The fall Friday of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime marks an epic victory for modern-day Egyptians and for the power of sustained peaceful protests in the Arab world. Coming on the heels of a similar uprising in Tunisia, it also protends a potent force for regime change that must leave the autocratic, corrupt regimes in the rest of the Middle East quaking in apprehension of similar foment.
Egypt's premier moment in the hopeful march to a democratic government followed 18 days of resilient, insistent demonstrations sparked by hundreds of thousands of unyielding Egyptians, and came just as Mubarak had seemed poised to retreat to heavy-handed suppression. At crucial turns Egypt's pro-democracy protesters braved the inevitable conflicts and violence of a regime whose masters and supporters believed they could out-wait, co-opt, suppress or slow-walk the protesters.
They withstood the regime's efforts to rout them from Tahir Square and the Qasr al-Nil bridge by thugs on camels and horses, by goon squads and by riot police who used batons and tear gas. The demonstrators were aided, tacitly at first and then more affirmatively, by the Egyptian army's refusal to come to Mubarak's aid.
In fact, the army stood by early on as the guarantors of the protesters' safety from the regime's violent supporters, and at the end as the agents who would marshal Mubarak off the stage. The latter occurred after Mubarak attempted on Thursday night to defer his departure from office until September. He was clearly in denial at that point, but the protesters -- an irrepressible throng of students and workers and men and women of all ages, religions and roles in Egyptian society -- would have none of it.
When his vice president and longtime intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, finally announced Mubarak's coerced decision to step down and leave his office immediately -- transferring power to the army to ensure security until a transitional government can be established -- the streets of Cairo erupted in shouts of "God is Great."
Mubarak's departure was aided, in part, by the efforts of the Obama administration and other western governments which closed ranks to persuade the Egyptian army to avoid violence and to insist to the president that the time had come for him to go.
The Obama administration's role was appropriately calm but exceedingly helpful in ousting Mubarak, a relatively staunch American ally in the Arab world throughout his 30-year reign. Had Obama taken a more strident public stand against Mubarak, it would have worked in Mubarak's favor, enabling him to take a nationalistic stance against yielding office at the insistence of America.
As it is, the fall of Mubarak follows the text of Obama's call, in his widely noted speech in Cairo in 2009, for Arab autocrats in Egypt and across the Arab world to allow democratic, broad-based and transparent governance to rise to succeed the region's tyrants and lead the Arab world into a new political era of human rights and a just society.
Egypt's path toward a secular democracy, in any case, has only just begun. Ousting Mubarak, however magnificent, is only the first step beyond the political repression and corruption of the Mubarak regime and its predecessors. Egypt's new leaders must now plot a transparent path toward the creation of truly representative parties and the election of people who will revise Egypt's political processes, make way for free and fair elections, and deliver a government that is fair, open and just.
To achieve this, Egypt must, as well, create a sustainable, secular democratic government that will not be stolen by theocratic ideologues who would use democracy to attain their own autocracy. Egypt merits the help of the United Nations and democratic governments which will support the vision that inspired the protesters' demand for a just government.