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‘Jubilant,’ ‘Ecstatic’ Atmosphere in Egypt as Mubarak Steps Down

February 11, 2011 at 5:58 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Egyptians celebrated far into the night after President Mubarak finally gave way and resigned. The momentous turnabout came after nearly three weeks of ever-growing protests against his 30-year rule.

In the end, Mubarak and his family did leave Cairo for Sharm el-Sheikh. It was unclear when they might return.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian military promised not to try to run the country itself. The air force commander spoke on state television.

REDA MAHMOUD HAFEZ MOHAMED, commander, Egyptian Air Force (through translator): The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will, at a later time, issue statements which will define the steps, procedures and provisions to be taken, emphasizing at the same time it is not an alternative to a legitimate government acceptable to the people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Washington, President Obama got the news about Mubarak as he was having a meeting in the Oval Office. Later, he emerged to say Egyptians have inspired the world with the moral force of nonviolence and peaceful change.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same. By stepping down, President Mubarak responded to the Egyptian people’s hunger for change.

But this is not the end of Egypt’s transition. It’s a beginning. I’m sure there will be difficult days ahead, and many questions remain unanswered. But I am confident that the people of Egypt can find the answers.

The word “Tahrir” means liberation. It is a word that speaks to that something in our souls that cries out for freedom. And forever more it will remind us of the Egyptian people, of what they did, of the things that they stood for and how they changed their country and in doing so changed the world.

JIM LEHRER: The joyful scenes in Egypt quickly spread across the Middle East and around the world.

In Beirut, Lebanon, and in Gaza, people poured into the streets, singing, dancing and setting off fireworks as they waved Egyptian flags. And Egyptians living in France and other countries staged their own celebrations.

In Tunisia, car horns sounded in tribute to the outcome in Cairo. Tunisians ousted a longtime dictator last month and inspired the uprising in Egypt.

And, at the United Nations today, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon praised Egyptians for what they had accomplished.

BAN KI-MOON, United Nations secretary-general: I commend the people of Egypt for the peaceful and courageous and orderly manner in which they have exercised their legitimate rights. I call on all parties to continue in the same spirit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Our Margaret Warner has been covering this drama as it unfolded this week. I talked with her just a short time ago.

Margaret, hello.

You’ve also been in the streets several times tonight. Tell us what you found.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, as you can see and particularly hear right behind me — I’m on the fifth floor of a building right on the Nile River — it’s a wild party out here.

It’s now midnight in Cairo. And I would say there are millions of people in the streets. Every bridge you can see is completely filled. We had to walk across. Cars have been abandoned, so people can join the party. Fireworks are going off. Helicopters are buzzing overhead. Nobody knows whose helicopters they are.

And it was interesting talking to — a lot of these are people who had not joined the demonstrations originally but want to join the party. So, in talking to them, of course they’re ecstatic. But I asked, you know, why you fought so hard for democracy. How do you feel about the army taking over?

And listen to what this female lawyer said. She was out with her fiancé and a friend.

AMIRA SAAD, attorney (through translator): I think the army is Egypt, because in every house in Egypt, you have a son or a father in the army. So we are one. And we might suffer a little bit because of the strict army rule, but this is for our own good, because Mubarak left the country in corruption and unemployment.

MARGARET WARNER: But when we got down to Tahrir Square, where really the demonstrators had camped out and — and protested, and some died for this cause, the picture is definitely more complicated.

I mean, again, it was jubilant. Again, it was ecstatic. It was one big, in fact, very chaotic party, a lot less discipline than it had been earlier today. It’s impossible to keep discipline.

But listen here now. I found a Muslim Brotherhood activist. And I said — and he said: This is a great day for Egypt. You know, after 30 years, we got rid of this authoritarian dictator, et cetera, et cetera.

And I said, so, are ready to go home? And listen what he had to say.

MOHAMMED GAAFAR, Muslim Brotherhood (through translator): No. Our demands are not met yet. We are not going to be ruled by the army. We have to have a civil government. I’m not speaking just for myself. Everyone with me thinks the same. We are not leaving this place unless all our demands are met. We all understand that the army is there for our benefit, and they will make sure we get what we want.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Judy, what surprised me, but I confirmed by talking to other opposition figures not in the Muslim Brotherhood, is that the plan among the opposition is, yes, most people will go home. We have one more day of the weekend, maybe tomorrow. There is even some talk of — on the Internet about coming down and helping to clean up the square.

But they plan to leave enough protesters in the square to keep pressure on the army to follow through with the reforms and, in fact, to create a transition government that is acceptable to civilian protesters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Unfortunately, we lost the line to Cairo right after that, but we have reconnected with Margaret on the phone.

So, Margaret, everybody has been watching this. And I guess the — one of the questions people have is when did things turn around? Was there any inkling this morning, when people got up in Cairo, that — that this might be in the offing?

MARGARET WARNER: Judy, as day dawned in Cairo, it was clear that something more had to be done, another shoe had to drop, because the reaction against President Mubarak’s speech last night had just been so almost unanimous, at least in Tahrir Square.

We went there in the morning, even before Friday prayers, and there just hundreds of thousands of people streaming in across bridges, down streets, past army tanks, going through the pat-downs, getting into the square.

And once we got in there, it was clear from talking to all of these demonstrators whom we had seen just the day before that they weren’t going to give any quarter to Mubarak, nor his sort of complicated handoff to Vice President Suleiman and all the constitutional guarantees he was — he was offering.

One young woman said to us: Look, we have been promised enough stuff, things for 30 years. No more promises. And we’re going to stay.

They all vowed they were going to stay until their — quote — “revolution” was accomplished, i.e., he left. But there was a huge disconnect, because I’m told that, even as late as mid-morning, meanwhile, people in the government were still talking to U.S. and European officials and saying, well, isn’t it very clear, you know, President Mubarak handed off this power?

And one Western diplomat said, you know, the — the government had gotten so out of touch with their own people — I mean, more than 50 percent of their people are now under 25 — that this government just was totally disconnected. And this diplomat said: I don’t think they understand what’s happening. And, even if they do, they don’t have the toolkit to draw on.

In other words, they didn’t know how to communicate with their own people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Margaret, was there one triggering event? What — what changed Mubarak’s mind? What changed the mind of the army?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, there are clearly going to be a lot of — there are a lot of layers to be — of the onion to be peeled back here. And this is going to unfold over days.

But let me — let me make a stab at it. I’m told that first all, it was significant that, even last night, this Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces, which is analogous to the Joint Chiefs and doesn’t meet very often, decided to meet in continuous session.

And one Egyptian official told me, that usually only happens in a time of war. So, they were clearly in full-alert mode. I am told that when the army issued that next statement, which I know you have already reported, when they issued that statement about, we are now going to guarantee the commitments made by the president and vice president, they were essentially saying, look, we know you don’t trust your civilian leaders, but we will guarantee. We’re kind of signing the note.

In other words, they were trying to bridge the gap of mistrust. They could look out their own windows and just see these waves of people moving down the streets and over the bridges. And so one official said to me, Egyptian, he said, clearly, it was an unsustainable situation.

What I don’t know, Judy, then, is, what was the sequence events? Had Mubarak already left for Sharm el-Sheikh, for instance, before the decision was made, or was this all part of an unfolding kind of a choreography?

But I did ask, all right, was it Mubarak who recognized it was unsustainable, or was he essentially told that? And this Egyptian official said, it’s very significant that the announcement was made by the vice president, and he said it was the president handing over powers to the military and then stepping down, and it is important for historians to know this, that it was Mubarak’s decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it sounds like they were doing some looking out of the window, just — just like everyone else.

But, Margaret, now everyone is asking, what happens next? The army has said very little about what it intends to do. What are you picking up?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, what I’m picking up from the opposition, Judy, as you could see in that bite we had from the Muslim Brotherhood activist, is that, though most of the people are going to leave Tahrir Square some time this weekend, there is going to be a group that’s going to stay until the army carries, shows — makes a commitment it’s going to carry out these reforms, and also it’s going to have a civilian component to whatever transitional government there is.

And, so, the army, as you know, has not announced what their plan is. The opposition feels they sent lots of signals to the army that they actually welcomed the army intervening here, that that was the only way to create some kind of political arena in which parties could form and fair elections could be held.

But they are now waiting for the army to reach out to them and to announce some sort of transitional government that will have army, judges, senior public figures and political figures to design a kind of road map to get from here to the elections that are going to be held, at least plan to be held, in September.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Margaret, it’s been an extraordinary day. And you’re there reporting in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Thanks very much.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Judy.