CAIRO — "Leave!" the protesters chanted for 18 days. And on Friday, he left.
Bowing to a popular rebellion that showed no signs of letting up, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak Friday ceded authority to the military and headed to a Red Sea resort town in a stunning finish to his three decades of authoritarian rule.
The abrupt and ignominious end to the Mubarak era lifted millions of Egyptians into a dizzying celebration of people power.
Cheering, flag-waving masses surged into the streets of Cairo and nationwide to celebrate the toppling of one of the Arab world's longest-serving leaders — as well as the emergence of a young Egyptian generation that defied a powerful ruling elite and marshaled technology to orchestrate a revolution.
A somber Vice President Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief, announced Mubarak's departure in a brief statement on state television. In seconds, the long-repressed Egyptians became an inspiration for other Arabs living under autocratic regimes.
"Mubarak is gone tonight, and we have hope for our future," said Malek Adly, 30, a human rights lawyer who was celebrating among thousands in downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square.
If it leads to the establishment of democracy in Egypt, the popular revolution of the past 18 days, along with the upheaval in Tunisia which preceded it, could mark a turning point in the history of the Middle East and beyond, showing that a mostly peaceful uprising can oust an entrenched regime which relied on police state tactics, sham elections and crony capitalism for its power.
The events in the Arab world's most populous country, like the overthrow of communism in Eastern Europe, showed that once the popular will breaches the facade of power in autocratic regimes, they topple quickly. Of paramount concern is what comes next, both for Egypt and its neighbors as well as its allies in the West.
The U.S. finds itself in a tricky position, for Mubarak had been its closest Arab ally, and his government the recipient of billions of dollars in aid. Perhaps fearful of a less-friendly alternative, the White House initially withheld support for the uprising. After weeks of mixed messages, President Barack Obama Friday hailed the Egyptians' demand for "nothing less than genuine democracy."
"By stepping down, President Mubarak responded to the Egyptian peoples' hunger for change," Obama said. "But this is not the end of Egypt's transition. I am sure that there will be difficult days ahead, and many questions remain unanswered. But I am confident that the people of Egypt can find those answers, and do so peacefully, constructively, and in the spirit of unity that defined these last few weeks."
Egypt is now in the hands of the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces, an elite cabal of current and former commanders including: vice president Suleiman, Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq, Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and Sami Anan, the armed forces chief of staff. Among those figures, only Anan was on the council before the upheaval. Mubarak appointed the others on Jan. 29 and it's unclear whether they'd continue to serve.
Other members of the council are the chiefs of staff for the air force, the navy and air defense.
"The view of the military is that Egypt exists on a knife's edge, that it's under constant security threat, that things could go wrong at any moment, and so it requires steady leadership that only the military can provide," said Tarek Masoud, an Egypt expert and assistant professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "I worry they'd be reluctant to hand over power to a civilian authority."
Most opposition groups had hoped for a civilian-led interim government that represented the wide range of ideologies in the revolutionary movement. The army model can work, opposition members said, so long as the pro-democracy activists stay united and use pressure to remind the generals they are not the new order, but only custodians of the transitional period.
Prior to Mubarak's resignation Friday, tens of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square chanted, "Civilian, not military!"
Right up to the announcement of military control, nobody in the country could say with certainty what was unfolding behind the scenes. The hours leading up to Mubarak's resignation hours saw a regime implode as Mubarak shut out Western allies, sidelined his generals and hung out his party's leadership in a desperate attempt to keep his seat, according to accounts from political insiders and Egyptian news reports.
Mubarak took the world by surprise when he appeared on state TV on Thursday in yet another refusal to step down. He invoked his status as a war veteran and pledged long-overdue reforms in platitudes that only further infuriated his seething people.
Even some of his closest confidants and foreign partners were caught off guard; earlier in the day, rumors of his impending resignation had spread to the White House, the CIA, the Israeli government and even his own party and military. The speech was so opaque that Obama publicly called for Mubarak to clarify who was in charge of the country.
Friday morning brought a tersely worded army communique that appeared to back Mubarak's handover plans, further befuddling Egyptians who considered the military the nation's last credible institution. Record crowds poured into Tahrir Square after midday prayers, and protesters demanded the army make clear its position.
Then came word that Mubarak and his family had flown to the coastal resort of Sharm el Sheikh in the Sinai. And finally, minutes before Mubarak's resignation, news broke that the ruling party's secretary general Hossam Badrawi had given up the post he'd held for only a week. Protesters interpreted the move as the end of Mubarak's National Democratic Party, at least in its current incarnation.
Gen. Safwat el Zayat, a former senior official in Egyptian intelligence, told the local news agency Ahram Online that Mubarak's address Thursday night ran counter to the wishes of the armed forces and took place "away from their oversight." Zayat went on to describe a deep division that had developed, with the military on one side and Mubarak and vice president Suleiman on the other.
Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, leader of the liberal Wafd Party and a member of the "wise men" group that met with Suleiman last week to discuss transition options, said the vice president had used the threat of a military takeover to cajole opposition leaders into accepting the government's offer to reform itself through constitutional amendments and freer elections.
"Suleiman told us, 'Be reasonable or else Mubarak is going to relinquish powers to the army and you'll have to start all over again,'" Abdel Nour said.
Abdel Nour and other political observers said the military should set a time limit for the peaceful transfer to civilian authority. He said dissolving parliament and working toward constitutional reforms would reassure Egyptians that they're not trading one form of despotism for another.
"In most coups d'etat around the world, rarely has the army kept its promises to relinquish power to the people," Abdel Nour said. "It will not happen this time — this is not the time for a military dictatorship, and the army knows that."
(Jonathan S. Landay and Roy Gutman contributed to this article from Washington. McClatchy special correspondent Miret el Naggar contributed from Cairo.)
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