Egyptians Rejoice As Mubarak Steps Down

Tens of thousands of Egyptians poured into the streets across the country Friday in celebration after 18 days of anti-government protests. The news that President Hosni Mubarak had resigned came just after nightfall. Many big questions about the future remain, but tonight, Egyptians were in a mood to celebrate.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

There's euphoria across Egypt tonight, after President Hosni Mubarak resigned and the military high command took control of the country. Just after nightfall, Vice President Omar Suleiman made the announcement on Egyptian state television.

(Soundbite of Egyptian state TV)

Vice President OMAR SULEIMAN (Egypt): (Through translator) President Muhammad Hosni Mubarak has decided to wave the office of the president of the republic and instructed the supreme council of the armed forces to run the affairs of the country.

BLOCK: The resignation came after 18 days of unrest and a defiant Mubarak speech last night that enraged demonstrators. It also led to huge protests today around symbols of government power, including parliament, state TV and Mubarak's presidential palace in suburban Cairo.

SIEGEL: The huge crowd of protesters in Cairo's Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, let out a roar of approval when the news broke.

(Soundbite of cheering)

SIEGEL: More than 60 percent of Egyptians were born during Mubarak's reign and they've never known another leader. Tens of thousands of Egyptians poured into the streets across the country to celebrate his downfall.

NPR's Eric Westervelt begins our coverage this hour.

(Soundbite of cheering)

ERIC WESTERVELT: A week ago, this street leading into Cairo's Liberation Square was a battle zone of rocks, Molotov cocktails and bullets. Tonight, Egyptians hugged, danced and waved flags in jubilation.

(Soundbite of celebrating)

Unidentified Man #1: It's best day for everyone.

Unidentified Man #2: Egypt is free.

(Soundbite of chanting)

WESTERVELT: As thousands rushed into the square, the military quickly pulled away the barbed wire and metal sheeting and the main checkpoint into the area vanished.

(Soundbite of square)

WESTERVELT: Egyptians then ran up to congratulate soldiers who stood smiling on their tanks and armored personnel carriers.

(Soundbite of chanting)

WESTERVELT: They're shouting, the people in the army are one. People rushing up to these soldiers, they're beaming as they want to shake their hands and have their picture taken with them.

(Soundbite of chanting and whistling)

WESTERVELT: By all appearances it was a military coup, but one backed by a popular uprising the White House hailed today as a pivotal moment for the entire Middle East and called Egypt's transition to democracy irreversible.

A loose network of Internet-savvy youth helped spark mass street protests in Cairo on January 25th. They've been emboldened by the mass uprising against Tunisia's dictator last month. The daily protests here grew in size and intensity and tonight unseated the ruler of the region's most populous nation.

Hosni Mubarak, an air forces commander, came to power in 1981 after Islamist militants assassinated President Anwar Sadat. Throughout his rule, Mubarak stressed security and stability. He used a sweeping emergency decree to clamp down on political opponents and dissidents, including the Muslim Brotherhood. He stubbornly resisted reforms, even as anger grew over widespread poverty, repression, corruption and decaying infrastructure.

In Cairo's chaotic festive streets tonight, pharmacist Nasir Makawe(ph) smiled broadly and waved a V for victory sign.

Mr. NASIR MAKAWE (Pharmacist): Tomorrow will be the best day in our lives - of all Egyptians.

(Soundbite of whistling and chanting)

WESTERVELT: Goodbye, goodbye, people chanted to the leader who clung to power for almost 30 years and until the very end didn't seem to grasp the depth of disgust with his authoritarian rule.

Michel Zekry(ph) said it's the first time in Egypt's 7,000-year history the people have forced a peaceful change and successfully fought for freedom. But Zekry also looked past the celebratory zeal to tomorrow and the big questions about how and whether the military will keep its pledge to help guide the country from authoritarianism to democracy.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Mr. MICHEL ZEKRY: (Through translator) The military is only a transitional period, we hope, just so no one person would try to take control of the country. We don't want a military or a religious nation, we want a civilian democracy.

WESTERVELT: Twenty-nine-year-old computer science teacher Ahmed Otto(ph) also added a rare note of caution to tonight's festivities. He said Mubarak leaving doesn't necessarily mean the structure of his repressive regime is gone.

Mr. AHMED OTTO (Teacher): It's not over yet. This is one step. Mubarak, just one step because we have many, many Mubarak in Egypt. These people help Mubarak destroy Egypt like Omar Suleimsn. These all people help Mubarak destroy Egypt -Mubarak not alone.

WESTERVELT: Earlier in the day, the Egyptian military command issued a statement pledging to carry out constitutional reforms. But Comminique Number Two, as it was titled, made no mention of any delegation of powers from Mubarak to Vice President Suleiman, who appears to have lost his position in today's military takeover.

Dr. Mahmoud Afali(ph) said he had cautious faith in the army to help guide the country into a new era.

Dr. MAHMOUD AFALI: We have to enjoy the moment first, then we think, what are we going to do with the army? Whatever comes after, it's about to start.

WESTERVELT: Tonight, the 82-year-old Mubarak is holed up in his palace in Sharm el-Sheikh on the Red Sea, now the former president of Egypt.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Cairo.

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