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Updated Feb 11, 2011, 9:41 am
CAIRO, Egypt — Hundreds of thousands of protesters in Cairo erupted in celebration Friday after the country's new vice president, Omar Suleiman, announced on state television that Hosni Mubarak, after more than three decades in power, had finally stepped down.
Protesters dropped to their knees and chanted, "Egypt is free! Egypt is free!"
In Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protest movement that has persisted for 18 days straight, there was a sense of relief after an uncertain few days.
"I can smell freedom for the first time in my life," said Mohamed Qorny, 46, who, along with everyone else in the square, was hysterical, jumping and screaming in joy.
The announcement came not long after the military turned the turrets of its tanks away from protesters that had amassed in front of the presidential palace. Suleiman, who had been named vice president by Mubarak last week, said the military would assume power.
A military source told Reuters that Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the defense minister and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, was the head of the Higher Military Council that has taken control in Egypt. It was unclear what role Suleiman would play in any future transition.
In response, the crowds chanted, "The army and the people are one."
Demonstrators have long said they wanted not only the removal of Mubarak, but the entire regime.
Anti-government protesters flooded Tahrir Square early on Friday, frustrated a day after Mubarak defiantly announced that he would transfer his power to Suleiman, who is also his close confidant, but would not resign.
The protests quickly turned into the largest since they first began on Jan. 25. And for the first time they spread outside Tahrir Square to the presidential palace and the headquarters of the state television. Protests also reportedly erupted in the northern city of Alexandria.
Throughout the day, army soldiers and commanders began to mingle with the protesters, pointing to the dramatic change that would soon take place. Officials said before the announcement Friday that Mubarak had left Cairo and was said to be staying in the coastal tourist town of Sharm el-Sheikh.
The rumors that Mubarak would possibly announce his resignation began earlier Thursday afternoon when a senior Egyptian military official said to protesters through local media that, "All your demands will be met today."
The rumor quickly gained steam around the world as international news organizations picked up on the story. NBC reported that two independent sources had confirmed that Mubarak would step down and that Suleiman would take over. CNN reported that CIA Director Leon Panetta also expected Mubarak to resign Thursday.
But in his defiant speech Thursday night, Mubarak caused widespread confusion with a rambling speech in which he talked about arcane laws, appearing completely out of touch with the demands of his people.
Robin Wright, a distinguished scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace Wilson Center who has interviewed Mubarak several times, said Thursday that Mubarak's speech appeared to be a last, desperate attempt to save face.
"It was out of touch, and it's one of the vainest political acts I've witnessed in my lifetime," she said. "This is a man who is so self-absorbed that he's not ready to recognize what has become incredibly clear over the last 17 days — that his reign is finished."
Protesters, old and young, were hugging and crying Friday night as they celebrated their hard fought victory.
Om Alaa, 52, whose son died during clashes with the state security forces in late January, was dancing in the street.
"I feel such happiness that I can't even describe," she said. "My son was murdered just before his marriage and now I feel his blood didn't go in vain."
Demonstrators waved large Egyptian flags and several Tunisian flags. Egypt's revolution was partly inspired by the uprising in Tunisia that forced out President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali after his 23-year reign.
A group of about 15 men stood on top of a burned out van that once belonged to the country's feared security forces in a symbolic scene that demonstrated just how far the protesters had come since the first few days of demonstrations when police violently cracked down on the movement.
Protesters have long made it clear, however, that nothing short of a Western-style democracy would satisfy them, demanding the departure of the prime minister, the parliament, the president, vice president and refusing any system led by the military.
"We don't want an army-led regime," the crowd chanted at one point on Thursday.
The anti-government protesters gathered to pray in Tahrir Square on Friday morning, a day after Mubarak's defiant speech to the nation announcing that his presidential powers would be transferred to his vice president, but that he would not step down.
The largest protests yet followed.
Angry crowds in Tahrir, however, noted that Mubarak did not resign the presidency and still retains power to sack both cabinet and the parliament, as well as propose amendments to the constitution.
The president's speech sparked jeers and chants of "he must leave" from demonstrators packed into Cairo's Tahrir Square. Protesters also waved their shoes in the air, a symbol of disrespect in the Arab world.
Moments after the Friday afternoon prayers ended in Tahrir Square, a sea of Egyptian flags were hoisted into the air, and thousands erupted into chants of "Get out!"
"Either they're playing stupid or they really don't understand," Ashraf Sobhy, 50, said. "Maybe he's only talking to Egyptians outside Tahrir Square. But here, it's clear that no one wants him to stay."
A western official told the New York Times that Mubarak left the capital Friday afternoon.
Following Mubarak's speech, Suleiman made a televised speech to the country telling protesters to disband so the country could move forward.
Friday, however, was looking like it would be one of the largest protests yet in Egypt's capital since the continuous demonstrations began on Jan. 25.
"I will not leave. We need Mubarak to leave," said Nagla Rezk, 40. "These speeches were a political ploy. If Mubarak had vision, he would see Tahrir and listen to our demands."
On Friday morning, Egypt's army released a statement claiming that they were listening to opposition protesters and that their demands, including an eventual lifting of the country's draconian emergency law, would be carried out and enforced.
Many in Egypt have welcomed the new role of the military, which has protected the streets of Cairo since the disbanding of the police forces in late January. But many in Tahrir were growing weary of its repeated refusal to support the removal of Mubarak.
And with repeated warnings to protesters not to expand their demonstrations beyond Tahrir Square, there were signs that Egypt's army might be losing its appeal.
Dr. Abdel Ghani el Shahawi, a university professor of Egyptology, could not control his emotions during the prayers.
"I'm crying because I'm just so sad for this country. We are in a complete standstill, and our leadership is not hearing us," he said. "The army has too much control in Egypt now — we need a Western-style democracy with leadership that listens to us."
Meanwhile, the White House was consumed with a sense of "disbelief" after Mubarak's speech, according to one U.S. official quoted by The Wall Street Journal. "This is really bad," the official was quoted as saying.
U.S. President Barack Obama said the Egyptian people had been told "there was a transition of authority, but it is not yet clear this transition is immediate, meaningful or sufficient.''
On Thursday Obama urged Mubarak to immediately begin the process of handing over power, adding that the world was watching and that the turmoil should be turned into a moment of opportunity.
Protest organizers were calling Friday's protest "Farewell Friday" and called on millions to turn out in a final attempt to force Mubarak to step down.
Overnight, more than 1,000 protesters moved to the presidential palace in the upscale neighborhood of Heliopolis. Dozens of them were still there on Friday morning, chanting "down, down Hosni Mubarak." Soldiers did not try to remove them.
In addition to occupying Tahrir Square, pro-democracy protests have blocked access to the parliament building.
Thousands of protesters were also surrounding the radio and television building in Cairo, which they see as a mouthpiece for Mubarak's regime. Soldiers and tanks were guarding the street that leads to the TV building, which overlooks the Nile, but they were not stopping the protesters from pouring in.