Egyptian president steps down after weeks of protests

 

A furious wave of protest finally swept Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak from power today after 30 years of autocratic rule, sparking jubilation on the streets.

Mr 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.

Mr Mubarak (82), has 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 affairs of the country, which, with 80 million inhabitants, is the Arab world's most populous. A free and fair presidential election has been promised for September.

Ecstatic Egyptians celebrated in carnival mood on the streets and people embraced in Cairo's Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, the main focus for protest. Many simply sobbed for joy.

"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.

They waved flags, set off fireworks and beat drums to celebrate this new chapter in modern Egyptian history. SMS 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. "The people have brought down the regime,” they said.

The downfall of Mr Mubarak (82) after 18 days of unprecedented mass protests was a momentous victory for people power and is sure to concern autocratic regimes throughout the Arab world.

The crisis that brought him down was the worst in Egypt since British-backed King Farouk was toppled in a military coup staged by a group of officers in 1952. Generals have ruled ever since.

"This is the greatest day of my life," said opposition activist and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei. “The country has been liberated after decades of repression,” the Nobel Peace prize winner said, adding that he expects a “beautiful” transition of power.

Posting on Twitter, he said: "Egypt today is a free and proud nation. God bless."

Speaking this evening, US president Barack Obama said Mr Mubarak’s resignation was the beginning, not the end, of the transition to democracy in Egypt.

Mr Obama said the long-time Egyptian leader responded to his people’s hunger for change. But he warned that there will still be difficult days ahead for Egypt as it works toward free and fair elections.

"The people of Egypt have spoken," the president said, stressing the US-aided Egyptian army that "nothing less than genuine democracy" would satisfy people's hunger for change.

Also with an eye on the military's role, US vice-president Joe Biden said Egypt must have democracy. British prime minister David Cameron called it a precious moment of opportunity. German chancellor Angela Merkel said she shared the people's happiness.

A senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's biggest opposition group, said Egyptians had achieved the main goal of their popular uprising. "I salute the Egyptian people and the martyrs. This is the day of victory for the Egyptian people. The main goal of the revolution has been achieved," said Mohamed el-Katatni, former leader of the Brotherhood's parliamentary group.

Mr Katatni said the Brotherhood awaits the next steps to be taken by the Higher Military Council, which has taken charge of the country's affairs.

The defence minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, will head the council, according a military source. Al Arabiya said an army statement would announce the sacking of the cabinet, the suspension of the upper and lower houses of parliament and that the head of the constitutional court would lead with the military council.

The confrontation had raised fear of uncontrolled violence in Egypt, a linchpin US ally in an oil-rich region where the chance of chaotic unrest spreading to other long stable but repressive states troubles the West.

Financial markets welcomed the news, seeing less chance of a conflict in the oil-rich region. Swiss authorities said they had frozen assets that may belong to Mr Mubarak.

Washington has called for 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 a major force against militant Islam in the region.

Egypt's powerful military gave guarantees earlier today that promised democratic reforms would be carried out but angry protesters intensified an uprising against Mr Mubarak, marching on the presidential palace and the state television tower.

The tumult over Mr Mubarak's refusal to resign had tested the loyalties of the armed forces, which had to choose whether to protect their supreme commander or ditch him.