Protesters erupt in joy as President Hosni Mubarak stepped down Friday. (Michael Robinson Chavez…)
Reporting from Cairo — Less than 24 hours after a patronizing speech in which he insisted he wouldn't resign, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak fled his palace by helicopter and left it to his newly appointed vice president to tell the nation he had turned power over to the military.
The dramatic end to Mubarak's 30 years in power came after a day of widespread confusion over who really ruled Egypt, and massive demonstrations that spread far from Cairo's central Tahrir Square, the nerve center of the protests for more than two weeks.
More than 20,000 protesters gathered outside of state television headquarters, where they chatted amiably with soldiers on tanks. Thousands also walked from downtown to Mubarak's suburban palace, which was guarded not by the regular army but by the Republican Guard, thought to be fiercely loyal to Mubarak.
Violence erupted in the tense provincial cities of Assiut in Upper Egypt and Al Arish on the Mediterranean coast.
When the end came Friday evening, it touched off celebrations in the city named for Alexander the Great in the north, as well as the ancient Nubian kingdom in the south. Jubilant people poured out of homes and cars to the pop of fireworks, rhythmic blasts of car horns and chanting of crowds. Highways and overpasses became parking lots.
Well before the announcement by Vice President Omar Suleiman, tanks guarding the presidential palace had turned their big guns away from the protesters.
While it was unclear exactly why, the action was a harbinger of a momentous event.
The army's reluctance, if not outright refusal, to use force against protesters made the announcement that a council of top officers was taking power welcome to opposition leaders and people in the streets.
Mohamed ElBaradei, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work at the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency, called Friday "the best day of my life." After he stepped down as head of the IAEA, ElBaradei had returned home last year to take part in the opposition to Mubarak, and when protests exploded on the streets of Cairo in late January, he was among those tear-gassed and doused by water cannons.
Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who helped launch the protests with an online campaign, cried and hugged his mother. "I trust 80 million Egyptians" to run Egypt, he said.
The Muslim Brotherhood, an opposition group decades older than the Mubarak government, also welcomed the announcement, even though it has a contentious relationship with the military.
Youth activists including Ghonim met with Hossam Badrawi, head of the ruling National Democratic Party, and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik on Thursday, and had reached an agreement for Mubarak to delegate his authority to Suleiman, guarantee free and fair elections, and institute constitutional reforms, according to Khalid Baramawy, editor of a news website popular with young people. In return, they promised they would end their protests, according to one participant in the talks.
But then, with crowds swelling the streets Thursday night in anticipation of Mubarak's departure, his rambling and defiant speech left people unsure what had happened. Though Mubarak said he was handing powers to Suleiman, he refused to step down before his term expired in September, and said the government would continue working on reforms until then.
Things changed quickly on Friday. Mubarak left the palace for his home on the Red Sea. And shortly afterward, Suleiman announced that the president had asked the military council to "administer the affairs of the country."
Unconfirmed reports said the military would disband the Cabinet and dissolve parliament, elected just months ago in elections that were widely regarded as unfair.
A military spokesman later appeared on state television to read a statement saying that "the military council is studying procedures to achieve the hopes of the people," an apparent reference to free elections, which, along with Mubarak's departure, had been a key demand of the protesters.
He promised that the council, headed by Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, would issue another statement later. But there were no details on how the military would rule a country governed by former generals in civilian clothes since a military coup in 1952.
The spokesman physically saluted the "martyrs" killed by police at the beginning of the protests and thanked Mubarak for "putting the country's interests ahead of any personal interests."
"We are aware of the greatness of this matter and we seek God's help," the spokesman said.
Times staff writer Ned Parker and Amro Hassan of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.