Friday, February 11, 2011

Mubarak resigns, hands power to military

By Craig Whitlock, Ernesto Londono and Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 11, 2011; 4:27 PM

CAIRO - President Hosni Mubarak resigned Friday and handed power to the Egyptian military, setting off wild celebrations nationwide among protesters elated at what their largely peaceful revolution had achieved.

Mubarak's exit after nearly 30 years of autocratic rule was somberly announced on television by his hand-picked vice president, Omar Suleiman. The resignation made the 82-year-old former air force commander the latest and biggest casualty of a powerful pro-democracy movement that is surging across the Arab world.

In Washington, President Obama congratulated the Egyptian people Friday afternoon, saying they had "changed their country and, in doing so, changed the world." He said that by stepping down, Mubarak had "responded to the Egyptian people's hunger for change," and he called on the Egyptian military to ensure a credible and irreversible transition to democracy.

After Suleiman's announcement, a joyful pandemonium gripped Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicenter of 18 days of escalating demonstrations against Mubarak. Masses of Egyptians jumped up and down, pumped their fists, waved their flags, hugged and cried.

"Egypt is free! Egypt is free!" they sang. "The regime has fallen!"

Cheers erupted from streets across Egypt even before Suleiman stopped speaking.

"President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down as president of the republic and has assigned the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to run the affairs of the country," Suleiman said. "May God help everybody."

While Egyptians applauded themselves for toppling Mubarak, his fate was sealed by the military, whose leaders had promised not to use deadly force to put down the rebellion.

Earlier in the day, Egypt's military chiefs said they would guarantee a transition toward "free and honest" elections. But Suleiman's statement left unsaid how that would work, and who precisely would take charge in the interim.

In a televised statement Friday night, the military pledged that it would not act as a substitute for a "legitimate government" following Mubarak's resignation and would take steps to meet the people's aspirations. Reading the statement, a military spokesman praised Mubarak for his contributions to Egypt and hailed protesters who have died in the anti-Mubarak demonstrations.

Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces includes the top service commanders led by Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, the armed forces chief of staff.

In his brief speech at the White House, Obama said of Friday's events: "The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same." He likened the relatively peaceful ouster of Mubarak to the fall of the Berlin Wall and to the advances of the American civil rights movement. Invoking the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he said: " 'There's something in the soul that cries out for freedom.' Those were the cries that came from Tahrir Square, and the entire world has taken note."

Pledging that "the United States will continue to be a friend and partner to Egypt," Obama said: "We stand ready to provide whatever assistance is necessary, and asked for, to pursue a credible transition to a democracy."

He added: "The Egyptian people have inspired us, and they have done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice is best gained through violence."

In a subsequent news briefing, outgoing White House press secretary Robert Gibbs used the occasion to castigate Iran, which celebrated the 32nd anniversary of its revolution Friday. In contrast to statements hailing the Egyptian uprising and claiming it was inspired by the Iranian revolution, the government in Tehran "is quite frankly scared of the will of its people" and has met their concerns by "threatening to kill them," Gibbs said.

Outside Mubarak's presidential palace, where throngs had gathered, protesters erupted in cheers after Suleiman's televised announcement. They embraced, cried and waved flags frantically. Some began singing the national anthem.

As Egyptians flowed into Tahrir Square, they climbed over barbed wire barricades, chanting, "Freedom! Freedom!"

One soldier watching the scene of euphoria said quietly: "I'm scared. I don't know what's coming."

Monari Ghazal, 33, looked elated as he struggled to get into the square. "Hosni Mubarak is gone!" he said. "We did this!"

In its statement Friday night, the Egyptian military lauded the protesters who have "sacrificed their lives" in the demonstrations, describing them as martyrs.

According to Human Rights Watch, more than 300 people have been killed since the anti-Mubarak protests started, most of them late last month when police initially attempted to crush the demonstrations and rioting broke out. In recent days, however, protesters and security forces alike have steered clear of violence, and massive demonstrations have proceeded peacefully.

Mubarak and his wife Suzanne left the presidential palace, in an affluent Cairo suburb, earlier Friday, Egyptian state television reported. The Associated Press, citing a local official, reported that they flew to the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Amr Moussa, the Arab League secretary general who has emerged as a prominent Egyptian opposition figure, said he was optimistic about the resignation, although details of how the country is to be run remain to be worked out.

"We have achieved what the people wanted," he said on CNN. "I am optimistic that we will choose the right path for Egypt and the Egyptian people. . . . All of us here in Egypt - old and young, north and south, women and men - everyone is looking forward to a better future."

Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the al-Jazeera television network, "It's a dream come true. We can live free, with dignity. He said Egypt should take a year to prepare for free elections and should focus on the tasks ahead, rather than trying to hold Mubarak accountable.

The Swiss government nevertheless said it was freezing any assets belonging to Mubarak or his family.

In Washington, where successive administrations had long supported Mubarak, U.S. officials and lawmakers welcomed Mubarak's departure.

Vice President Biden called it "a pivotal moment in history" and said Egypt's future would be determined by its people.

"Courageous and peaceful demands for freedom and opportunity have now won the Egyptian people a chance at a new beginning," Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. "Now the hard work intensifies to prepare for free and fair elections that will allow the people to choose a broadly representative and responsive government."

Mubarak himself had harsh words for the United States before his departure, telling an Israeli lawmaker Thursday that the U.S. quest for democracy in the Middle East was misguided, Reuters news agency reported. "They may be talking about democracy, but they don't know what they're talking about, and the result will be extremism and radical Islam," former Israeli cabinet minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer quoted Mubarak as saying in a phone call.

The announcement of Mubarak's resignation came after a series of grudging concessions that failed to mollify protesters, who wanted his immediate departure. He announced last week that he would not run for reelection this fall and that his son, Gamal Mubarak, would not succeed him. Thursday night, Mubarak struck a defiant tone as he told the nation that he would remain in office but cede some powers to Suleiman. Throngs of people immediately rejected the idea and gathered in public squares across the country, their anger and frustration mounting.

"Mubarak must go! He is finished!" protesters in Tahrir Square shouted. "Oh, Mubarak, be patient! The people will dig your grave."

Friday morning, Egypt's military chiefs pledged to back Mubarak's decision to remain in office and hand over some powers to Suleiman. The supreme military council said it would guarantee "free and honest" elections after Mubarak's term expires, and a lifting of Egypt's 30-year-old state of emergency once calm returned to the streets. The military chiefs encouraged protesters to go home, citing the need to "return to normal life."

Instead, the protests that have raged here for 18 days only grew, and there were repeated signs that the soldiers posted on the streets to watch over the demonstrations supported the protesters' efforts.

"The people and the army are continuing their march together!" chanted hundreds of supporters outside al-Ouruba, the presidential palace in the affluent Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. Hours later, the crowd had swelled to several thousand.

Said Younis, a 26-year-old advertising executive, said military officers stationed at the palace offered their sympathy and support, providing tea and juice to the handful of protesters who pulled an all-night vigil.

"They told us, 'Don't worry, we will never fire on you,' " he said.

Outside the palace gate, some protesters appealed to soldiers across the tangle of barbed wire to join their cause.

"I'm with you!" one officer shouted back.

"Then come to this side!" one woman demanded.

Some soldiers hung posters showing protesters killed during crackdowns in the first days of the demonstrations. As the posters--which demonstrators have used to rally people to their cause--went up, thousands in the crowd began clapping wildly.

On the Mediterranean coast, massive crowds packed public squares in Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest city, jeering Mubarak and insisting that he resign. Protests also erupted in Suez, where crowds surrounded 10 government buildings, according to the Egyptian news Web site al-Ahram Online. Large demonstrations were also reported in the cities of Tanta, Mahalla and Assuit.

In Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the demonstrations, scores of thousands prostrated themselves to the muezzin's midday prayer call, many of them weeping.

Parts of the square grew so packed that it was difficult to walk around. Soldiers in riot gear manned entrances, but did not stop those who were streaming in. Dozens of ambulances were parked on nearby side streets.

Protesters said that three soldiers turned in their weapons in order to join the protests an hour before the noon prayers, which are the spiritual high point of Islam's weekly holy day.

Many chants focused on the need for a civilian, rather than a military, government.

"The military is now in an embarrassing situation," said Tamer Oweiss, 31, a supervisor at Cairo's airport. "They're trying to stand in the middle. They feel loyalty to Mubarak, an officer, but at the same time, they don't want to hurt the people."

At the state Television and Radio Tower, which is north of the square and flanks the east bank of the Nile, thousands of protesters toppled makeshift barricades erected by the military and swarmed around the building.

Younis, the advertising executive, said he marched 10 miles from Tahrir Square to the presidential palace immediately after Mubarak's Thursday night speech, arriving about 2 a.m. "He ridiculed us," Younis said. "We want him to hear our voices from up close."

Mubarak "is an idiot," said Ahmed Suleiman, 62, a physician who was also demonstrating outside the palace. "We're very upset about what he said yesterday."

Some protesters vowed to storm the palace. But others appealed for restraint, saying they would not clash with the military.

A group of counter-demonstrators congregated a short distance away, chanting support for the president and urging the other side to disperse. Soldiers kept the two sides separated.

"We are afraid. If there is anarchy, looters will come to our homes," said Serge Simon, 60, an Armenian Egyptian pianist from Heliopolis. "What we are seeing here is hooliganism."

In his speech late Thursday, Mubarak ceded some authority to Suleiman but refused to quit, insisting that he would stay in office to oversee a drawn-out transfer of power.

"This stalemate cannot continue forever," Finance Minister Samir Radwan told BBC radio Thursday night. "I think the military is highly disciplined and they have taken a decision not to fire at the young people."

Some opposition leaders warned that Mubarak was risking a bloody revolt.

"There is no way the Egyptian people right now are ready to accept either the president or the vice president," Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and opposition leader, told CNN. "They have lost all authority, all legitimacy. . . . My fear is that the situation will turn violent."

Staff writers William Branigin and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.

whitlockc@washpost.com fadell@washpost.com

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