Egyptians Continue Celebration, Await Assurances Triumphant Egyptians, fresh from toppling President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime, once again poured into Cairo's Tahrir Square on Saturday, many vowing to stay put until the military guarantees the protesters' hard-fought freedoms.
NPR logo Joyful Egyptians Await Assurances About Future

Joyful Egyptians Await Assurances About Future

Triumphant Egyptians, fresh from toppling President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime, once again poured into Cairo's Tahrir Square on Saturday, with some vowing to stay put until the military guarantees the protesters' hard-fought freedoms.

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The euphoria from Mubarak's resignation Friday after three decades in power still infused the crowd gathered at the square — the center of weeks of anti-government protests involving hundreds of thousands of Egyptians.

"We've shown that nothing is impossible," Sarah Hawas, an American-born student living in Cairo, told NPR.

Even as the festivities in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, went on Saturday, the first signs of normalcy were returning. Burned-out vehicles were towed away and streets were swept clean by people, some wearing placards reading: "Sorry for the inconvenience, but we're building Egypt." Soldiers removed barricades to open a road leading to the square.

In Egypt's second-largest city of Alexandria, where major anti-government protests also took place, trash from the post-Mubarak party was quickly cleaned up. Shops opened, traffic was back on the streets and from all appearances, it looked like business as usual in the Mediterranean port city.

But amid the celebrating there was also suspicion that the military council that assumed the reins upon Mubarak's departure might overstay its welcome as an interim stabilizing force on the road to free and fair elections and genuine democracy.

"We have to see how the army will orchestrate a democratic transfer of power. We have to wait and see," said Ali Mohammed, a sales manager camped out on the square.

Nadal Saqr, a university professor, insisted protesters should stay until the army offers "clear assurances" that their demands for democracy will be met.

The main coalition of youth and opposition groups said it would end its protest in Tahrir after having achieved its primary aim — getting rid of Mubarak. But the coalition promised weekly demonstrations to maintain pressure on the ruling military to implement democratic reforms.

Some protesters not tied to the coalition said they would remain camped in the square.

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In a statement read on state TV Saturday, Egypt's new military rulers — who pledged earlier to see the country through to greater democracy — said the Cabinet that Mubarak left behind would stay on until a new one could be formed.

"The current government and governors undertake to manage affairs until the formation of a new government," a senior army officer said, reading from the statement, adding that Egypt remained "committed to all regional and international obligations and treaties."

The military's pledge was welcomed by Israel, which signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 after several major conflicts between the two countries. They share a 160-mile-long border.

"Peace is not only in the interest of Israel but also of Egypt. I am very happy with this announcement," Israel's finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, told Channel 2 television.

But the brief communique from Egypt's military left in doubt how long Vice President Omar Suleiman would remain. Suleiman, who became the public face of the regime in Mubarak's waning days, is despised by many Egyptians.

"The fear among the protesters here, even as they revel, is that this will be a traditional military coup in the sense that the military will crack down and not talk to the people," NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson said, reporting from Cairo. "It's very much now an open question."

Mubarak himself, who clung tenaciously to power, suddenly changed his mind on Friday and left the capital for the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Egypt's Red Sea, according local officials. He and his family remained at the resort on Saturday, they said.

Mubarak's regime also has faced long-standing allegations of corruption, and rumors about his family's vast wealth helped energize the protests in a country where many are mired in poverty.

Shortly after the announcement of Mubarak's resignation, the Swiss government said it was freezing any money belonging to the ex-leader or his family in Switzerland. The order also prevents the sale or transfer of any residential or commercial property. The Swiss decree is valid for three years, giving Egypt's new government time to potentially initiate criminal proceedings against Mubarak, a precondition for eventually regaining the stolen funds. Mubarak and his family allegedly have up to $70 billion.

Meanwhile, officials at Cairo's airport reportedly have a list of former regime members and current officials with state institutions who are not allowed to leave the country without permission from the state prosecutor or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

"These instructions are meant to prevent any people who were in charge in the previous era from fleeing," the airport official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity Friday.

Egypt's state television also reported the military had ordered that a nighttime curfew be relaxed to start at midnight and end at 6 a.m. — instead of 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.

President Obama, speaking Friday afternoon, praised Egypt's military for showing restraint during the 18 days of protest leading to Mubarak's downfall and emphasized that the generals were meant as caretakers, not permanent rulers.

Although Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, at $1.5 billion annually, Washington has only limited influence over what happens next. Even so, ties are strong between the militaries in the U.S. and Egypt, which has sent many of its top officers to train in America's prestigious war-fighting schools.

More immediately, Mubarak's overthrow was already having repercussions in the Arab world, where authoritarian regimes predominate. It follows close on the heels of last month's popular uprising that toppled Tunisia's President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali after more than two decades of rule.

On Saturday, anti-government protests erupted in the Algerian capital, where the organizers — an umbrella group calling for democracy and free elections — said several thousand people gathered in the city center.

Protests are banned by the country's long-standing state of emergency, but crowds were undeterred, calling for an end to martial law and the overthrow of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Police blocked streets and charged the crowd in a bid to prevent protesters from reaching the city center.

The unrest in Algeria follows similar protests in Yemen and Jordan in recent days.

U.S.-Jordanian military ties are among the strongest in the Arab world. Obama's senior military adviser, Adm. Mike Mullen, departed Washington on Saturday and planned meetings Sunday with King Abdullah II and other senior officials in Jordan.

Mullen was also scheduled to travel to Israel for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. Israel is deeply worried about the prospect that Mubarak's ouster could lead to a government less friendly to the Jewish state.

Hawas, the U.S.-born protester, had a message for the pro-democracy forces in other Arab countries.

"Gather your courage; nothing is impossible," she said. "It's now or never, that's my advice to them."

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, JJ Sutherland and Eric Westervelt in Cairo; Susannah George in Alexandria; Lisa Schlein in Geneva; and Eleanor Beardsley in Paris contributed to this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.