Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak brushed off political enemies and crushed opposition voices for 30 years. But his network of oppression unraveled in a mere 18 days, the pent-up anger of a disillusioned younger generation exploding in protest, overwhelming the police state and forcing the military to push him aside.
It was a stunning end for a stodgy, 82-year-old former air force commander who for decades entrusted Egypt’s fate to no one but himself. As protests swelled day after day, he brooded and maneuvered, as if oblivious to the calls and rage of his compatriots, who had finally summoned the courage they had so long lacked.
The overthrow of Mubarak was a warning to the icons of power across the Middle East. Egypt has been the heart of the Arab world for centuries, and Friday’s drama was a message to Jordan, Yemen, Sudan and other nations in turmoil. If the congenial, complacent Egyptians can do it, the revolutionary thinking goes, anyone can.
That presents a tremendous challenge to Washington as it confronts the prospect of a shifting regional order with new aspirations. The U.S. has for generations talked of human rights and political freedoms while supporting governments, such as Mubarak’s, that were an affront to those virtues even as they served American interests. From Cairo to Suez, Egyptians are now asking why.
But Friday night and into this morning they were mostly joyous.
“We have proved Mubarak and his regime wrong, and we will now show the world how we will build a real democracy,” said opposition leader George Ishak.
What lies ahead is anything but certain. No one knows how power may change hands in coming days or months. The army is now in control. It has not said when it will restore democracy and hold elections. People trust the military, but the danger of the army’s self-imposed role may be lost in the euphoria of Mubarak’s departure to his home in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh.
But there are few others in Egypt who can promise calm. The Egyptian opposition lacks a galvanizing voice. It is a disparate collection of personalities, many of whom have been jailed by Mubarak, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the nation’s largest opposition group. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei has been working with the activist youth and has called for a three-member transitional governing council before September elections.
Mubarak, whose emblazoned image looms over city streets and desert highways, is deposed but remains at the edges in a curious internal exile. Posters of him are being torn down; graffiti is scrawled across his portraits, many of which capture a man frozen in time, a leader who appeared not to age with his country.
This nation of more than 80 million people has slipped badly under Mubarak’s rule. Its stature has been marred by rampant corruption among ruling party officials, persistent inflation and more than 40% of its population living on $2 a day or less. It has been run by a government more concerned with nepotism and patronage than putting forth grand visions.
What brought the Egyptians to joy and wonder was a new fire engulfing the pillars of Mubarak’s power. A young, educated generation bypassed traditional opposition voices and assembled a revolution out of Facebook and other online social networks. They were geeks with attitude and cunning, and their fervor spread to Egyptians from all social classes. Tahrir Square swelled with families, accountants, laborers, shopkeepers and mystics.
The turning point came on Jan. 28, when hundreds of thousands of protesters swarmed alleys and boulevards, overrunning riot police who retreated with empty arsenals of tear gas. Egyptians, for the first time, had broken a police state — and it spiraled into disarray. Crowds grew in confidence in Tahrir Square and across the country.
The potent symbols of repression Mubarak had long relied on for stability, the coin of his realm, were vanishing. His state radio and television propaganda machine turned on him as, one by one, his institutions fell into disgrace. In a desperate attempt to end the demonstrations, thugs dispatched by his party — some riding horses and camels — stormed Tahrir, setting upon protesters in a medieval-style attack that shocked the world.
But the protesters didn’t budge. They fought back. The thugs disappeared and Mubarak made concessions. He offered pay raises. He called those who died in the struggle against him martyrs. He appeared on TV twice, hoping, with a mix of patriotism and old-fashioned grit, that he could once more divide and cow the masses.
Few believed him and, tellingly, fewer still feared him. He had never possessed the charisma of his predecessors — Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat — but throughout his presidency he had ensured order, which in this part of the world is highly valued. But when Egyptians looked into the streets and into the free-wheeling carnival of revolt that Tahrir Square had become, they didn’t see stability. They saw the power of change.
“I wanted to see, once before I die, a president other than Mubarak,” said a man pushing through the throngs in the square.
Ayman Nour, who ran against Mubarak in the 2005 election and was later jailed for it, said: “I was imprisoned for four years, but when I was let go and walked outside I realized that freedom under Mubarak was just a large prison. He would not let us get rid of him in a legal way. There had to be revolution.”
Mubarak’s last ally, the army, rolled into Tahrir on Jan. 28, dotting the square with tanks, threading it with razor wire. The presence of soldiers calmed the protests, which had turned into push-pull dramas revealing the wide gap between government promises and demonstrators’ demands.
They wanted him gone. He wanted to stay.
The military was caught between its duty to citizens and loyalty to the president — one of its own, a once-robust young officer turned frail, his face pallid beneath dyed hair. Mubarak appeared on TV for a third time Thursday night. The nation buzzed that he would resign, but, in a last chance to hang on to power, he miscalculated, delivering a paternalistic speech that admonished the protesters like they were unruly teenagers. All anyone heard, though, was that he was staying.
“The military had already made the decision to force Mubarak out, but he managed to win time and convince them to give him one last chance,” said Ammar Ali Hassan, an analyst and former military officer. “Mubarak lacked any political imagination and was very foolish to think that yesterday’s speech was going to make people go home.”
By Friday morning, with a nation on its way to prayers, it appeared the generals could no long side with their old friend.
There was agitation near the tanks and soldiers guarding the presidential palace in the Cairo neighborhood of Heliopolis. Mubarak’s fate was still not known to people on the streets. Nearly three weeks of unrest had drained and divided them. They wept. They were bitter.
An unveiled woman in a camel hair coat shouted for the protests to end:
“Two of my shops have been burned in the looting! I lost my business! I want stability! I want it to stop!”
A woman in a hijab shouted back: “At least she’s rich enough to have had shops! Millions of Egyptians can’t even afford food! Thousands of college graduates can’t find jobs! This whole country was looted by Mubarak! But this is exactly what he wants1 He wants us to fight with one another!”
A man pounded his chest in despair. Another threw his arms to the sky.
Hours later, as protesters swelled along the Nile and deep into the heart of the city, word came that Mubarak was gone.
Times staff writer Raja Abdulrahim and Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.