CAIRO // Weeks of unprecedented protests swept Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power last night, ending nearly three decades of rule that was marked by peace with the country’s neighbours but increasingly unresponsive rule at home.
The end came quickly. “In these difficult circumstances that the country is passing through, President Hosni Mubarak has decided to leave the position of the presidency,” said a haggard and drawn vice-president Omar Suleiman in a statement that took all but 20 seconds to read.
In what was apparently the last act of his presidency before departing with his family for the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh, Mr Mubarak, 82, turned over control of the Arab world’s most populous nation to a military council, Mr Suleiman said.
In a further sign that the military would move quickly to assert its authority, Al Arabiya television reported last night that the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces, headed by the defence minister, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, would sack the cabinet, suspend both houses of parliament and rule with the head of the supreme constitutional court.
The UAE government declared its support for the council, expressing in a statement issued last night its confidence in the panel and its ability to run Egypt’s affairs “in such a way that would realise the aspirations and the hopes of the Egyptian people”.
Yet the implications of direct military rule in the days were, at least for the moment last night, overshadowed the euphoria that engulfed hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered in central Cairo after they got word that Mr Mubarak was gone.
In 18 days of unprecedented anti-government protests, the demonstrators had refused to surrender their demand that he quit, despite unparalleled government concessions and the deaths of at least 300 Egyptians and thousands injured in clashes with the president’s supporters.
Then they were left stunned, confused and furious after the president said in a nationally televised address on Thursday evening that he would serve out his term – contrary to indications from military and ruling party officials that he would finally quit.
In the end, “the Egyptian people didn’t trust Mubarak to see reforms through,” said Shadi Hamid, an Egypt expert at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings.
Now victory was theirs, they said, as cars horns, fireworks and gunfire boomed out across Cairo upon hearing the news of Mr Mubarak’s departure.
In Tahrir Square, the heart of the protests, they broke into dancing and shouts of “God is great!” upon hearing the news of Mr Mubarak’s departure.
Clusters of devout Muslims prayed silently as crowds of young men chanted the protests’ unofficial slogan: “Down, down, down with the regime”.
Mahmoud Abdel Samie and his friends danced around a sign that read, “Shift+Delete and Enter = System down, Mubarak. ”It’s the best day of my life, said Mr Samie, a 20-year-old student at Cairo University. “The people – we – defeated Mubarak the dictator. We’ve been here for 18 days – 18 days – and we’ve won.”
One man was too overcome by emotion to dance, chant or sing. He simply stood motionless, watching the jubilant protesters, with tears streaming down his cheeks.
In Tunisia, Samia Bouazizi, 19, the sister of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian vegetable-seller whose self-immolation in December sparked revolution in that country which in turn inspired protests in Egypt, said: “I’m very happy, alhamdo lillah, and I’m glad the revolution has reached Egypt. I hope it arrives to all the Arabs.
“I’m sad that my brother is gone, and I miss him,” Ms Bouazizi said. “But I’m happy for what his gesture has done, and I’m proud of him.”
Mr Suleiman’s announcement came hours after Egyptian state television reported that Mr Mubarak and his family had departed from the capital. It was unclear how long Mr Mubarak would remain in Sharm el Sheikh, where one of his many homes is located, or indeed, whether it was his final destination.
His departure from the capital appeared to be a co-ordinated effort by the government and the military to persuade Egyptians that Mr Mubarak was indeed stepping away from power after his rambling and often confusing 17-minute address on Thursday. ]
In his comments, Mr Mubarak recalled his youth and the nation’s wars, and insisted the crisis was not about him but about “Egypt and its present and the future of its citizens”.
He said he had delegated “some” presidential powers to Mr Suleiman then asserted “Egypt will remain until I deliver and surrender its – it to others.”
Yet even as Mr Mubarak was preparing to fly to Sharm el Sheikh yesterday, Egypt’s powerful military was scrambling to assert control over the post-Mubarak era. The Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces issued a statement over state television and radio declaring its intention to “shepherd the legitimate demands of the people.”
The council said it was committed to implementing these demands “until the realisation of a peaceful transition that produces the democratic society to which people aspire.”
While the man at the heart of the conflict that has roiled Egypt has slipped away, observers said stability in Egypt was still distant.
Egyptians “should be concerned about what’s going to happen in the next four to eight months, not just 48 hours”, Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics told the British Broadcasting Corporation.
“Yes, Mubarak is out but the political structure remains in place, the economic structure remains in place, the Mubarak regime remains deeply entrenched in place,” Mr Gerges said.
The Swiss government also made it plain that Mr Mubarak would not quickly fade from view. Within hours of his departure for Sharm el Sheikh, it ordered a freeze on any assets in Swiss banks belonging to him or his entourage.