February 2011

There was an eruption of delight in Tahrir Square as the President resigned

It was the moment that they had all been waiting for. The news was greeted by a deafening roar from the multitude packed into central Cairo, and an eruption of joy on a scale that the Egyptian capital has seldom — if ever — seen or heard before.

In Tahrir Square, and in cities and towns across the Arab world’s most populous nation, millions cheered, hugged, danced, sobbed or fell to their knees to pray amid a cacophony of horns and fireworks. “Victory! Victory!” and “Egypt is free”, they chanted.

After three decades of dictatorial rule President Mubarak had resigned, the victim of an astounding 18-day rebellion by a proud and courageous people who were no longer willing to endure repression, poverty and corruption. The army has temporarily assumed power.

Defying all manner of adversity, using Facebook and Twitter and raw “people power”, they had toppled what had appeared until three weeks ago to be the most stable regime in the Middle East. They had fired not a single shot.

“This is the greatest day in the history of Egypt,” declared Ayman Nour, a politician jailed after running against Mr Mubarak in the presidential election of 2005. “This is the day of victory for the Egyptian people,” said Mohamed el-Katatni, a leader of the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood.

“The country has been liberated after decades of repression,” said Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian Nobel laureate.

World leaders saluted the Egyptian people. President Obama said: “The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard and Egypt will never be the same.” The “moral force of non-violence”, he added, had “bent the arc of history towards justice”.

David Cameron called it “a remarkable day ... for those people in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, who have spoken out so bravely and so peacefully for change”.

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, spoke of a “day of great joy” for the Egyptian people.

Amid the euphoria there was consternation. Egypt’s revolution has shocked authoritarian regimes in the Arab world, from Libya to Jordan, and Yemen to Saudi Arabia. It has toppled the West’s oldest and staunchest Arab ally, a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism and a rare Arab friend of Israel.

Mr Cameron and other Western leaders urged Egypt’s military to set in train a speedy transition to civilian, democratic rule. There is also concern that a democratic Egypt will move towards the Islamic camp, though the revolution lacked any religious motivation.

Mr Mubarak’s resignation came barely 20 hours after he delivered a defiant address to his rebellious nation on Thursday that enraged the revolutionaries. Yesterday they turned out in their millions to stage the largest demonstrations in Egyptian history. They broke out of their stronghold in Tahrir Square, laid siege to presidential palaces and the state television headquarters, and coursed through the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and other cities.

Finally Omar Suleiman, the Vice-President, appeared on television to read a three-sentence statement. “In these grave circumstances that the country is passing through, President Hosni Mubarak has decided to leave his position as President of the Republic,” he said. “He has mandated the Armed Forces Supreme Council to run the State. God is our protector and succour.”

Mr Mubarak, 82, is the first Egyptian President to resign, and the second dictatorial Arab leader after Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia to be deposed in less than a month. Officials said that Mr Mubarak, who has vowed to die on Egyptian soil, has flown to his residence in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Last night the Swiss Government froze his family’s assets.

The Army Council praised Mr Mubarak for stepping down “in the interests of the nation” and saluted more than 300 “martyrs” who had lost their lives. It recognised “demands of the people to initiate radical changes”, and promised a further statement “outlining the steps and procedures and directives that will be taken, confirming at the same time that there is no legitimacy other than that of the people”.

The military has produced every president since the fall of the monarchy 60 years ago, and it remains to be seen whether it will really permit unqualified civilian rule.