One week into demonstrations that have steadily filled the streets of Cairo and other cities, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced on state television Tuesday evening that he would not stand as a candidate in elections scheduled for September.
The 82-year-old president, who was sworn into the position in 1981 following the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, said, "My first responsibility now is to restore the security of the homeland, to achieve a peaceful transition of power in an environment that will protect Egypt and Egyptians and which will allow for the responsibility to be given to whoever the people elect in the forthcoming elections."
Mubarak made his statement hours after the Egyptian army estimated that nearly a quarter-million protesters had turned out in Cairo on Tuesday-the largest protest yet to demand his ouster. But according to White House sources who began leaking the power shift to news media late Tuesday afternoon, it was President Barack Obama who gave the nod for Mubarak to go, sending former U.S. ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner to Cairo Monday to make clear that the United States did not believe Mubarak-or his son Gamal, often named as his successor-could be candidates in the upcoming elections. For the longest-serving U.S. ally in the most populous Arab country, the removal of U.S. support marked the end of the beginning of what is likely to be a fraught transition.
The announcement brought euphoria along the wide boulevards leading into Cairo's Tahrir Square, where demonstrators have converged since Jan. 25, and across Twitter and Facebook, where organization of the rallies that have led to demonstrations across the Middle East first began. While many in the crowds vow to continue protesting for Mubarak's immediate removal, the consequences of regime change are sobering.
"In a state of chaos, an organized Islamic group can take over a country," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, citing the Iranian revolution in 1979, which also began as a people's protest movement. "A takeover of oppressive regimes of extreme Islam violates human rights, grinds them to dust . . . and in parallel also pose a terrible danger to peace and stability." (For more on attempts at democracy in the Middle East, see "Rule of man," March 29, 2003.)
Egypt was the first Arab nation to reach a peace accord with Israel (in 1979), and Mubarak has been the lead advocate between Israel and the Palestinians to the broader Arab world.
Opposition groups involved in planning the "days of rage" protests have denied that the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist groups have been behind the demonstrations, but those groups quickly saw opportunity in the street revolution. On Sunday jihadist cleric Abu Mundhir al-Shinqiti issued a fatwa encouraging his followers that it is "permissible and recommended" to join the protests. "Toppling the Egyptian regime is a task that is greater than the capabilities of the jihadi organizations, and therefore should the demonstrators succeed to topple the regime that would be a great service to Islam and the Muslims," the ruling read.
Church leaders, meanwhile, warned Christians in Cairo not to join the demonstrations, but some did so anyway. Many are cautious and fearful of what regime change may bring. "If Mubarak is ousted, we are done. The Christian population will be annihilated," said an Egyptian pastor interviewed in Jordan. "Look what they did to us under Mubarak, imagine what they will do without him holding them back."
Another Egyptian living in Jordan said, "We are very, very afraid for our country. We want change, to be sure, but not chaos. This started well, but has descended into criminal activity, looting, wanton destruction, and there is no security. Lawless players who have no part in true reform are hijacking this unique chance to turn things around. Will an angry mob know how to run a country?"
On Saturday, with rioting well underway in Cairo, six of about 70 Christians wounded in a New Year's Eve church bomb blast in Alexandria were placed on a plane to Germany for further treatment, according to Compass Direct. The blast, carried out by a suicide bomber at the St. Mark's Coptic church, killed at least 22 (some remains are still unidentified or unclaimed). The latest to die of his injuries was Samuel Girgis, a Coptic Christian in his 30s who had been flown to a London hospital for treatment but died Jan. 21 after an infection from burns that covered more than half his body.
The tragedy illustrates the growing distrust that Christians and others feel toward the current regime. Egyptian authorities have claimed the bombing was the work of outside terrorist organizations-and pinned the Palestinian Army of Islam-but witnesses at the church believe it was the work of Egyptians. "Most of us believe it is something internal, not from anywhere outside," one woman at the church told Compass Direct, requesting anonymity. "And the government is trying to say it's from somewhere outside to show that our country is really stable and nothing is harming us from inside."