By Ernesto Londono
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 11, 2011; 9:29 PM
CAIRO - For nearly six decades, the Egyptian armed forces have propped up every one of the nation's autocratic leaders. But Friday, when the military announced it was taking over the government, pro-democracy demonstrators cheered.
The jubilation was rooted in a hope that the military intends to do what it says it will do: facilitate a transition to democratic rule.
Despite the military's long-standing support for President Hosni Mubarak, it pushed him aside Friday, and a military spokesman assured demonstrators that the people's wishes would soon be fulfilled.
Many Egyptians who clamored for regime change over the past 18 days said Friday that the military has been among the country's least-corrupt institutions, and they lauded the restraint with which commanders handled the recent unrest.
"The military statement is great," Google executive Wael Ghonim, who became the reluctant face of a leaderless movement, said in a Twitter message. "I trust our Egyptian Army."
Military leaders said they would soon outline details of their transition plan, but many questions remained unanswered Friday. It was not clear how long the military will remain in charge or what measures it would take to restore order after a bloody and tumultuous popular uprising.
Military chiefs have said fair elections will be held as soon as possible. They have also promised to repeal the emergency law that that has been used for decades to suppress government critics.
Many within Egypt's senior officers corps have completed training programs at the National Defense University in Washington. The Obama administration and congressional leaders hope that fact may help keep lines of communication open between the Egyptian and U.S. militaries and give the Egyptian officers a democratic grounding to draw on during the transition. One senior administration official described NDU as "a revolving door" for the Egyptian military leadership.
Despite the prevailing mood of euphoria Friday in Cairo, some Egyptians expressed concerns.
"These are the generals who have been the backbone of Mubarak's dictatorship for the past 30 years," Hossam el-Hamalawy, a popular activist and blogger, said Friday night. He said demonstrators must continue protesting until a truly democratic government is elected.
Sylvia Maier, a political science professor at New York University, said it is unlikely that the military will attempt to stay in power. But she said the military's deep involvement in the Egyptian economy could prove problematic as Mubarak loyalists are weaned from authority. "The crucial economic reforms to reduce poverty, corruption and high unemployment may get shelved," she said. "Since the protests were in part fueled by frustration against this unjust economic order, the military needs to find a way to address these concerns pronto."
On Friday, as it became clear the military was taking charge, protesters pouring into downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square expressed confidence in an institution that has been revered even when the civilian government was despised.
Hassan Abu Baqr, 33, a university professor, wept as he approached a soldier guarding one of the entrances to Tahrir Square just after the news of Mubarak's departure was announced. "The soldiers are our brothers," he said.
The Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which gathers only under extraordinary circumstances, held a meeting Thursday, after which its leaders suggested Mubarak would step down. It was the third such meeting in the body's history.
The president, 82, appeared to resist the military chiefs' efforts to force him out. In a defiant speech broadcast late Thursday, he agreed to cede some powers to his handpicked vice president, Omar Suleiman, but made it clear he did not intend to leave office.
His intransigence enraged protesters, putting the military in a difficult predicament, stuck between the demands of the demonstrators and a president determined to cling to power.
"Where is the Egyptian military?" some protesters chanted angrily Thursday night, reacting to the president's speech.
On Friday, the military answered by shoving Mubarak aside.
Abdallah al-Ashaal, a former deputy foreign minister, said Mubarak had limited military leaders' authority in recent years in an effort to keep potential rivals at bay. "Now the army feels exactly the same way we feel now," Ashaal said. "They feel the sense of emancipation."
Mubarak and his two immediate predecessors - Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser - are all former military officers.
Mubarak's ties to the military run deep. An air force pilot, he rose to become commander of the air force and assumed the presidency when Sadat was assassinated in 1981 during an annual military parade.
Mubarak is the first long-serving Egyptian president to leave office alive. On Thursday night, a protester at Tahrir Square scrawled a joke on a placard, imagining a reunion among Mubarak, Nasser and Sadat in heaven.
When the two deceased rulers met Mubarak, the joke went, they asked him: "Was it poison, or did it happen on a stage?"
Neither, Mubarak responded. "Facebook."
Correspondent Leila Fadel in Cairo and staff writer Scott Wilson in Washington contributed to this report.