Cairo: Thousands of Egyptians were still singing and waving flags as dawn broke over a nation reborn on Saturday, after a popular uprising forced President Hosni Mubarak from power.
The streets and squares of downtown Cairo were still in the hands of the mostly young demonstrators whose determined 18-day revolt overturned 30 years of autocratic rule and triggered an outpouring of national solidarity.
But political power now rests with the military commanders who stepped into the vacuum left by Mubarak’s departure, and many were anxiously waiting to see whether they will make good their promise to respect the popular will.
“O dawn of victory,” cried a young man dancing on a bridge across the Nile into Tahrir Square, epicentre of the revolt, as his friends danced in a circle and halted passing motorists to congratulate them.
In Tahrir itself, many of the anti-regime protesters who had occupied the city’s vast central plaza since January 28 were still sleeping in makeshift shelters, now joined by exhausted wellwishers.
“It’s party time! We are born again,” declared 40-year-old agricultural engineer Osama Tufic Saadallah. “We were behind other countries, now we are worth something in the eyes of others, of the Arab world.”
If Egypt’s revolution is indeed to serve as an example to the region, as Tunisia’s revolt served as an example to Egypt, much will depend on the stance of the junta that stepped into the breach when Mubarak’s nerve broke.
Headed by a longtime Mubarak loyalist, 75-year-old Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was expected to make a statement about its plans to form a transitional government.
So far, it has given little clue as to the direction it will take. In its “Statement Number Three” since announcing that it was taking charge, it said simply that it would respect the mood of the newly energised street.
The council “will issue further statements that will announce forthcoming steps, measures and arrangements, and it affirms at the same time that it is not a replacement for the legitimacy that is acceptable to the people.”
If the generals go back on their word, the protests could start again.
“We’re waiting for a new statement from the Army,” said Mohammed Rida, a 26-year-old activist. “We don’t want to be ruled by the military. We want a coalition government with experienced figures.”
In the euphoric atmosphere — all night Egyptians had drummed, sang and danced, firing jets of flame from improvised aerosol flame-throwers — it was hard to believe the news had broken just hours earlier.
A grim-faced and ashen Vice President Omar Suleiman announced the handover on state television late Friday after more than a million furious marchers took to the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Port Said and beyond.
“President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak has decided to leave the post of president of the republic and tasked the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to manage the state’s affairs,” he said, in a statement that lasted barely 30 seconds.
Earlier, 82-year-old Mubarak flew from Cairo to his Red Sea holiday retreat at Sharm el-Sheikh, his ruling party said.
As Cairo erupted in joy, in Washington US President Barack Obama said history had moved at a “blinding pace”.
“By stepping down, President Mubarak responded to the Egyptian people’s hunger for change,” Obama said. “Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day.”
Egypt’s powerful Islamist opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, hailed Mubarak’s resignation and thanked the Army.
“We salute the great people of Egypt in their battle,” Essam el-Erian, a senior Brotherhood leader and spokesman, said. “We salute the Army, which kept its promises.”
“My message to the Egyptian people is that you have gained your liberty,” top opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei said in an interview with Al-Jazeera television. “Let’s make the best use of it and God bless you.”
Arab League chief Amr Mussa, who last week joined the crowds in Tahrir Square, hailed fellow Egyptians and the army for their “historic achievement”.
Israel, fearful the uprising might open the door to a hostile Islamist regime in Cairo, said it hoped the transition of power in Egypt would happen “smoothly”, a government official said.
The official stressed the need to preserve the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, signed two years before Mubarak came to power.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah congratulated Egyptians on their “historic victory”, as gunfire and fireworks lit up the night skies over Beirut.
And in Yemen, thousands of people took to the streets. Some chanted: “Yesterday Tunisia, today Egypt, and tomorrow Yemenis will break their chains.”