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'Egypt is free,' crowds cheer after Mubarak quits

Egypt’s military took control of the country Friday as Hosni Mubarak finally resigned as president after 18 days of massive protests against his autocratic 30-year reign.
/ Source: NBC, msnbc.com and news services

Egypt’s military took control of the country Friday as Hosni Mubarak resigned as president after 18 days of massive protests against his autocratic 30-year reign.

Mubarak’s resignation was announced by Vice President Omar Suleiman in a brief statement that brought roars of joy to Egyptians gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square — the epicenter of the protest movement — as well as the presidential palace in the suburb of Heliopolis and all around the country.

Cries of "Egypt is free" rang out as ecstatic protesters hoisted soldiers onto their shoulders and families posed for pictures in front of tanks in streets flooded with residents of the capital of 18 million people.

Strangers hugged strangers, some fell to kiss the ground, and others stood stunned in disbelief. Chants of "Hold your heads high, you're Egyptian" roared with each burst of fireworks overhead.

"I'm 21 years old and this is the first time in my life I feel free," an ebullient Abdul-Rahman Ayyash, born eight years after Mubarak came to power, said as he hugged fellow protesters in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square.

The military, which effectively carried out a coup at the pleas of protesters that it push Mubarak out, announced on state television that is was committed to shepherding demands for greater democracy and that it would announce the next steps soon, possibly including the dissolving of parliament and creation of a transitional government to lead reforms.

Suleiman — who appeared to have lost his post as well in the military takeover — appeared grim as he delivered the short announcement.

"In these grave circumstances that the country is passing through, President Hosni Mubarak has decided to leave his position as president of the republic," Suleiman said. "He has mandated the Armed Forces Supreme Council to run the state."

Mubarak's downfall at the hands of the biggest popular uprising in the modern history of the Arab world had stunning implications for the United States and the West, Israel, and the region, unsettling authoritarian rulers across the Mideast.

The 82-year-old leader was the epitome of the implicit deal the United States was locked into in the Middle East for decades: Support for autocratic leaders in return for their guarantee of stability, a bulwark against Islamic militants and peace — or at least an effort at peace — with Israel.

The question for Washington now was whether that same arrangement will hold as the Arab world's most populous state makes a potentially rocky transition to democracy, with no guarantee of the results.

At the White House, President Barack Obama said that "Egyptians have inspired us" and that "I'm confident the people of Egypt can find the answers" to the transition questions that lie ahead.

'The greatest day'
Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and leading Egyptian democracy advocate, said Friday was "the greatest day of my life."

"The country has been liberated after decades of repression," ElBaradei told The Associated Press. He said he expected a "beautiful" transition of power.

A senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's biggest opposition group, said it was waiting to see what steps would be taken by the military's Supreme Council, but also sounded an optimistic note.

"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," Mohamed el-Katatni, former leader of the Brotherhood's parliamentary bloc, told Reuters.

Another leading opposition figure, Ayman Nour, said he was looking forward to a transition period that would lead to a civilian government.

"This is the greatest day in the history of Egypt that will not be repeated. This nation has been born again. These people have been born again and this is a new Egypt," he told Al-Jazeera.

End of era
Mubarak, a former air force commander, came to power after the 1981 assassination of his predecessor Anwar Sadat by Islamic radicals. Throughout his rule, he showed a near-obsession with stability, using rigged elections and a hated police force accused of widespread torture to ensure his control.

He resisted calls for reform even as public bitterness grew over corruption, deteriorating infrastructure and rampant poverty in a country where 40 percent live below or near the poverty line.

Up to the last hours, Mubarak sought to cling to power, handing some of his authorities to Suleiman while keeping his title.

But an explosion of protests Friday rejecting the move appeared to have pushed the military into forcing him out completely. Hundreds of thousands marched throughout the day in cities across the country as soldiers stood by, besieging his palaces in Cairo and Alexandria and the state TV building. A governor of a southern province was forced to flee to safety in the face of protests there.

Mubarak himself flew to his isolated palace in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, 250 miles from the turmoil in Cairo.

His fall came 32 years to the day after the collapse of the shah's government in Iran.

Nations around the world have thrown out dictators in the past half-century, whether through military force or popular revolt. Here are some of the tyrants who have been hounded into exile.

'Live in freedom'
When Suleiman confirmed that Mubarak had also left office, people were overcome by shock and joy. 

Outside the palace, women on balconies ululated with the joyous tongue-trilling used to mark weddings and births. Among the reactions:

  • "My children can finally live in freedom," said Mahmoud Ghanem, who came from the northern Nile Delta five days ago to join the Tahrir protest camp.
  • Mohammed el-Masry, weeping with joy, said he had spent the past two weeks in Tahrir before marching to the palace. He was now headed back to the square to join his ecstatic colleagues. "We made it," he gasped.
  • "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.
  • "Thank God, thank God, unfairness is gone and everything will turn better and if not, we will go out and ask for more changes. Enough. We ended all unfairness," Red Alrouby, 37, a bakery store owner said.

Google executive Wael Ghonim, a leading protester, said in a message on Twitter, that "the real hero is the young Egyptians in Tahrir square and the rest of Egypt."

"I was searching for Egypt and we just found it. They lied at us. Told us Egypt died 30 years ago, but millions of Egyptians decided to search and they found their country in 18 days," he added.

Ghonim issued a call for all well-educated Egyptians around the world to "come back ASAP to build our nation."

The world was also gripped by the news, which dominated television news and was splashed across websites in countries around the globe. Three out of the top nine trending topics on Twitter worldwide related to Egypt.

In Switzerland, the government said it had frozen assets which possibly belonged to Mubarak. There have been unconfirmed reports he has amassed a fortune running into tens of billions of dollars.

"I can confirm that Switzerland has frozen possible assets of the former Egyptian president with immediate effect," government spokesman Lars Knuchel said, declining to specify how much money was involved.