Mubarak falls as a million Egyptians march

CAIRO, Feb 12 (AFP) – Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak stepped down after 30 years, handing power to the military after more than a million people took to the streets at the culmination of an 18-day uprising.

A grim-faced and ashen Vice President Omar Suleiman announced the handover on state television Friday after an extraordinary national outpouring of rage brought vast crowds into the streets across the country in the Arab world's most populous country.

"President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak has decided to leave the post of president of the republic and has tasked the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to manage the state's affairs," Suleiman said.

AFP - Egyptian anti-government protesters celebrate at Tahrir Square in Cairo.

News of the regime's collapse spread rapidly across Cairo, sparking an eruption of joy and joyous chants of "We the people have overthrown the regime!"

In Washington, US President Barack Obama said the people of Egypt had spoken after history moved at a "blinding pace."

China on Saturday said it hoped to see a swift return to stability in Egypt.

"China hopes that the latest development of the situation helps Egypt with the restoration of national stability and public order as soon as possible," spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said.

The new man in charge is Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, chairman of the military council and a 75-year-old veteran who has always been considered a close Mubarak ally.

The statement appeared to bring an end to constitutional rule in Egypt and invest power in a group of generals representing a military that has long been the power behind the throne in the country.

Earlier, 82-year-old Mubarak flew from Cairo to his Red Sea holiday retreat at Sharm el-Sheikh, his ruling party said.

As news spread, cries of "Allahu Akbar" -- God is greatest -- and howls of victory rang out across the capital, firecrackers exploded, dancing broke out and women ululated their joy.

"By stepping down, president Mubarak responded to the Egyptian peoples' hunger for change," Obama said.

Egypt's powerful Islamist opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood hailed Mubarak's resignation and thanked the army.

"We salute the great people of Egypt in their battle," Essam el-Erian, a senior Brotherhood leader and spokesman, told AFP. "We salute the army, which kept its promises."

In Tahrir Square several protesters fainted with the emotion of the moment following two weeks of protest.

The plaza has become a focal point of the revolt since protesters occupied it in late January. Earlier Friday it was thronged by hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who prayed and chanted abuse at Mubarak.

Outside the main presidential palace in the Heliopolis neighbourhood, protesters shouted "God is greatest" as they hugged one another or danced. Some collapsed, overcome with emotion.

Arab League chief Amr Mussa, who last week joined the crowds in Tahrir Square, hailed his fellow Egyptians and the army for their "historic achievement."

Elsewhere in Cairo, there were celebratory gunshots, fireworks and the rhythmic car horns usually reserved for weddings.

On Thursday night, hundreds of thousands had crowded into Tahrir Square to hear Mubarak announce he was stepping down as president.

Instead, he delegated some of his powers to his ally and Egypt's former intelligence supremo, Omar Suleiman, while vowing to stay in office until September. In the end however, it proved to be his last speech as president.

Israel, fearful the uprising might open the door to a hostile Islamist regime in Cairo, said Friday it hoped the transition of power in Egypt would happen "smoothly," a government official told AFP.

The official stressed the need to preserve the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, signed two years before Mubarak came to power.

The White House also called on the new authorities in Egypt to honour existing peace agreements with Israel.

Hamas hailed Mubarak's resignation as "the start of the victory of the Egyptian revolution" as thousands of Palestinians celebrated in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank.

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