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Egypt army takes first steps toward democracy

February 12, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Following the resignation of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's ruling military outlined the first cautious steps in a promised transition to greater democracy.

The military pledged to eventually hand power to an elected civilian government and reassured allies that Egypt will abide by its peace treaty with Israel.

The military's statement Saturday had been eagerly awaited by the public and thousands of protesters still massed in Cairo's central Tahrir Square. The crowds were still riding high on jubiliation over the success in removing Mubarak on Friday after 18 days of unprecedented popular protests, but they were looking for a sign of the military's plans.

A military spokesman said the Armed Forces Supreme Council also asked the current government, which was appointed by Mubarak, will stay in office until a new one is named. This step appeared to be a stop-gap measure to keep the state and economy functioning while a transitional administration is set up.

The military also relaxed a nighttime curfew and banned current and former government officials from traveling abroad without permission.

For the United States, Mubarak's departure means a lot of questions. Egypt has long been a stalwart ally of decades in the volatile Middle East, and Mubarak was an anchor of stability at the helm of the world's largest Arab nation.

Mubarak enforced a peace treaty with Israel and protected vital U.S. interests, including passage for oil through the Suez Canal.

Speaking at the White House on Friday, President Barack Obama acknowledged difficult days ahead and unanswered questions but expressed confidence that the answers will be found.

Most tellingly, as the U.S. warily eyes the days ahead, Obama singled out the Egyptian military for praise in the restraint it showed through more than two weeks of largely peaceful protests. But the president emphasized the military's role as a "caretaker" leading up to elections now set for September and said it must now "ensure a transition that is credible in the eyes of the Egyptian people."

But just as the U.S. had limited influence during the uprising that seemed to spring almost out of nowhere to overtake Egypt, it has limited influence over what happens next. The U.S. provides some $1.5 billion a year in aid to Egypt, the vast majority of it to the military, and has a good relationship with the Egyptian military, which often sends officers here for training. That doesn't guarantee a commanding U.S. role.

Meantime, Mubarak's downfall is cause for celebration in many Arab communities across Southern California.

In Anaheim's Little Arabia community, many are planning a big rally at around noon on Saturday.

Friday night, residents were out in force waving the Egyptian flag and touting signs and placards as they celebrated Mubarak's ouster.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.