Capitulating to 18 days of unyielding popular demonstrations, Hosni Mubarak resigned the presidency of Egypt on Friday after nearly 30 years at the helm of the Arab world’s most populous state.
In a stunning turnaround from the night before, the Mubarak regime relinquished control to the armed forces, and Saturday the military pledged to ultimately hand power to an elected civilian government while reassuring allies Egypt would abide by its peace treaty with Israel.
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The military’s statement Saturday had been eagerly awaited by the public and thousands of protesters still massed in Cairo's central Tahrir Square. The crowds were still riding high from the announcement by Vice President Omar Suleiman the night before of Mubarak’s resignation, but they promised to maintain pressure on the military to carry through long-sought reforms.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu welcomed the Egyptian military’s statement, saying the treaty “has greatly contributed to both countries and is the cornerstone for peace and stability in the entire Middle East.”
Israel has been deeply concerned that Egypt’s turmoil could threaten the peace accord. Egypt's military strongly supports the peace deal, not in small part because it guarantees US aid for the armed forces, currently running at $1.3 billion a year. Anti-Israeli feeling is strong in Egypt, and many of the hundreds of thousands of protesters expressed anger at Mubarak’s close cooperation with Israel on a range of issues. Still, few seriously call for the abrogation of the treaty, realizing the international impact.
US President Barack Obama singled out the Egyptian military for praise in the restraint it showed through more than two weeks of largely peaceful protests. But the president emphasized the military's role as a “caretaker” leading up to elections now set for September and said it must now “ensure a transition that is credible in the eyes of the Egyptian people.”
After the army’s statement, the main opposition coalition – a loosely based grouping of youth and traditional opposition groups – said it would end its main protest in the square but would call for weekly demonstrations after Friday prayers. The coalition is made up of several youth activist groups, including supporters of reform advocate and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei as well as youth from the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Muslim Brotherhood said Saturday it was not seeking power, and praised the efforts of the new military rulers to transfer power to civilians.
The Brotherhood is “not seeking personal gains,” the Islamist movement said in a statement, according to Reuters, and “will not run for the presidency and will not seek to get a majority in the parliament and consider themselves servants of these decent people.”
The coalition group also listed its demands for the first time during a press conference. Those included: the lifting of hated emergency laws, the forming of a presidential council and broadbased unity government, the dissolution of parliament and creation of a committee to amend or rewrite the constitution. They called forreforms ensuring freedom of the press, freedom to form political parties and more transparent media institutions.
The coalition also called for an investigation into allegations of endemic corruption within the regime and the trial of officials responsible for the deaths of protesters.
Some protesters not linked to the coalition said they would stay camped on Tahrir Square, and it was not immediately clear when the downtown area would be cleared.
Appearing on state TV, a military spokesman said the Armed Forces Supreme Council asked the current government appointed by Mubarak in his final weeks to continue operating until a new one is formed. The council is made up of the elderly top generals of the military’s branches, the chief of staff and Defense Minister Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, who was long a close Mubarak loyalist.
The step appeared to be a stopgap measure to keep the state and economy functioning while a transitional administration is set up.
Protesters have called for dramatic steps to ensure Egypt moves to a real democracy after nearly 30 years of autocratic rule under Mubarak and his ruling party. Protest organizers have called for the dissolving of parliament – which is almost entirely made up of ruling party lawmakers – the forming of a new, broad-based transitional government and creation of a committee to either amend the constitution or totally rewrite it.
The Armed Forces Supreme Council has not said whether it will carry out any of those steps. But Saturday's statement also did not rule it out.
In the square, some protesters welcomed the cautious first measures, despite distrust of the government put together by Mubarak as a gesture early in the wave of protests.
“It was a good thing,” said Muhammad Ibrahim, a 21-year-old from the Nile Delta town of Banha who joined the crowds in Tahrir. “We don't want there to be a political void.”
Gen. Mohsen el-Fangari, the council’s spokesman, appeared on state TV in front of a row of Egyptian military and national flags and read the council statement, proclaiming respect for the rule of law – perhaps a sign that the military aims to avoid imposing martial law.
The military is “looking forward to a peaceful transition, for a free democratic system, to permit an elected civil authority to be in charge of the country, to build a democratic free nation,” he said.
The military underlined Egypt's “commitment to all its international treaties,” a reassurance that it will continue to honor the 1979 peace treaty.
The emphasis in the military statement was on keeping the state and economy functioning after the turmoil of the past three weeks, which was a heavy blow to Egypt's economy.
For days, many businesses and shops were closed, much of Cairo's population of 18 million stayed home under heavy curfew, and foreign tourists – one of the top sources of revenues – fled the country. This week, even as businesses began to reopen on a wide scale, labor strikes erupted around the country, many at state industries or branches of the bureaucracy.
The military relaxed the curfew – now to run from midnight to 6 a.m. instead of 8 p.m.
to 6 a.m. – and the stock market announced plans to reopen on Wednesday.
The Supreme Council asked the public, particularly the millions in the government sector, to “work to push the economy forward,” an apparent call for everyone to return to work.
The military also called on the “current government and provincial governors to continue their activities until a new government is formed,” Fangari said. The statement did not address when a new government would be formed.
Mubarak traveled to the Red Sea resort town of Sharm e-Sheikh on Friday, but reports have speculated that he may have already left Egypt. Some say he will go to Germany, where he has received medical treatment in the past.
As Egypt contemplated Mubarak’s departure this weekend, the country held its biggest party in decades.
“This is the happiest day in my generation,” said Ali al-Tayab, a demonstrator who paid tribute to those who died in clashes with police and Mubarak supporters. “To the martyrs, this is your day.”
At a presidential palace in Cairo where demonstrators had gathered in the thousands, people handed out candy, flashed the V-forvictory sign and shouted, “Be happy, Egyptians, today is a feast” and “He stepped down.” Many prayed and declared, “God is great.”
Across the Middle East, revelers swept joyously into the streets to celebrate the news.
From Beirut to Gaza, tens of thousands handed out candy, set off fireworks and unleashed celebratory gunfire, and the governments of Jordan, Iraq and Sudan sent their blessings.
In Tunisia, cries of joy and the thundering honking of horns greeted the announcement.
On Lebanon's Al-Manar TV, the station run by the Shi’ite Muslim Hizbullah faction, Egyptian anchor Amr Nassef, who was once imprisoned in Egypt for alleged ties to Islamists, cried on the air. “Allahu Akbar [God is great], the Pharaoh is dead. Am I dreaming?” he said.
In Jordan's capital of Amman, thousands gathered outside the Egyptian Embassy and shouted “Mabrouk, Mabrouk,” Arabic for “congratulations,” as fireworks burst into the sky. The crowd included members of the 500,000-strong Egyptian expatriate community in Jordan.
Still, in at least two authoritarian Arab states, protesters celebrating Mubarak’s ouster were met by the heavy hand of force. Yemeni police with clubs beat anti-government demonstrators celebrating Mubarak’s ouster and demanding that their own decades-long president follow suit.
In Algeria, thousands defied a government ban on protests and a massive deployment of riot police to rally in the capital demanding democratic reforms similar to those demanded by their Egyptian counterparts. But heavily armed police tried to seal off the city of Algiers, blocking streets, lining up along the march route and setting up barricades outside the city to try to stop busloads of demonstrators from reaching the capital. Despite the heavy security, thousands flooded into downtown Algiers, clashing with police, who reportedly outnumbered them at least threeto- one. A human rights activist said more than 400 people had been arrested.
In Egypt, though, the jubilant mood continued Saturday night, albeit mixed with a considerable dose of caution.
“We still have a long way to go to fix things,” said protester Hala Abdel-Razek.
“What has been ruined by the Mubarak regime has to be fixed and we have to start rebuilding with the help of the young people.”
A speaker on a podium said demonstrators would not immediately abandon the square.
“There is more to do,” he reminded them.