CAIRO (Reuters) - A furious wave of protest swept Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak from power on Friday after 30 years of one-man rule, sparking jubilation on the streets and sending a warning to autocrats across the Arab world and beyond.
Mubarak, the second Arab leader to be overthrown by a popular uprising in a month, handed power to the army after 18 days of relentless rallies against poverty, corruption and repression caused support from the armed forces to evaporate.
Mubarak, 82, had flown with his family from Cairo to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, a ruling party official said.
Vice President Omar Suleiman said a military council would run the most populous Arab country for now. The council gave few details of what it said would be a “transitional phase” and gave no timetable for presidential or parliamentary elections. It said it wanted to “achieve the hopes of our great people.”
Some question the army’s appetite for democracy. Western powers are worried about the electoral strength of Islamist groups.
Ecstatic Egyptians celebrated a largely peaceful “White Revolution” in carnival mood. People embraced in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, the main focus for protest, claiming a victory over their “Pharaoh” they hardly dared to believe.
“Nightmare over!” said tailor Saad el Din Ahmed, 65, in Cairo. “Now we have our freedom and can breathe and demand our rights. In Mubarak’s era, we never saw a good day. Hopefully now we will see better times,” said Mostafa Kamal, 33, a salesman.
In the United States, Mubarak’s long-time sponsor, President Barack Obama said: “The people of Egypt have spoken.” He stressed to the U.S.-aided Egyptian army that “nothing less than genuine democracy” would satisfy people’s hunger for change.
Washington has pursued a sometimes meandering line since the protests began on January 25, apparently reluctant to lose a bulwark against militant Islam in the Middle East but also anxious to endorse calls for political freedom.
Behind the celebrations, there was a note of caution over how far the armed forces under Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s veteran defense minister, were ready to permit democracy, especially since the hitherto banned Islamist Muslim Brotherhood is one of the best organized movements.
“This is just the end of the beginning,” said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Egypt isn’t moving toward democracy, it’s moved into martial law and where it goes is now subject to debate.”
U.S. officials familiar with the Egyptian military say Tantawi, 75, has long seemed resistant to change.
Suleiman, a 74-year-old former spy chief, annoyed some this week by questioning whether Egyptians were ready for democracy.
Al Arabiya television said the army would soon dismiss the cabinet and suspend parliament. The head of the Constitutional Court would join the leadership with the military council.
The best deterrent to any attempt to maintain military rule could be the street power of protesters who showed Mubarak they could render Egypt ungovernable without their consent.
As continued turmoil in Tunisia shows a month after the overthrow of the strongman there inspired young Egyptians to act, any government will face huge social and economic problems.
Leaders freely chosen by the people could also look to harness the vast creative energy and patriotic pride evident on the streets crowded with demonstrators for the past 18 days.
The crisis that brought down Mubarak was the worst since British-backed King Farouk was toppled in a military coup in 1952. Generals have ruled ever since, although Mubarak, and his predecessor Anwar Sadat in the 1970s, rarely appeared in uniform and kept active-service officers in the background.
The protests united many Egyptians who have long harbored deep grievances against Mubarak, from youths unable to find jobs to activists who faced oppression and others who suffered brutality at the hands of the police.
A senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood said Egyptians had achieved the main goal of an uprising in which the Brotherhood initially took a cautious back seat: “This is the day of victory for the Egyptian people,” Mohamed el-Katatni told Reuters.
Ayman Nour, who was jailed after challenging Mubarak in the 2005 presidential vote, said: “This nation has been born again, these people have been born again and this is a new Egypt.”
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa would leave the pan-Arab body “within weeks,” Egypt’s state news agency said. The former foreign minister, is seen as a possible president.
Protesters waved flags, set off fireworks and beat drums to celebrate a new chapter in Egypt’s 7,000-year history. Text messages of congratulation zapped over mobile phone networks among ordinary Egyptians, hailing a victory for people power.
A speaker made the announcement in Tahrir Square where hundreds of thousands danced and sang, chanting: “The people have brought down the regime.” Others shouted: “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest). Women ululated in jubilation.
“We have done something unprecedented in 7,000 years, we have brought down the pharaoh,” said Tareq Saad, a 51-year-old carpenter. “Egypt is free, it will never go back to what it was.
“We won’t let it.”
Some declared an end to injustice. Others said they finally saw hope in a country they believed had lost its place as the political, cultural and economic heart of the Arab world. Most were just proud to be Egyptian on a day when history was made.
“It’s broken a psychological barrier not just for North Africa but across the Middle East. I think you could see some contagion in terms of protests; Morocco, perhaps Jordan, Yemen,” said Anthony Skinner of political risk consultancy Maplecroft.
In the eight weeks since young Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in protest at poverty and oppression, triggering demonstrations, leaders across the region have made a variety of concessions and also tightened security. The risk of unrest spreading to oil states in the Gulf has helped boost oil prices.
Financial markets welcomed the news of Mubarak’s departure, seeing less chance of a longer, bloodier conflict. Swiss authorities said they had frozen assets that might belong to Mubarak.
Washington wants a prompt democratic transition to restore stability in Egypt, a rare Arab state no longer hostile to Israel, guardian of the Suez Canal linking Europe and Asia and, thus far, a major force against militant Islam in the region.
Western powers, like Egypt’s generals, will also be wary of Islamists winning power at the ballot box. Israel is particularly concerned.
An Israeli politician who spoke to Mubarak during his last hours in power said he slammed Washington for promoting democracy that would lead to “extremism and radical Islam.”
Others say the young, Web-aware demonstrators in Cairo showed there is an Arab constituency for secular democracy.
The tumult over Mubarak’s refusal to resign had tested the loyalties of the world’s 10th biggest armed forces. They had to choose whether to protect their supreme commander or ditch him.
Ten days after the fall on January 14 of Tunisia’s long-time leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Egyptians began demonstrating in huge numbers against inflation, unemployment and lack of freedom. The protesters whose revolt forced out Mubarak defeated all the tools his administration deployed against them.
First, the government sent in the riot police. Then, it cut mobile phone lines and the Internet. The government even sent F-16 fighter planes to buzz protesters in central Cairo.
When all else failed, Mubarak loyalists unleashed assaults by armed men in plain clothes, some on horseback or camels, who attacked demonstrators on February 2 with guns, knives and clubs.
Reporting by Samia Nakhoul, Edmund Blair, Marwa Awad, Yasmine Saleh, Dina Zayed, Shaimaa Fayed, Alexander Dziadosz, Sherine El Madany, Patrick Werr, Alistair Lyon, Tom Perry, Andrew Hammond, Jonathan Wright, Peter Millership and Alison Williams in Cairo; Arshad Mohammed and Ross Colvin in Washington; Writing by Peter Millership; Editing by Alastair Macdonald