Mubarak Steps Down: 'Egypt Is Free' Chants Ring Through Tahrir Square

02/11/2011 06:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

CAIRO -- Cries of "Egypt is free" rang out and fireworks lit up the sky as hundreds of thousands danced, wept and prayed in joyful pandemonium Friday after 18 days of peaceful pro-democracy protests forced President Hosni Mubarak to surrender power to the military, ending three decades of authoritarian rule.

Ecstatic protesters in Cairo's Tahrir, or Liberation, Square hoisted soldiers onto their shoulders and families posed for pictures in front of tanks in streets flooded with people streaming out to celebrate. Strangers hugged each other, some fell to kiss the ground, and others stood stunned in disbelief.

Chants of "Hold your heads high, you're Egyptian" roared with each burst of fireworks overhead.

"I'm 21 years old and this is the first time in my life I feel free," an ebullient Abdul-Rahman Ayyash, born eight years after Mubarak came to power, said as he hugged fellow protesters in Tahrir Square.

An astonishing day in which hundreds of thousands marched on Mubarak's palaces in Cairo and Alexandria and besieged state TV was capped by the military effectively carrying out a coup at the pleas of protesters. After Mubarak's fall, the military, which pledged to shepherd reforms for greater democracy, told the nation it would announce the next steps soon. Those could include the dissolving of parliament and creation of a transitional government.

Mubarak's downfall at the hands of the biggest popular uprising in the modern history of the Arab world had stunning implications for the United States and the West, Israel, and the region, unsettling rulers across the Mideast.

The 82-year-old leader epitomized the complex trade-off the United States was locked into in the Middle East for decades: Support for autocratic leaders in return for stability, a bulwark against Islamic militants, a safeguard of economic interests with the oil-rich Gulf states and peace - or at least an effort at peace - with Israel.

The question for Washington now was whether that same arrangement will hold as the Arab world's most populous state makes a potentially rocky transition to democracy, with no guarantee of the results.

At the White House, President Barack Obama said "Egyptians have inspired us." He noted the important questions that lay ahead, but said, "I'm confident the people of Egypt can find the answers."

Nobel Peace laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, whose young supporters were among the organizers of the protest movement, told The Associated Press, "This is the greatest day of my life."

"The country has been liberated after decades of repression," he said adding that he expects a "beautiful" transition of power.

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