The unprecedented popular uprising that drove Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power after nearly 30 years may have been kick-started by a few activists.
But it succeeded in large part because it became a grass-roots movement that could not be contained, negotiated with, or controlled through a few leaders.
Now the matter of leadership becomes much more pressing. In the weeks and months ahead, prominent forces in Egyptian society – from the military to ruling party members to prominent businessmen – will be seeking to massage events in their favor.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s best-organized opposition group, will certainly have a voice. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the UN nuclear watchdog who has become a prominent advocate for democratic reform, will be seeking one, too.
The protesters have been split over what comes next. Is Mr. Mubarak stepping down sufficient or is full regime change required? It is too early to tell whether the coming weeks will yield real democratic reform.
'It's like a dream'
On Friday, 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.
The moment Vice President Omar Suleiman finished his brief announcement that Mubarak 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 and among protesters in front of the state radio and television building as well as Mubarak’s official residence in Heliopolis.
“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.”
The military’s role shows that Mubarak's departure can't all be attributed to people power. The military's generally neutral stance to the protesters had been a de facto tilt in their direction, and the friendly attitude of soldiers in front of the TV building on Friday – they even allowed demonstrators to climb up on their tanks to shake hands and pose for snapshots – made the siege of the government symbol much easier.
Mustafa Kamel al-Sayed, a Cairo University political science professor, speaking shortly before Mubarak resigned, said: “There are already some divisions among the demonstrators. Some are saying, ‘Let us give the promise of reform a chance and trust the armed forces, who say they will guarantee reform.’ Others are saying, ‘No trust is left.’ If the process of reform doesn’t proceed positively and quickly, this could become very dangerous.”
Trust in the military to ensure democratic transition
President Obama and reformers like ElBaradei had been hoping for a managed transition in Egypt, fearful that Mubarak’s precipitous departure could lead to political chaos and the potential for a full military takeover.
That’s what happened today, but many in Egypt trust that the military will play a caretaker role and ensure a democratic transition. Everyone will soon find out if that trust is well placed.
The US has been in a difficult spot, with its close ties to Mubarak, its reliance on Egypt to advance regional goals like Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and its stated desire for democratic reform.
At the moment, Egypt’s revolution looks like it’s at the end of the beginning, to borrow from Winston Churchill. What comes next will depend on whether the demonstrators can continue to rally masses to their side and if men like Suleiman are willing to use force to avoid being swept away.