UPDATE: One day after vowing to serve until September, Hosni Mubarak resigned the Egyptian presidency on Friday. His decision was announced by Vice President Omar Suleiman. Protesters greeted the news with noisy celebration, cheering and waving flags in Cairo’s Tahrir square. Earlier in the day, Mubarak fled Cairo.
Babak Dehghanpisheh reports on the fury in the streets. Plus, full coverage of Egypt protests.
Hundreds of thousands of enraged protesters packed into Cairo’s Tahrir Square Friday to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. But thousands of others also massed around the Ministry of Information and the presidential palace—a new twist in the nearly three-week long protests—ramping up pressure on the beleaguered regime. Protesters also hit the streets in Alexandria, Suez and a number of other smaller towns. Late Friday afternoon, the Associated Press ran a report which claimed that Mubarak had flown to Sharm el-Sheikh, a well-known Red Sea resort town.
The massive crowds rallied after a tense, roller-coaster day of emotions Thursday when rumors spread that Mubarak might actually be stepping down. Instead, Mubarak gave a speech full of conflicting claims, which left many Egyptians bewildered and furious. Within minutes after the end of the speech last night, there were deafening cries of “Leave! Leave!” in Tahrir Square and thousands of protesters held up their shoes, a grave insult in Arab culture.
But it wasn’t only Mubarak’s speech that left the crowd confused. Many also asked: where’s the military? Earlier in the afternoon, a Cairo military commander had taken the stage in Tahrir Square and announced, “All your demands will be met.” That was followed by an Orwellian sounding “Communiqué No. 1,” vaguely reassuring the public, as well as an announcement that the Armed Forces Supreme Council was in session, which led to rumors that the military is taking over. Protesters rejoiced. It was probably one of the only times in the history of a popular uprising that the people cheered on a de-facto military coup. But in the end, there was no coup, nor was there any clarification from the military. “[The speech] could have worked if General [Omar] Suleiman [the current vice president] or the [defense minister] could clarify and make the people believe [Mubarak] is not coming back,” says a Western diplomat in Cairo.
For the crowds on the street, it’s already too late. Mohammed Rabie, a 31-year old electrical engineer sporting an Egyptian flag headband, joined the raucous crowds in front of the Ministry of Information Friday. “The speech was meaningless,” he said, with a contemptuous snort. “We hate the system. We hate Hosni Mubarak. We need him to go away now.” A young man bobbed on the shoulders of a fellow protester nearby and led the crowd in chants of “Down, down with Mubarak” in Arabic and got an even louder response for chants of “Go away! Go away!” in English. Razor wire was strung across the road to prevent protesters from reaching the building, as well as the nearby offices of the national television station. Four tanks were also positioned around the Ministry of Information and a handful of tense soldiers trained large, fixed machine guns on the crowd from the second floor of the building. “We came here to protest against the lies, lies, lies we hear from the TV,” Rabie said. “The Egyptian [state] TV is a symbol of the old system and they have to go.”
Nearly three thousand people also packed around the presidential palace in Heliopolis. Magdy Wakil , a 29-year old businessman in the crowd, reflected on the symbolism of the demonstration. “We are sitting in the most dangerous place in Cairo,” he said. “But we came to see real change. We have broken the barrier of fear and they are now afraid of us.” If Mubarak has abandoned the presidential palace, the momentum has certainly shifted behind the protesters.
Babak Dehghanpisheh was named Newsweek’s Baghdad bureau chief in December 2006. He has been covering Iraq regularly for the past five years.