Cairo – The reaction across Egypt was explosive. The anger that had been simmering for decades and boiled over during 18 consecutive days of protests, was transformed by a single uttered sentence into pure jubilation.
“President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down as president,” Vice- president Omar Suleiman announced Friday night on state television.
In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the popular uprising that began on Jan. 25, some two million protesters let out a cathartic roar heard for miles across the sprawling capital. A 30-second announcement had ended 30 years of repressive authoritarian rule.
“This is the happiest day of my life,” says Mostafa Ibrahim. “I am 24 and have never known any other president. Now he’s gone.”
Details of the soft military coup that removed Mubarak from power, and apparently Suleiman as well, are yet unclear. Defence minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, chief of the armed forces, became Egypt’s de facto leader after the High Council of the Armed Forces that he heads assumed control of the most populous Arab country.
Analysts say the constitutionality of the military intervention is a moot point, as Egypt’s constitution was tailored to serve the interests of dictators like Mubarak. Protesters have demanded that the document be scrapped and a new constitution forged.
Saudi-funded Al-Arabiya channel reported that the High Council would suspend the parliament and form an interim administration with the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, the country’s highest judicial body. The transitional government would draft a new constitution or amend the old one ahead of elections to choose a new president, and possibly a new parliament as well.
Most Egyptians appear confident that the military rule is only temporary, and will pave the way toward the possibility of the country’s first civilian president since the 1952 coup that overthrew the monarchy.
“The army and the people are one,” says Tamer Hussein, among the cheering masses in Tahrir Square. “The army has proven it is with the Egyptian people, and not Mubarak, and we are positive that the military will ensure a smooth transition to democracy.”
Late Thursday, when many Egyptians had expected Mubarak to quit, the embattled president said in a televised address that he was transferring authority to vice-president Suleiman but would stay on until September. His stubborn refusal to step down had infuriated Egyptian protesters and forced the military’s hand.
On Friday afternoon, Mubarak vacated the presidential palace in Cairo’s Heliopolis district as angry protesters converged on it to demand his resignation. The 82-year-old dictator reportedly flew to the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, where he has a villa – though some observers suspect he fled the country.
The announcement that Mubarak had resigned came at 6:05 pm local time. As protesters cheered, millions of Egyptians rushed into the streets to join them and celebrate. The all-night street party was a riot of waving flags, honking horns, drum beats, patriotic chants and fireworks.
A renewed sense of national pride permeated the electrified crowds, who had witnessed decades of poverty, corruption and injustice under authoritarian rule.
“Raise your head up high, you’re Egyptian!” they chanted before breaking into the national anthem.
Questions of what the future holds seemed irrelevant to Egyptians dancing, singing and cheering farewell to three decades of Mubarak’s rule.
“Tonight we celebrate, tomorrow we rebuild,” reads one popular tweet.
The capital for the reconstruction could come from the billions of dollars that Mubarak’s regime allegedly looted, some protesters suggested. Many of them want Mubarak and his cronies brought to trial.
“They robbed this country for 30 years,” says protester Refaat El-Sayed. “Now we want our money back.”
U.S. President Barack Obama expressed his admiration of the Egyptian people, whose revolution was the outcome of a courageous, peaceful struggle.
“Egyptians have inspired us. They have done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice is best gained through violence. For in Egypt, it was the moral force of non-violence – not terrorism, not mindless killing, but non-violence –… that bent the arc of history toward justice once more,” he said during a White House speech.
While Mubarak is out, his regime remains deeply entrenched. There are still vast networks of corrupt public servants, monopolists, party loyalists and abusive police in place.
As Obama acknowledged, Mubarak’s resignation “is not the end of Egypt’s transition (to democracy) – it’s the beginning.”
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