CAIRO, Egypt — Hundreds of thousands of protesters in Cairo erupted in celebration Friday after the country's new vice president, Omar Suleiman, announced on state television that Hosni Mubarak, after more than three decades in power, had finally stepped down.
Protesters dropped to their knees and chanted, "Egypt is free! Egypt is free!"
In Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protest movement that has persisted for 18 days straight, there was a sense of relief after an uncertain few days.
“I can smell freedom for the first time in my life,” said Mohamed Qorny, 46, who, along with everyone else in the square, was hysterical, jumping and screaming in joy.
The announcement came not long after the military turned the turrets of its tanks away from protesters that had amassed in front of the presidential palace. Suleiman, who had been named vice president by Mubarak last week, said the military would assume power.
A military source told Reuters that Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the defense minister and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, was the head of the Higher Military Council that has taken control in Egypt. It was unclear what role Suleiman would play in any future transition.
In response, the crowds chanted, “The army and the people are one.”
Demonstrators have long said they wanted not only the removal of Mubarak, but the entire regime.
Anti-government protesters flooded Tahrir Square early on Friday, frustrated a day after Mubarak defiantly announced that he would transfer his power to Suleiman, who is also his close confidant, but would not resign.
The protests quickly turned into the largest since they first began on Jan. 25. And for the first time they spread outside Tahrir Square to the presidential palace and the headquarters of the state television. Protests also reportedly erupted in the northern city of Alexandria.
Throughout the day, army soldiers and commanders began to mingle with the protesters, pointing to the dramatic change that would soon take place. Officials said before the announcement Friday that Mubarak had left Cairo and was said to be staying in the coastal tourist town of Sharm el-Sheikh.
The rumors that Mubarak would possibly announce his resignation began earlier Thursday afternoon when a senior Egyptian military official said to protesters through local media that, “All your demands will be met today.”
The rumor quickly gained steam around the world as international news organizations picked up on the story. NBC reported that two independent sources had confirmed that Mubarak would step down and that Suleiman would take over. CNN reported that CIA Director Leon Panetta also expected Mubarak to resign Thursday.
But in his defiant speech Thursday night, Mubarak caused widespread confusion with a rambling speech in which he talked about arcane laws, appearing completely out of touch with the demands of his people.
Robin Wright, a distinguished scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace Wilson Center who has interviewed Mubarak several times, said Thursday that Mubarak's speech appeared to be a last, desperate attempt to save face.
"It was out of touch, and it’s one of the vainest political acts I’ve witnessed in my lifetime,” she said. “This is a man who is so self-absorbed that he’s not ready to recognize what has become incredibly clear over the last 17 days — that his reign is finished.”
Protesters, old and young, were hugging and crying Friday night as they celebrated their hard fought victory.
Om Alaa, 52, whose son died during clashes with the state security forces in late January, was dancing in the street.
“I feel such happiness that I can’t even describe,” she said. “My son was murdered just before his marriage and now I feel his blood didn’t go in vain.”
Demonstrators waved large Egyptian flags and several Tunisian flags. Egypt’s revolution was partly inspired by the uprising in Tunisia that forced out President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali after his 23-year reign.
A group of about 15 men stood on top of a burned out van that once belonged to the country’s feared security forces in a symbolic scene that demonstrated just how far the protesters had come since the first few days of demonstrations when police violently cracked down on the movement.
Protesters have long made it clear, however, that nothing short of a Western-style democracy would satisfy them, demanding the departure of the prime minister, the parliament, the president, vice president and refusing any system led by the military.
“We don’t want an army-led regime,” the crowd chanted at one point on Thursday.