© Al-Jazeera screengrab

Crowds in Cairo Erupt Into Cheers: 'Egypt is Free'

Egypt's embattled President Hosni Mubarak abruptly stepped down as president, ending his 30-year-rein, and Egyptian armed forces will take over the leadership of the country, vice president Omar Suleiman announced today.

Crowds gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square erupted into loud cheers, chanting "Egypt is free," as the historic announcement was made.

"My fellow citizens. In this difficult time that the country is going through, the president Mohamed Hosni Mubarak has decided to relieve himself of his position as president and the Supreme military council has taken control of the state's affairs. May God protect us," Suleiman announced on national TV.

Mubarak left the presidential palace in Cairo earlier today as protesters kept the pressure on the government to force Mubarak out of office.

Sources tell ABC News that the 82-year-old president has gone to an estate he owns in Sharm el-Sheikh, a resort town on the Red Sea about 250 miles from the protests in Cairo. Mubarak told ABC News last week he may eventually retire to the resort town, but vowed never to leave Egypt.

A senior Egyptian official told ABC News Mubarak's departure from the palace was intended to be symbolic, as well a visual withdrawal from the political process after having handed over most of his authority to Vice President Omar Suleiman. But the move does not preclude him from returning or inhibit his ability to oversee constitutional amendments, the official said.

In a sign that the regime may be shaky, Hossam Badrawi -- who was appointed head of the ruling party just days ago -- announced that he will resign from his post. Badrawi was widely cited by news outlets on Thursday as saying that Mubarak would step down, reports that turned out be false.

The military earlier today announced on state television that the regime's much hated emergency law will be lifted when the security situation allows -- echoing Mubarak's statement from Thursday -- and encouraged protesters to leave the streets and return to their homes.

Egypt's controversial emergency laws have been in place since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1967 and give the government far-reaching powers at the expense of judicial review and civil liberties.

The army said it would make an important announcement soon.

But demonstrators were defiant, filling Tahrir Square for an 18th day to demand Mubarak's ouster. Thousands more marched toward the state television building, a prime new target for today's protests.

"It is important for the regime, not for the people, because they have been lying and spreading propaganda," one protester told ABC News, referring to the television building. "Once this building is down, the regime is down as well."

Others converged on the presidential palace, blocking roads leading up to the president's residence. The mood was largely peaceful and celebratory, yet determined, as soldiers and protesters cheered and waved at each other. There were no signs of pro-Mubarak demonstrators in the crowd, as had been the case earlier in the day.

The side streets around Tahrir, or Liberation, Square were packed as crowds streamed toward what has become the heart of these 18-day long anti-government demonstration. Instead of the rage felt Thursday night when Mubarak went on national television and said he would not leave office, there appeared to be a new energy and determination in the crowd.

The health ministry doubled the number of ambulances parked outside the square, and there was a mobile hospital present. But soldiers seemed relaxed, smiling at the crowds, and there was a collective commitment by protesters to keep the demonstrations non-violent.

Similar scenes played out in the port cities of Alexandria and Mansoura.

Wael Ghonim, a Google executive who has become the international face of protests since he was arrested by security forces in late Jan. 28, took to Al Arabiya television to speak for the demonstrators.

Saying the army should be the caretaker of the revolution, the 30-year-old said Egyptian people want true freedom of press and the right in establishing satellite channels and newspapers. He also demanded that Egyptians living abroad be given the right to vote, and that a transparent election be held in September.

The military is seemingly maintaining a neutral position, but also asking for people to return to normal life.

Though protesters are calling for Mubarak to resign from the presidency, there is no one opposition party poised to take over the reins of the country. And while several leaders -- including Nobel Laureate Muhammed ElBaradei and politician Ayman Nour -- have emerged in the spotlight, they don't have the kind of support base that is needed to take over the leadership. The fragmented Muslim Brotherhood also seems to be missing a viable leader that could win mass support.

The military isn't confronting protesters, but its statement today showed the country's most revered institution has put its support behind Mubarak.

The turmoil in Egypt, preceded by a similar uprising in Tunisia, has rocked the Arab world. Many are concerned about the government falling into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed group, and the outbreak of violence.

"The role of the rest of the world is to tell them honestly but behind closed doors on secure lines, 'We are ready to be there beside you if you move concretely and coherently toward change. We respect your need to avoid it falling into the hands of extremists. We understand that you need some time," Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak told ABC News Thursday.

The United States is keenly watching developments in Egypt, one of its closest partners and allies in the region.

Late Thursday, President Obama issued a stern written statement telling Mubarak he needs to do more to outline concrete steps for reform.

"The Egyptian people have been told that there was a transition of authority, but it is not yet clear that this transition is immediate, meaningful or sufficient," Obama said. "The Egyptian government must put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy, and they have not yet seized that opportunity."

Obama also pushed the Egyptian leadership to be clearer about its intentions and how it will address the demands of the Egyptian people.

"We therefore urge the Egyptian government to move swiftly to explain the changes that have been made, and to spell out in clear and unambiguous language the step-by-step process that will lead to democracy and the representative government that the Egyptian people seek," he said.

Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Tahrir Square Thursday expecting to hear Mubarak say he was leaving, but were disappointed when the president only said he was transferring more powers to Vice President Omar Suleiman.

In an address directed to the youth of Egypt, Mubarak said he was pained by the deaths that have occurred since protests began on Jan. 25.

"The blood of the martyrs and the injured will not go in vain," he said. "I will not hesitate to fiercely punish those who are responsible. I will hold those in charge who have violated the rights of our youth with the harshest punishment stipulated in the law."

The United Nations and Human Rights Watch estimates that 300 people have been killed in Egypt's protests.