President Hosni Mubarak's decision to resign his office constitutes a momentous event in modern Egyptian history. After 18 days of nationwide mass protest, this dictator of 30 years' standing finally acted on the truth he had seemed incapable of seeing: his entire regime had lost all possible public assent, not to mention what little legitimacy it still possessed after years of rigged elections, rampant corruption, and savage torture. Mr. Mubarak's resignation was greeted with jubilation. In Cairo's Tahrir Square, Muslims and Coptic Christians prayed together, civilians embraced soldiers, and even some of the hated police found protesters willing to make friends with them. The outgoing government has handed over to the Supreme Military Council of the Armed Forces, headed by the Defence Minister, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi. The military have made several explicit promises: they guarantee “free and transparent” elections; they will end the 30-year-long state of emergency; they will ensure a peaceful transfer of power leading to a “free democratic society”; and they will not be a substitute for the “legitimate will of the people.”

The fact remains that Egypt has moved from dictatorship to martial law; many senior military officers were also part of the now-deposed power elite, with long records of corruption and suspect business links. Secondly, the United States may well have played a part in the replacement of Mr. Mubarak with a military government and not an elected one. The statements from Washington and other western capitals calling for stability amounted to support for a brutal regime, and the caution of their latest reactions stands in sharp contrast to their crowing triumphalism over the collapse of the Soviet bloc two decades ago. Thirdly, Israel, having backed the ousted President, has done no more than express the platitudinous hope that “peaceful” Israeli-Egyptian relations would continue. What cannot be denied, however, is that 80 million Egyptians have spoken. Their right to democracy cannot be annulled; nor can their demand for it be resisted. It is Egypt's neighbours who know that best. In Algeria, protesters are defying bans on rallies. In Yemen, the people have won the President's assurance that there will be no father-son handover. In Jordan, the King has appointed a new government with orders to introduce major reforms. Half a century ago and seven thousand kilometres south of Cairo, a leader of another time said the wind of change was blowing through Africa. Today, that wind is blowing through West Asia. Its consequences in the region, long known for foreign-supported and despotic rulers, cannot be predicted, but they will be of immense importance to the whole world.

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