LONDON — The jubilation sweeping Cairo was met by a huge dose of relief in Europe and the United States and rising discomfort across the Middle East, where governments are living in fear of the “people power” movement that has claimed two Arab dictators in less than a month.
While ordinary people and politicians across the world have followed Egypt’s pro-democracy protests with a mixture of hope and awe, the Middle Eastern establishment was scrambling to find its footing after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation signaled a seismic shift in the old world order.
For those rulers’ subjects, it was a euphoric moment. In Tunisia, cries of joy and a thunderous honking of horns greeted the news that Mubarak had stepped down. The North African nation’s people-powered revolution had pushed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile on Jan. 14 and sparked the Egyptian protests.
In Beirut, fireworks erupted over the capital only moments after the Egypt’s Vice President Omar Suleiman made the announcement that Mubarak would hand over power to the military. Celebratory gunfire could be heard in some places.
“This is the popular demonstration that proves any leader can be toppled,” said Eugene Rogan, the director of the Middle East Center at St. Antony’s College in Oxford. “For all the other rulers in the region, it’s a very sobering moment.”
In South Africa, officials applauded the resignation — and noted that it happened exactly 21 years after Nelson Mandela’s historic release from prison.
“Of course one wants to be cautious about linking events, but one can’t escape the symbolic importance of this day and the release of Mandela and how that ushered in a new process for South Africa,” said Ayanda Ntsaluba, the director general of South Africa’s foreign affairs department. “Let’s hope this happy coincidence will also one day make the Egyptian people look back and say this indeed was the beginning of better times in Egypt.”
The sentiment was shared across Europe, whose leaders had increasingly pushed Mubarak to make a dramatic move to open up Egyptian society.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton praised the resilience of Egypt’s protesters and said that, by standing down, Mubarak “has listened to the voices of the Egyptian people and has opened the way to faster and deeper reforms.”
Edward McMillan-Scott, the European Parliament’s vice president for democracy and human rights, expressed hope that Egypt could assume a more benign role in the region — and expressed regret at the Western support that had enabled Mubarak to cling to power for so long.
“Mubarak’s tyranny was typical across the region and it is Europe’s shame that we sustained them,” he said.
Messages of support for the Egyptian people flooded social networking sites Facebook and Twitter. The words “Congrats Egypt” were among the micro-blogging sites’ most popular term.
In Washington, President Barack Obama learned of Mubarak’s resignation during an Oval Office meeting — but has yet to make any public comment.
Noureddine Mezni, spokesman for the chairman of the African Union commission, called Mubarak’s resignation “historic” and added he hoped Egypt would emerge “a stronger and more stable nation.”
But he could not say what steps the AU would take next as Egypt’s government changes power for the first time in 29 years.
“Maybe it is premature now to talk, but we are following closely,” he said. Egypt is a prominent member of the 53-nation organization and one of its larger financial contributors.