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Mubarak's end came quickly, stunningly

A generation's pent-up anger proved the president's downfall. The Egyptian leader's maneuverings as the protests swelled proved no match for youth-based dissent that spread to all corners.

February 11, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • A woman in Tahrir Square weeps as the announcement is made that Mubarak is stepping down.
A woman in Tahrir Square weeps as the announcement is made that Mubarak is… (Chris Hondros, Getty Images )

Reporting from Cairo — 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.

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