CAIRO (Reuters) - Hosni Mubarak, an immoveable object at the helm of Egypt for almost 30 years, finally met an irresistible force -- his own people.
In a couple of terse sentences, his vice-president, Omar Suleiman, declared Friday that the 82-year-old leader had stepped down, after 18 days of mass protests against his rule.
Egypt erupted in joy, a further humiliation for a man who always posed as a benign, tireless father figure protecting the stability of his country and serving the welfare of its people.
His downfall, under fierce pressure from pro-democracy protesters across Egypt, was apparently orchestrated by the military after it lost confidence he could weather the storm.
The former air force chief, who officials said had flown to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh with his family earlier in the day, had vowed not to flee Egypt and to "die on its soil."
In many ways, his removal bore an uncanny resemblance to that of former Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled his country last month, apparently after the Tunisian army refused to crush demonstrations demanding his overthrow.
Always dourly confident, never showing a trace of doubt about his lifetime achievements, Mubarak never seemed to grasp the depth of popular hatred he had accumulated in 30 years.
In a last desperate attempt to fend off the inevitable, he handed powers to Suleiman Thursday, but refused to step down before a presidential election due in September. He spoke in patronizing tones that only enraged the demonstrators further.
Mubarak once said he planned to "bear his responsibilities" as long as his heart was beating. But millions of angry Egyptians abruptly ended the autocratic leader's dream.
Their unquenchable determination to oust him, defying the vast security apparatus that enforced his writ, is likely to have led the military to draw the curtain on the Mubarak era.
The struggle to overthrow Mubarak has plunged Egypt into uncertainty after decades of repressive stagnation.
Reflecting his obsession with security, the former pilot said 11 days ago that the surge of popular protests against him "impose on us a choice between chaos and stability."
His supporters can argue he saved Egypt from chaos after Islamist militants shot dead his predecessor in 1981, kept Egypt out of wars, restored relations with the Arab world after the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and, after long delays, allowed his government to open up the economy to stimulate growth.
He also managed to suppress a long Islamist insurgency in southern Egypt in the 1990s, after 1,200 people were killed.
But Mubarak's stubborn refusal to change the corrupt and authoritarian system he inherited finally caught up with him.
Eleven days ago he had been forced to promise he would not run in the September election and to name a vice-president for the first time. The concessions also killed off the presidential hopes of his businessman son Gamal, whose rise had led many to fear the establishment of a dynasty of latter-day pharaohs.
Up to 300 people may have been killed in the last 18 days of protests in Egypt, most of them by Mubarak's riot police.
The violence did not deter the crowds of demonstrators occupying Cairo's Tahrir (Liberation) Square, who had stuck doggedly to a simple demand: Mubarak must go and go now.
Mubarak was born on May 4, 1928, in the Nile Delta village of Kafr el-Moseilha. He joined the military academy in 1947, later opting for the air force and further training which took him to the Soviet Union, where he learned to fly bombers.
In 1967 he became director of the air academy and in 1969 air force chief-of-staff. President Anwar Sadat chose him to command the air force and prepare it for the 1973 war against Israel. Two years later Sadat appointed him vice-president.
Mubarak narrowly escaped death when soldiers linked to a radical Islamist group shot Sadat dead at a military parade in Cairo on October 6, 1981. He has been the target of several assassination attempts since, including a spectacular attack on his motorcade in Addis Ababa in 1995.
Sadat, the architect of peace with Israel, had taken Egypt far from its leadership role in the Arab world and upset many Egyptians by aligning the country firmly with the United States.
Mubarak painstakingly restored ties with Arab states and was able to bring the Arab League back to Cairo.
After Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Mubarak joined the United States and its allies in the campaign to drive the Iraqis out. In return he managed to win relief of Egyptian debts worth more than $20 billion.
But in public he strongly advised against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, correctly predicting that it would cause chaos.
He rode out U.S. President George W. Bush's short-lived campaign for democracy in the Arab world, allowing multi-candidate presidential elections for the first time ever in 2005. But as soon as Bush lost interest he went back to his old ways, and the parliamentary election of November 2010 saw more abuses than any previous elections, rights groups said.
From the 1990s, Mubarak acted as an unofficial patron of the Middle East peace process, mediating between Palestinians and Israelis, and between rival Palestinian factions in an elusive quest for a settlement.
His Arab critics say he gave too much weight to U.S. and Israeli interests to the detriment of ordinary Palestinians.
After the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 Mubarak went along with the Israeli blockade of the territory from the Egyptian side. When Israel attacked Gaza in early 2008 he allowed Israeli planes to fly over Egyptian territory on their bombing raids.
Mubarak, who has clung to power so long, finally hinted on Thursday that he had made errors and apologised to his people.
"Your demands are legitimate and just," he told the nation. "Mistakes are possible in any system and in any state but the important thing is to admit these mistakes and correct them."
Editing by Alastair Macdonald