WASHINGTON — Egypt's revolution, a secular, popular revolt that used nonviolent means to humble an entrenched autocrat, will remake the Middle East — and could mark the end of an era that began on 9/11, said U.S. officials, former officials and analysts here and in the Middle East.
If the Egyptian revolution delivers on its promise of a march toward democracy, it will have dealt a stunning blow to al-Qaida and other radical groups, whose propagandists argue that their way — violence and a puritan form of Islam — are the only way to save the Muslim world.
But if the most populous Arab state slips back into a new dictatorship or anarchy, extremists could find a new lease on life in an Arab population that polls show has largely rejected them.
“The Egyptian revolution could be a huge defeat or a huge victory for al-Qaida. It depends what happens,” said Kenneth Pollack, director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. If things turn out well, “It could destroy their narrative,” he said.
In the short term, the exit of 82-year-old Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak puts new pressure on other long-sitting rulers to reform.
“Reform or revolution. Reform or rebellion. Reform or the entire regime can collapse,” said Shafeeq Ghabra, a political science professor at Kuwait University.
Ghabra said Mubarak's removal will empower Arab nations' bulging youth populations to speak out. He spoke by phone Friday from Morocco, where he said many were cheering Mubarak's departure.
Nubar Hovsepian, an Egyptian-born political scientist at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., said the pro-democracy movements are a “repudiation first and foremost of authoritarianism, of the leader functioning without sanction from the people.” That model is what produced al-Qaida leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, he said.
For the Obama administration's Middle East policy, major change is in the offing, too. President Barack Obama, who has emphasized Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and Iran's nuclear program, will be forced to invest much more time and resources in democracy promotion and support for Egypt's uncertain transition.
Advocates say that Obama cut funding for democracy initiatives in Egypt and elsewhere, and gave too little attention to the matter after delivering a major speech in Cairo early in his presidency.
“The question mark is now ‘Are they going to get it?' ” Pollack said. “Let's not wait until the next revolution” to push for democracy, he said.
As Americans tried to figure out what might happen next, people in Cairo were euphoric. The resignation culminated protests that began Jan. 25. About 300 people were killed.
Friday night, Vice President Omar Suleiman delivered the short announcement on state TV that Mubarak was stepping down.
“In these grave circumstances that the country is passing through, President Hosni Mubarak has decided to leave his position as president of the republic,” he said. “He has mandated the Armed Forces Supreme Council to run the state. God is our protector and succor.”
Mubarak flew to his isolated palace in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, 250 miles from Cairo.
In Tahrir Square, epicenter of the extraordinary 18-day revolution, the news of Mubarak's resignation — a day after he had defiantly refused to quit — jolted the teeming throngs into pure delirium.
Protesters leaped into the air, kissed strangers, banged on barricades like steel drums, and fell to their knees in prayer.
“Egypt is free,” the revelers chanted. “The tyrant is gone.”
Somaia Shakier, grinned as her three toddlers waved flags. “It's like I can finally breathe fresh air for the first time,” she said.
Protest organizers said the demonstrators will be urged to go home. But not yet.
“We will celebrate seven days and seven nights,” promised Mohammed Abbas, a leader of the demonstrations. “We have suffered 30 years of humiliation and torture.”
Obama reacted to the news Friday with praise for the Egyptian people, especially its young.
“Egyptians have inspired us, and they've done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice is best gained through violence,” he said.
Paul Pillar, who was the U.S. intelligence community's top Middle East analyst until 2005, warned that Islamic extremist groups will seek to capitalize on any missteps or difficulties that Egypt encounters as they strive to implement the democratic reforms sought by the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets.
“There is no question that extremists will try to exploit the political flux in Egypt just as they would try to exploit them anywhere,” Pillar said. Still, he said, “I don't see them very well positioned to do that organizationally or in terms of the message they peddle.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times.