CAIRO — Several hundred thousand protesters massed in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square exploded into joy Friday, after Vice-President Omar Suleiman made the announcement that Hosni Mubarak had resigned as president of Egypt after three decades in office.
Finally heeding to 18 days of calls from protesters, the surprise statement marks Mubarak as the second Arab leader forced to quit by a peaceful popular uprising. Last month, Tunisia’s President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali resigned in the face of massive street protests against his rule.
In a televised address late Thursday night, embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had delegated executive authority to his newly appointed vice- president, but stopped short of stepping down.
"The president’s speech fell far short of meeting our demands, chief of which is Mubarak’s ouster," Ahmed Maher, general coordinator of the 6 April protest movement — which has played a leading role in the uprising — told IPS from Tahrir. "We will step up our demonstrations until he either steps down or we die."
That determination, that seemed to get stronger on Friday, seems to have forced Mubarak’s hands.
It was a tense and uncertain build-up to the resignation Friday. Many of the protesters had been expecting it on Thursday itself.
All eyes were on the army. On Thursday afternoon, the Egyptian Army released a statement stating that Egypt’s armed forces were "committed to protecting the people, their interests and their security." The armed forces, it added, "supported the people’s legitimate demands." (Unlike most western countries, the army in Egypt represents all branches of the armed services.)
At the same time, state television aired images of a meeting of the Armed Forces Supreme Council, chaired by Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. Both Mubarak and Suleiman were notably absent from the meeting, fueling speculation that Mubarak — who in his capacity as president is also armed forces commander-in-chief — had already resigned.
"After we heard the army’s statement (Thursday), along with news reports suggesting that Mubarak had stepped down, we asked the army to draw up an executive council consisting of civilian representatives — elected by us — and military figures," said Maher. "The council was to be mandated with directing national affairs for a transitional period until constitutional amendments could be made ensuring free parliamentary and presidential elections."
But the demonstrators — whose numbers at Tahrir Square were swelling even more — were to be sorely disappointed.
At 11 pm Cairo time, state television aired a 17-minute speech by the president, in which he delegated executive power to Vice-President Omar Suleiman "in accordance with the constitution." But he added that he would remain nominal president until September, when his successor could be elected in "free and fair" elections.
Mubarak went on to promise that six articles of the constitution, which govern the presidential and parliamentary electoral process, would be amended in line with longstanding demands of the opposition. He also promised to eliminate one constitutional article — Article 179 — granting authorities wide powers of arrest.
He further vowed to abolish Egypt’s longstanding (and highly unpopular) Emergency Law "once life in the country returned to normal."
The president’s address was met with derision by protesters, who watched the speech on large television screens erected in Tahrir Square. Halfway through the address, demonstrators began waving their shoes in the air in a traditional show of contempt. "Arhil! Arhil!" ("Get lost! Get lost!").
"We had been sure that victory was at hand," 34-year-old protester Ahmed Elassy, who heard the speech at the square, told IPS. "But as Mubarak spoke, the mood at the square went from a carnival atmosphere to one of rage."
Some 15 minutes later, Suleiman, too, delivered a brief statement on state television.
"We have opened the door to dialogue and drawn up a road map for the implementation of most of the people’s demands," he said, stressing his commitment to "the realization of a peaceful transition of authority." Suleiman concluded by urging demonstrators to "return to their homes and their livelihoods."
Tahrir Square protesters met these statements, too, with scorn. "Suleiman, Suleiman, you too can get lost!" they chanted in the hundreds of thousands.
"This regime appears entirely out of touch with reality," Abdelhalim Kandil, prominent Egyptian opposition figure and general coordinator of the pro-democracy Kefaya movement told IPS following Suleiman’s statement of Thursday. "Mubarak will set the entire country alight by his stubborn refusal to definitively step down. This will only fan the flames of the uprising," Kandil said.
"Besides, demonstrators no longer only want his resignation, they want Mubarak — along with all corrupt members of the regime — to face trial for oppressing the people for 30 years," Kandil added.
Shortly after the vice-president’s statement, thousands of demonstrators began marching from Tahrir Square to the presidential palace in Cairo’s Misr Gedida district. As of midday on Friday, some 5,000 protesters were reportedly camped out around the walls of the presidential residence, with more said to be on their way. "After Friday prayers, another quarter of a million set out from the square to join protesters at the palace," said Elassy.
Demonstrators have also reportedly converged in the tens of thousands on Cairo’s state television building, the presidential residence in Alexandria, Manshiya Square in Alexandria’s Sidi Gabr district, and several other prominent public spaces throughout the country.
While the army continues to hold positions around the palace, it was said to be interacting peacefully with the public.
(Inter Press Service)