Analysis: Egypt's President Mubarak Steps Down

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Steve Inskeep talks with NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson for the latest developments in Cairo as President Hosni Mubarak's resignation is reported. Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution weighs in with analysis, followed by NPR's Tom Gjelten; Tarek Masoud of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government; NPR's Loren Jenkins; and "The Arabist" blogger Issandr El Amrani.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

This morning, we are following the apparent resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. This is a resignation that many people expected yesterday - and that did not come. Even today, we have not heard it from Mubarak's own lips. But what we do have is a statement on Egyptian state TV by the man who was Mubarak's vice president, Omar Suleiman.

Before we go on, let's listen to a little bit of his words.

Vice President OMAR SULEIMAN (Egypt): President Honsi Mubarak has decided to step down as president of Egypt, and he has decided that the higher council of the armed forces will lead the nation.

(Soundbite of cheering)

INSKEEP: OK, so that's the statement as translated on Egyptian state television. Of course, we'll have to be very careful with this and parse the words very carefully. He did speak in the future tense there, that he has decided to step down, that the armed forces will lead the nation. But we're going to talk about this a little bit more with NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. She's been covering these protests since the beginning, and she is overlooking -I believe - Cairo's Tahrir Square, and has been as this announcement has been made just in the last few minutes.

Soraya, what are you seeing and hearing?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Well, my gosh, the crowd has erupted into cheers, and it's not just in Tahrir Square. Cars are honking as they drive along the Corniche - the waterfront here, along the Nile River, as they're crossing the river into Zamalek, which is the island in the middle - on the other side here, where I'm standing.

And you can just hear shouts and screams and honking everywhere. It's incredible.

INSKEEP: Is there any doubt I suppose there must be but what doubts do people still have about Mubarak's intentions, about whether this is real?

NELSON: At the moment, it seems like they have no doubt. They just - there is such a release here. I mean, this was such a disappointment - as you had mentioned -last night to the people who have been protesting, you know, have been demanding this ouster for weeks, that I think just hearing this news from the lips of the vice president, hearing that the control has been handed over to the military, which is seen as an honest broker here in this country, just seems to have been accepted as the truth. And people are cheering - and they're still cheering, minutes and minutes and minutes later.

INSKEEP: Now, of course, this is the central demand that the protesters had. But saying that Mubarak has resigned, or is going to resign, does not seem quite to answer all the questions, the technicalities of this.

Just yesterday, Soraya, you and I were talking about constitutional issues, about who gets to take over power. Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize winner, is among the protesters - was writing in the New York Times about the necessity to dispose of the constitution. Does anybody know about the legal authority here, or the manner in which the military is taking over?

NELSON: No. Those questions will have to be answered as people put aside the jubilation and start to think about the future here. Certainly yesterday, President Mubarak had talked about dictating - or assigning the changes or the review of the constitution that needs to be done in order for there to be a referendum, in order for the constitution to change. And so whether that's enough, whether his pronouncement last night is enough, whether in fact there will be constitutional changes, whether there will be free and fair elections, all of these things have to be talked about. But at the moment, I think it's just the release - of finally achieving the goal that is having -people here are just - I mean, you can still - I'm sure - hear it behind me; they have not stopped cheering since this announcement came down about 10 minutes ago.

INSKEEP: You know, it's amazing. We were talking with an analyst earlier today who speculated - suspected that perhaps Mubarak had persuaded the military to let him give one more speech last night, try one more time to save his job. And then, of course, everyone had to wait for the reaction today.

What has the reaction been like through this day, as you've watched the demonstrators across Cairo?

NELSON: It's been pretty dark. And what was interesting is that protests started springing up in places that were near symbols of this regime the state television building, for example. Thousands of people have congregated there today. Even Heliopolis, which is where the presidential palace is, and which has been off-limits to protesters during the course of this crisis, there was a brief argument between presidential guards, between the army commander on the scene, and between the protesters. And then after a few minutes, they let them through. And so hundreds of people gathered there at the back doorstep of the presidential palace, screaming the same things they've been screaming here.

And they told me some of the protesters that I interviewed there told me that, you know what? It's not just Tahrir Square. It's everywhere, and this man needs to get the message.

INSKEEP: Soraya, will stay with us for a moment, please? Again, we'll repeat for those who are just joining us...

NELSON: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: ...that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak appears to have resigned. His vice president, Omar Suleiman, made that announcement on Egyptian state television just in the last few minutes, and crowds are celebrating wildly at Tahrir Square. We're going to go to another voice inside Egypt who's been helping us understand this crisis over the last several days.

Shadi Hamid is with the Brookings Institution. He's based in the Persian Gulf region, and he is currently in Cairo. Welcome back to the program, sir. What are you seeing?

Mr. SHADI HAMID (Brookings Institution): Well, I'm hearing the beeps and the cheers from from inside here. The street is erupting. People have heard the news, and they're thrilled. There might be some caution in order. There were similar scenes of jubilation yesterday, when everyone seemed to think Mubarak would step down. I think we should probably it's hard to say this happening today, this happening tomorrow? But you know, as far as I can see, people people seem to be very happy to hear the news.

INKSEEP: What does it mean that the military is taking over, that the supreme council of the armed forces is taking over?

Mr. HAMID: It sounds to me like a military coup. It's not clear what exactly the military plans on doing. Are they going to control things for an interim period, then hand over to a civilian government? Are they going to move to organize free and fair elections soon? We - no one has any idea what this really means in practice, and I think people should be a little bit careful. The military is not a pro-democracy organization. It is, in many senses, part of the regime. Omar Suleiman, the vice president, who will who might become president, is not someone known for having democratic credentials.

So military coup is not the same thing as democracy. So yes, it might be a step in the right direction, but Egypt still has a long way to go before it actually meets the demands of the protesters.

INSKEEP: Shadi Hamid, thanks very much for your analysis this morning. Very much appreciate it.

Mr. HAMID: Thank you.

INKSEEP: And again, we're following news that President Hosni Mubarak has apparently resigned in Egypt. That, at least, is the word from Egypt's vice president on state television. And NPR's Tom Gjelten is live with us in our studios here in Washington. And Tom, very briefly, what are the risks and the opportunities in this situation for the United States?

TOM GJELTEN: Well, Steve, the Obama administration has made it very clear in the last few days that they really wanted to see a quick transition of power, and it looked yesterday for a while like the United States had been outflanked, maybe even fooled. We had the bizarre situation where the director of the CIA actually, in a hearing on Capitol Hill, said that the it appeared there was a strong likelihood that Mubarak would be stepping down. He looked foolish after that. The administration looked like it had been caught flat-footed.

I think that this is the best possible from the administration's point of view the best possible outcome, because the administration wants this transition to be orderly.

You know, what I find interesting, remarkable, Steve, is that we have this huge outpouring of joy at the news, as Shadi Hamid had said, that there's been a military coup. We have an outpouring of joy over the development that the military is taking control in Egypt. I think that that leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

INKSEEP: And let's go back to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who I believe is still on the line from Cairo, overlooking Tahrir Square. And it sounds, Soraya, at least at this moment, for the people in the square there, that this is not a moment for doubt - that this is a moment for joy, that the one demand that they had, above all others, was granted.

NELSON: Absolutely. They I think it is just such a relief for them because this has been really hard, not just on the country and on the economy and on the government, but on these people who have held vigil here for the better part of what is it, like 15, 16 days at this point.

INSKEEP: Even more. And of course, you've held vigil with them and given us updates on everything, and I'm sure we're going to be listening to you a lot in the days ahead as we try to figure out exactly what has happened here today, and exactly what it means.

Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Cairo, as Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution was. NPR's Tom Gjelten is here in Washington. And again, the news, according to the vice president on Egyptian state TV, is that President Hosni Mubarak has resigned, or will resign. And we'll give you more details as we learn them in a swiftly changing situation. It's NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of cheering)

INSKEEP: We're listening to some of the sounds from Cairo's Tahrir Square. In just the last few minutes, the square has erupted in celebrations: people waving flags, flashbulbs going off, people celebrating wildly after hearing news that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak - at least, according to his vice president - has or will resign.

That was the announcement that was made earlier today by Omar Suleiman, making the statement that the supreme council of the armed forces will take over, take charge in the country.

We're going to try to sort out what this means with Tarek Masoud. He's been a guest several times on this program in the last few days. He's with Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, an expert on the Middle East. Welcome back to the program, sir.

Professor TAREK MASOUD (Harvard University): Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: What do you make of these developments?

Prof. MASOUD: Well, I think that basically, Mubarak's last gambit failed, and the military kind of pressured him to step down.

INSKEEP: Well, let's remember what you were telling us earlier today. You speculated that perhaps Mubarak persuaded the military to give him one last chance - let me give one more speech and see if I can win over the people. And then, of course, the question would be: What happened today?

Prof. MASOUD: Right, exactly. And the crowds didn't go away. And I think that basically, people were getting impatient and desirous of a kind of stability in that realm. So I think that I think that's why he ended up making the decision to leave.

INSKEEP: Now, when NPR's Tom Gjelten hears this statement, he told us a moment ago, what he hears is news of a military coup. Is that a proper way to understand what has happened here?

Prof. MASOUD: Well, not really because, you know, like I said, this was always a military regime, and I think what happened here is that Mubarak had to go in order to save the regime. There's not yet been a fundamental change in the structure of government in that country.

INSKEEP: Oh, now, that's extremely interesting because the military had been earlier guaranteeing that they were going to bring all kinds of democratic reforms to pass - just earlier today - but I suppose we cannot know if that statement is still operative, as they say.

Prof. MASOUD: Well, so that's the thing. I mean, now we're in a very dangerous, extra-constitutional situation. You know, Mubarak, when he resigns, his position should formally be taken by the speaker of the parliament. So that, clearly, hasn't happened. The military's in charge and now, you're reliant on the good graces of the military to actually midwife a democratic process.

And you know, because their mindset is that Egypt is under constant threat, they may want that process to take a very long time, because they believe that only the military can provide the stability that Egypt needs.

INSKEEP: Although it's going to be interesting to see if this is enough for the protesters. I am thinking of what someone was telling me earlier today about the process in Tunisia, where a longtime ruler was thrown out of office and in the end, the replacement rulers were not acceptable to the crowd, either.

Prof. MASOUD: Well, remember, the replacement rulers in Tunisia had actually come from the ruling party as well. In Egypt, that's clearly not what's happening. The military is taking charge. Now, if Omar Suleiman - the vice president - if he remains the figurehead, well, people have had enough time to develop a dislike of that man that in fact, the crowds may not dissipate.

But if the military says Omar Suleiman is leaving as well, and Defense Minister Tantawi, or Army Chief of Staff Sami Eman is going to take over, I think that actually could cause the crowds to dissipate.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that Suleiman has been - has blackened his own reputation by being so closely associated with Mubarak in recent days and weeks?

Prof. MASOUD: I think Mubarak actually blackened his reputation. I mean, it's ironic: If Mubarak hadn't appointed him vice president in these last few days, and then in today's move had said, I am now handing power over to Omar Suleiman, people might have accepted that. But now, Omar Suleiman has become so associated with this regime and, you know, he opened his mouth too many times and people saw the nature of this guy - a kind of throwback to the 1960s era of hard authoritarianism, that I think none of the protesters would be willing to accept him.

INSKEEP: Tarek Masoud, will you stay with us for a moment? I want to bring some more voices into this conversation. NPR's foreign editor Loren Jenkins, who's covered this region one way or another for decades, is in our studios now. Loren, good morning.

LOREN JENKINS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do you make of these developments?

JENKINS: Extraordinary. Extraordinary. And confusing. I mean, we started yesterday morning with the military basically taking over quietly and giving signs...

INSKEEP: Or saying so anyway, yeah.

JENKINS: Or saying so, and giving signs that by nightfall, Mubarak might be leaving and the demonstrators' demands would be met. And then we were stunned last night to have Mubarak come on air and say absolutely not, and give a very paternalistic, condescending speech to the demonstrators. And then this morning, he's gone.

So there's obviously great confusion within the ruling circles there, and probably within the army. I assume there are a lot of divisions - and it's to be found out exactly what happened. But I think the last 24 hours have been really, an extraordinary period.

INSKEEP: Loren Jenkins is in our studios. Tom Gjelten - NPR's Tom Gjelten is in our studios. Tarek Masoud is still on the line. I want to ask all of you about one other thing - because we've just been told now that President Obama is expected to give a statement on these developments at 1:30 Eastern Time this afternoon. So in the next couple of hours - a little more than a couple of hours, we'll find out what he has to say.

But my question for all of you gentlemen is, is it clear now what the United States needs to do, and what the United States government wants to do? Tom Gjelten, you can begin.

GJELTEN: I think the Obama administration is looking, first of all, at the reaction of the protesters. If this development is enough to satisfy the protesters and really, sort of end this incredible moment, I think it will be enough for the Obama administration.

I think if the protesters - once they process this - decide that it's not enough, I think that will leave the Obama administration in a very awkward point.

INSKEEP: Loren Jenkins, you were the one who was telling me earlier today that in Tunisia, when the ruler - Ben Ali - left, it was not enough for the protesters. They decided they wanted more.

JENKINS: Exactly. They kept demonstrating. They wanted the regime changed. They said, it's not about one man; it's about the whole system. And I think the Egyptians are saying the same thing. It'll be interesting to see exactly what happens with the vice president, Omar Suleiman - who is, in fact, very closely identified with Mubarak.

Does the army taking over mean that he's no longer vice president also? It's still to be seen. And will that be enough?

INSKEEP: Is the crowd basically in charge here? If they go away from the square, everything's OK. If they don't go away from the square, something else will have to give.

JENKINS: Exactly. I think they are in charge. I mean, they have - it's been extraordinary. It's 18 days of steady demonstrations - growing, expanding, continuing. They got the president of Egypt to resign.

INSKEEP: Tarek Masoud, I'll give you the last word here.

Prof. MASOUD: Yeah. Well, I think that in the coming days, really, it's it's really about whether or not the Egyptian people are going to understand that what's happening here is kind of consolidation of power in the hands of the military, and whether that - whether they actually believe in the statements of the military that they're going to initiate democratic reforms.

And I think President Obama, one of the things he should say today when he speaks is that, you know, this is not an acceptable long-term solution. It's a good first step, but we want to see this midwife a genuine democracy in Egypt.

INSKEEP: If you were one of the protesters standing in Tahrir Square, would you trust the military?

Prof. MASOUD: I would not, but I have a Ph.D. in political science.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks to you all, gentlemen. And we're going to continue to cover this. This is still developing here.

Tarek Masoud is with Harvard's Kennedy School of Government; Loren Jenkins is NPR's foreign editor; Tom Gjelten, an NPR correspondent, one of many who have been covering this, in Cairo and elsewhere today.

And again, the news, what we have from Egypt's vice president on state television, is a statement that Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak is resigning or has resigned or will resign - a little bit unclear there but in any event, that he is gone.

We'll bring you more as we learn it, on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: There's really just one news story today, at least at the moment, and it is the apparent departure from power of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Earlier today - not very long ago - on Egyptian state TV, we heard from Egypt's Vice President Omar Suleiman, who said that the supreme council of the armed forces will take over. That was his statement, through an interpreter, on Egyptian state TV. We're going to talk about this now with Issandr El Amrani. He is a blogger. He is in Cairo. He's been on the program before. The blog is called The Arabist, and he's back with more analysis.

Welcome back to the program.

Mr. ISSANDR EL AMRANI (Blogger, The Arabist): I'm glad to be here.

INSKEEP: I suppose I have to begin by asking the skeptical question: Is there any reason to doubt that Mubarak has really left?

Mr. AMRANI: No. I think this statement from Suleiman, putting the army in charge, is final. Now, Mubarak is said to be in Sharm el-Sheikh. He's still in Egypt. So it's not like in Tunisia, where he left the country.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

Mr. AMRANI: No doubt, tomorrow and the days ahead, there will people asking for him to be put on trial. And none of that is clear yet.

INSKEEP: Sharm el-Sheikh - of course, that's the Egyptian resort where he has a presidential compound. He's spent a lot of his time there. And we were told earlier today that that is, in fact, where he was going.

Now, let me follow up on something you said: Suleiman saying that the army has been put in charge. Does that mean that Omar Suleiman is in charge?

Mr. AMRANI: No, it doesn't. It's - if that had been the case, then he, as vice president, would've become president. All he said right now is that a council is in charge. So the power is diluted between various senior military officers. It's not even clear yet whether Suleiman is within that council. So his role is very murky at the moment.

INSKEEP: Although it's unusual that Suleiman would be the man who would make the announcement that Mubarak is going. It suggests that Suleiman is the man who's standing there to take over. But it doesn't seem to be that that's the concrete reality, is what you're saying.

Mr. AMRANI: Yes. I don't think we should read too much into the fact that Suleiman made this statement for now because - he had to make this statement, if only because Hosni Mubarak himself probably couldn't bring himself to make that statement.

INSKEEP: How would you describe the mood where you are, in Cairo?

Mr. AMRANI: The mood is ecstatic. There's nothing like it. You know, it's 10 times what the reaction would be if Egypt had won the World Cup.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Well, you know, there's a different World Cup winner every few years. You don't have a 30-year ruler go away that often.

Mr. AMRANI: Exactly. This is the first time this happens in Egypt's entire history, and it's a long history. I mean, I'm hearing - I'm a kilometer away from Tahrir Square, and I'm hearing the cheers from here - this chorus passing by on the streets, honking their horns. It's going to be an all-night party.

INSKEEP: I wonder if the reaction is even more emotional because people thought they were going to get this result yesterday, and were disappointed and depressed and crushed - and then came back today, and this happens.

Mr. AMRANI: Yeah, yes, absolutely. I mean, people, after yesterday's speech, didn't know what to think. And there was - I think one of the reasons that the army has taken charge is because there was concern that the tide was turning against it, that people could no longer stand this supposed position of neutrality the army was taking. So I think the - today's amazing protest - I mean, maybe a fifth of Egypt's population's out on the streets - forced the army's hand.

INSKEEP: We've just got a couple of seconds left. Do you think people trust the army?

Mr. AMRANI: I think that remains unclear. I think the protesters themselves will be divided. They'll certainly want guarantees that they haven't fought this battle for 18 days, to return to another Mubarak. And I don't think that's going to happen. There's been a definitive break with the past. And - but the struggle continues.

INSKEEP: Issandr El Amrani, thanks very much, as always, for your analysis. Appreciate it.

Mr. AMRANI: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And again, we're following news that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has apparently left office.

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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