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How Egyptians toppled Mubarak – and who will lead them now

A grass-roots revolution outmaneuvered Mubarak's powerful regime. But bringing real democratic reform to Egypt will be harder without clear leadership.

By Staff writer / February 12, 2011

A jubilant Egyptian carries a soldier in Tahrir Square, Cairo, on Saturday. Crowds returned to the square to celebrate the protests that toppled the Egyptian regime, but remained vigilant for the future.

Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Reuters

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Cairo

As a new era dawns in Cairo today, with the sounds of a stunning revolution still echoing across the region, Egyptians face a more sobering task: How to translate the momentum that brought down a regime into meaningful democratic reform.

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The unprecedented popular uprising that drove now-former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power after nearly 30 years succeeded in large part because it became a grass-roots movement that could not be contained, negotiated with, or controlled through a few leaders.

But now, there is no clear leadership to tell the protesters milling around Tahrir Square – the epicenter of the 18-day uprising – whether to go home or to stay, keeping pressure on the military as its supreme council decides the country's next steps.

Some Egyptians, filled with a new sense of freedom and pride in their country, have begun cleaning up Tahrir, which served as a home base for hundreds of thousands of Egyptians pressing for a new democratic order. Some of the protesters-turned-volunteers wore signs that said, "Sorry for the inconvenience, but we're building Egypt."

Just how they'll do that remains uncertain.

Unified by a cause, not a leader

Until now, the leaderless nature of the uprising has been its strength, allowing the cautious Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood to make common cause with socialists, Coptic Christians, and middle-class youths who know they want a freer Egypt but are uncertain of what ideology should drive them there.

Over nearly three weeks of protests, Egyptians of every stripe coalesced at Tahrir Square with a single unifying demand: Mubarak must go, now.

"They keep saying they don't have a single leader, and that's true," said Ahmed Baher Mansour earlier this week, as he demonstrated with others in the square. "Nobody has asked us to come [for anything] except for our freedom and our dignity."

They organized themselves into teams to guard the barricades and search for weapons among people joining the crowd. They set up field hospitals and water distribution stations. A group of volunteer engineers even poured cement for public toilets.

And on Friday, Feb. 11, in a display of steadfast, focused anger after Mr. Mubarak defiantly insisted that he would not step down, they busted out of the democracy ghetto of Tahrir Square.

Thousands marched near the presidential residence, previously a sacrosanct no-go zone, and tens of thousands converged on the radio and television building – the nerve center for state propaganda – leaving regime mouthpieces trapped and frightened inside.

In the face of such a display, Mubarak was forced to resign – less than 24 hours after adamantly refusing to do so.

The moment Vice President Omar Suleiman finished his brief announcement that Mubarak had resigned, Cairo erupted. People poured out of their homes, cars began honking wildly, and chants of "It's done! The people brought down the regime!" broke out in Tahrir Square, in front of the state radio and television building, and among protesters at Mubarak's official residence.

"It's like a dream," said Mohamed Aidarus, a mechanical engineer camped outside the presidential palace. "Whatever happens, we've shown that we can make our voice heard and that no government can do whatever they want to us again."

Five key figures in Egypt

Omar Suleiman: Appointed vice president by President Hosni Mubarak; announced Mr. Mubarak's resignation on Feb. 11. Former general and intelligence chief.

Mohamed Badei: Supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. Has sought to emphasize the group's traditional mission of religious and social outreach over practical politics.

Naguib Sawiris: Coptic Christian and Egypt's wealthiest businessman. Has ties to the Mubarak regime. Urged people to trust that the regime would carry out promised reforms and seemed to be trying to deflate protest movement prior to Mubarak's resignation.

Mohamed ElBaradei: Nobel laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Prominent "wise man" who sought to build a bridge between the protesters and the Mubarak regime.

Hussein Tantawi: General, deputy prime minister, and minister of Defense. First government member to visit Tahrir demonstrators. Although military he commands did not obviously back the protesters, it did not crack down, winning praise from activists.

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