The Egyptian media were celebrating yesterday after it was announced Friday night that President Hosni Mubarak was stepping down, after what appears to have been a quiet military coup. For the first time in decades, newspapers came out uncensored. The headlines, befitting the day after the fall of a dictator who ruled for 30 years, were dramatic: "The people are victorious" (Al Shorouk ); "The people brought down the regime" (Al-Ahram ); "The January 25 revolution was victorious" (Al Gomhuria ).
On Thursday night Mubarak announced he was transfering his powers to Vice President Omar Suleiman but would not resign. Senior U.S. and Egyptian officials yesterday said that was the turning point for the army. According to sources in Washington, agreement was reached in the middle of last week that the army would take over, but not on whether Mubarak would step down or merely cede his authority.
After Mubarak's Thursday-night address Egyptian military leaders, anticipating the anger of the protesters, told Mubarak that if he did not step down voluntarily the army would force him out. Suleiman announced that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was taking control.
The army emphasized yesterday that it will act slowly and cautiously. A spokesman delivered a message of assurance not only to Egypt but also to Israel and the international community. Egypt will honor its international agreements, the current government is provisional and preparations for democratic elections will begin.
Yet many Egyptians fear that the civilian dictatorship will be replaced by a military one.
The army spokesman's statement did not define the relationship between the military council, headed by Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and Suleiman. These are Egypt's two strongmen, who had been considered the main candidates to succeed Mubarak (together with his son Gamal ). Suleiman's appointment as vice president on January 29 made him the most likely successor, but the army's new dominance in Egypt may now make Tantawi the frontrunner.
Tantawi, 76, is considered a war hero in Egypt for his role as a battalion commander in the 1973 Yom Kippur War at the battle of the "Chinese Farm". He developed good relations with the Israeli security establishment recently. Yesterday he spoke on the phone with Defense Minister Ehud Barak. No details of their conversation were made available.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed yesterday's announcement, calling the Egypt-Israel peace treaty a "cornerstone of Mideast stability." Israeli security officials said they hoped the role of the Egyptian army would resemble that of the Turkish army, protecting the state and ensuring democracy.
Egyptian officers recently assured Israel Defense Force officers that peace with Israel was a strategic choice, and that they would be moving ahead on elections in the coming months.
However, Israeli security officials say that while it is not at all certain that Egypt will fall to the Muslim Brotherhood, instability in the region could require the IDF to make changes in preparedness in the long term.
Meanwhile, in Cairo yesterday, tens of thousands of people streamed to Tahrir Square to celebrate victory with dancing and singing, and fewer protests against the regime. But organizers of the revolution said yesterday morning they would continue to demonstrate until all their demands were met, among them revoking the state of emergency and releasing all political prisoners.
It is hard to say at this point how the army will treat the demonstrators. Reports yesterday from Cairo indicated that the protesters would meet on Fridays only. Congratulations to the Egyptian people poured in yesterday from across the Arab and the Muslim world. Syria, Yemen, Kuwait and other countries said a new era had begun in the Middle East, without mentioning that at least some of their regimes deny their citizens the same rights that Mubarak denied Egyptians.
None of these rulers is immune. Although the "days of rage" declared in Syria and Gaza fizzled out, stormy protests in Yemen and Algeria yesterday signaled that Egypt's revolution may not be the region's last.
What appears to be the beginning of a more democratic era in the Middle East is a mixed bag for Israel. On the one hand, the moderate axis in the region led by Egypt and Jordan is at risk. On the other hand, although Tehran is relentless its use of force and repression, there may be a glimmer of hope for a future revolution in Iran.
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