Exultation in Egypt, and a question: What’s next?

In a stunning turnabout, Mubarak abruptly resigns and leaves Cairo

By David D. Kirkpatrick
New York Times / February 12, 2011

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CAIRO — An 18-day-old revolt led by the young people of Egypt ousted President Hosni Mubarak yesterday, shattering three decades of political stasis here and upending the established order of the Arab world.

Shouts of “God is great’’ erupted from Tahrir Square at twilight as Mubarak’s vice president and longtime intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, announced that Mubarak had passed all authority to a council of military leaders. Tens of thousands who had bowed for evening prayers leapt to their feet, bouncing and dancing in joy.

“Lift your head high, you’re an Egyptian,’’ they cried.

Revising the tense of the revolution’s rallying cry, they chanted, “The people, at last, have brought down the regime.’’

“We can breathe fresh air, we can feel our freedom,’’ said Gamal Heshamt, a former independent member of Parliament. “After 30 years of absence from the world, Egypt is back.’’

Mubarak, an 82-year-old former air force commander, left without comment for his home by the Red Sea in Sharm el Sheik. His departure overturns, after six decades, the Arab world’s original secular dictatorship. He was toppled by a radically new force in regional politics, a largely secular, nonviolent, youth-led democracy movement that brought Egypt’s liberal and Islamist opposition groups together for the first time under its banner.

“Egypt is going to be a democratic state,’’ declared Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who administered the Facebook group that helped start the revolt. “You will be impressed.’’

Ghonim, who was detained for 12 days in blindfolded isolation by the Mubarak government as it tried to stamp out the revolt, helped protesters turn the tide in a propaganda war against the state media this week, when he described his captivity in an emotional interview on a satellite television station.

Mubarak’s fall removed a bulwark of US foreign policy in the region and left the United States, its Arab allies, and Israel pondering whether the Egyptian military, which has vowed to hold free elections, will give way to a new era of democratic dynamism or to a treacherous lurch into instability or Islamist rule that Mubarak had suppressed for so long.

The upheaval comes less than a month after a sudden youth revolt in nearby Tunisia toppled another enduring Arab strongman, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. And last night some of the revelers celebrating in the streets of Cairo marched under a Tunisian flag and pointed to the surviving autocracies in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Yemen.

“We are setting a role model for the dictatorships around us,’’ said Khalid Shaheen, 39. “Democracy is coming.’’

President Obama praised the Egyptian revolution.

“Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day,’’ he said. “It was the moral force of nonviolence, not terrorism and mindless killing, that bent the arc of history toward justice once more.’’

The Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed Islamist movement that until 18 days ago was considered Egypt’s only viable opposition, said it was merely a supporting player in the revolt. The Brotherhood, which was slow to follow the lead of its youth wing into the streets, has said it will not field a candidate for president or seek a parliamentary majority in the expected elections.

The Mubarak era ended without the stability and predictability that were the hallmarks of his tenure. Western and Egyptian officials had expected Mubarak to leave office Thursday and delegate his authority to Suleiman, finishing the last six months of his term with at least his presidential title intact. But whether because of pride or a refusal to face political reality, Mubarak spoke again as the unbowed father of the nation on Thursday, barely alluding to a vague “delegation’’ of authority.

The resulting disappointment enraged the Egyptian public sent 1 million people into the streets of Cairo yesterday morning and put in motion an unceremonious retreat at the behest of the military he had commanded for so long.

“Taking into consideration the difficult circumstances the country is going through, President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak has decided to leave the post of president of the republic and has tasked the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to manage the state’s affairs,’’ Suleiman, grave and ashen, said in a brief televised statement.

It is not clear what role Suleiman, whose credibility plummeted over the past week as he stood by Mubarak and questioned Egypt’s readiness for democracy, will have in the new government.

The transfer of power leaves the Egyptian military in charge of this nation of some 80 million, facing insistent calls for fundamental democratic change and open elections. Hours before Suleiman announced Mubarak’s exit, the military had signaled its takeover with a communiqué that appeared to declare its solidarity with the protesters.

Read over state television by an army spokesman, the communiqué declared that the military would ensure the amendment of the constitution to “conduct free and fair presidential elections.’’

“The armed forces are committed to sponsor the legitimate demands of the people,’’ the statement declared, and it promised to ensure the fulfillment of its promises “within defined time frames’’ until authority can pass to a “free democratic community that the people aspire to.’’

Egyptians ignored the communiqué until Mubarak’s resignation was announced. Then they hugged, kissed, and cheered the soldiers, lifting children on tanks to get their pictures taken. “The people and the army are one hand,’’ they chanted.

Whether the military will subordinate itself to a civilian democracy or install a new military dictator will be impossible to know for months. Military leaders will inevitably face pressure to deliver the genuine transition that protesters did not trust Mubarak to give them.

Yet it may also seek to protect the enormous political and economic privileges it accumulated during Mubarak’s reign. And the army has been infused for years with the notion that Egypt’s survival depends on fighting threats, real and imagined, from foreign enemies, Islamists, Iran, and the frustrations of its people. top stories on Twitter

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