. But it has little recent experience in directly governing and will have to defuse demonstrations and labor strikes that have paralyzed the economy and left many of the country's institutions, including state media and the security forces, in shambles.

Shortly before the announcement of Mubarak's departure, the military issued a communique pledging to carry out a variety of constitutional reforms in a statement remarkable for its commanding tone. The military's statement mentioned Mubarak's earlier delegation of power to Suleiman but also suggested that it would oversee implementation of the reforms.

Among Egypt's scattered but triumphant opposition, the initial reaction to Mubarak's departure and the military's assertion of authority was ecstatic.

"Egypt is going to be a fully democratic state," said Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who helped organize the youth-led protests and became one of the movement's most prominent spokesmen. "You will be impressed."

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Laureate and Egyptian opposition figure, said, "Egypt has been going down the drain for the last few weeks and we need to get it back to where it should be. We need a democratic country based on social justice."

There were voices of caution as well. Abdel-Rahman Samir, a protest organizer, said the movement would open negotiations with the military but said demonstrations should also continue to ensure changes are carried out.

"We still don't have any guarantees yet -- if we end the whole situation now it's like we haven't done anything," Samir told the Associated Press. "So we need to keep sitting in Tahrir until we get all our demands."

In the United States, Vice President Joseph R. Biden called Mubarak's departure a "pivotal" development. The European Union welcomed the shift in leadership and also emphasized its desire to see changes that lead to "a broad-based government."

In Switzerland, the foreign ministry said in a statement that it had frozen possible assets of "the former Egyptian president" and his associates.

The military has been far more popular among the Egyptian people than the government of Mubarak, even though Mubarak and many of his top officials had military backgrounds. Its standing was reinforced by its signals of support for the people's demands, repeated visits to Tahrir Square by top generals and its decision not to forcibly suppress the protests.

In its communique Friday, the military reiterated that it intends to supervise political change but also largely stuck to the main constitutional and electoral reforms that Mubarak and Suleiman had already promised to implement. Whether those changes are sufficient -- and whether they can be carried out quickly enough -- to satisfy protesters remains to be seen.

State TV reported that Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister under Mubarak and a potential president candidate, had resigned as the head of the Arab League.

In Tahrir Square, the focal point of the uprising, many protesters were overcome with the emotion of achieving their unlikely but determined quest to overthrow Mubarak. More than an hour after Suleiman spoke, the din was undiminished, as the celebrants, some in tears, shouted, sang, embraced and chanted. The slogan of the revolution, "The people want to bring down the regime," adopted from Tunisia, became, "The people, at last, have brought down the regime."

Parents were seen putting their children on the tanks to have their photos snapped with the soldiers, while the soldiers reached down to shake hands with the protesters and people chanted, "The people and the army are one hand." In a show of solidarity in at least lower levels of the army, three Egyptian officers shed their weapons and uniforms and joined the protesters.

"Now, we can breathe fresh air, we can feel our freedom," said Dr. Gamal Heshamt, a former member of Parliament and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. "Now we can start to build our country. After 30 years of absence from the world, Egypt is back."

Some people waved Tunisian flags, while young women danced on the hulking remains of burned-out armored personnel carriers.

The Qasr al-Nil bridge, the sight of ugly fighting between the protesters and Mubarak supporters, was crammed from one end to the next with people cheering and chanting, "Egypt! Egypt! Egypt!"

It was here 10 days that the same unarmed protesters organized themselves into brigades to break up the pavement into stone missiles to use as ammunition in a 14-hour battle to hold the square against an army of club-wielding toughs loyal to Mubarak.

And it was here that they continued to call down hundreds of thousands of protesters even as the United States and the rest of the West began to rally around the idea of a gradual, tentative political transition that left Mubarak in power.

The protesters said throughout that only the ouster of Mubarak would demonstrate their power thoroughly enough to ensure that no new strongman might try to reconsolidate power. And Friday they said they were ready to proclaim victory.

"Our country never had a victory in our lifetime, and this is the sort of victory we were looking for, a victory over a vicious regime that we needed to bring down," said Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, a 32-year-old transplant surgeon who was among the small group of organizers who guided the revolution.

"After the celebration, we are going to insist on a civil government to run our country for the transition. We are not going to ask the people to stay in the square or leave -- it is their choice," he added. "Even if they leave any government will now that we can get them to the streets again in a minute."

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