Cairo – Bowing to 18 days of a popular revolt that showed no sign of slowing down, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned Friday and handed over power to the military, an ignominious end to his 30 years of U.S.-backed authoritarian rule.
The streets of Cairo erupted with celebratory gunfire, honking car horns and cheers from hundreds of thousands of protesters who’d braved tear gas, rubber bullets, attacks from government-allied thugs and communications disruptions to organize a revolt that was unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history.
Vice President Omar Suleiman made the announcement on state television Friday evening, less than 24 hours after a defiant Mubarak had refused to go.
Mubarak reportedly fled Cairo for his home in Sharm el Shekih in southern Egypt.
Suleiman said power in the country now rested with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, made up of generals who owed their allegiance to Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for 30 years.
The announcement came just hours after the Egyptian armed forces said it would support his plan to serve until elections this fall while pledging to defend “the lawful demands of the people.”
It was not immediately clear what had changed the generals’ minds.
In Washington, the Pentagon announced that both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Muller, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had spoken with their Egyptian counterparts Friday.
The earlier message, which also was read on state television, had done nothing to quell Egypt’s popular uprising, which was rapidly expanding as thousands of protesters marched toward Mubarak’s presidential palace east of downtown Cairo.
Large crowds chanting slogans against Mubarak and said that they would leave Cairo’s main Tahrir Square for the palace, which had been sealed off by Mubarak’s presidential guard forces with tanks and razor wire. Hundreds more massed outside the headquarters of state television, and guests who were scheduled to appear on the air were reportedly unable to enter.
In its statement, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had said that it would serve as the guarantor of the constitutional reforms and free elections that Mubarak has so far only vaguely promised. But it defied one of the protesters’ main demands by saying that it would lift the longstanding state of emergency only “once the current circumstances end.”
The army said that it wouldn’t pursue protesters through legal means — although human rights groups say they have reports of scores of people who were arrested and abused by military police — and again called on the pro-democracy movement to stand down.
The statement called for “the return of normal life to protect safety and private possessions and places.”
The statement dashed protesters’ hopes that the Egyptian army would raise pressure on Mubarak to step down, and indicated that after several days of uncertainty the army brass had fallen in behind its patrons in the regime.
But some analysts said that the decision by military leaders could be opposed by rank-and-file soldiers in the conscript force, many of whom count family members among the protesters and are believed to be sympathetic to their demands.
There were unconfirmed reports Friday that at least 16 army soldiers had put down their weapons and joined protesters in Tahrir Square.
Then came the surprise statement that Mubarak had stepped down.
Mubarak had been widely expected to resign Thursday night amid a flurry of reports from ruling party officials and state media that a handover of power was imminent. But in a sometimes confusing speech that was tone-deaf to the demands of the largest protests perhaps ever to shake Egypt, Mubarak said that he would hand presidential powers to Suleiman while remaining the head of state.
In a strongly worded statement Thursday evening, President Barack Obama urged Egyptian officials to “explain the changes . . . and to spell out in clear and unambiguous language” the steps that the regime is taking to address protesters’ demands.
“The Egyptian people have been told that there was a transition of authority, but it is not yet clear that this transition is immediate, meaningful or sufficient,” Obama said. “The Egyptian government must put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy, and they have not yet seized that opportunity.”
Special correspondent Miret El Naggar contributed to this report.