By Sam Youngman - 02/11/11 08:32 PM EST
President Obama on Friday hailed the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as a moment for history, but warned of “difficult days ahead.”
“There are few moments in our lives where we have the privilege to witness history taking place,” Obama said. “This is one of those moments. This is one of those times.
Obama spoke a few hours after Cairo’s Tahrir Square erupted in celebration Friday at the news that Mubarak was leaving Cairo and giving up power. Obama was told of Mubarak’s decision during an Oval Office meeting, and he watched the scene in Tahrir Square on television.
Mubarak left Cairo earlier in the day for the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh on the Red Sea a day after making a defiant speech that left Washington and the throngs of protesters wondering whether he was really leaving.
Lawmakers in both parties celebrated the news, which follows weeks of protests against Mubarak’s government in Egypt.
At the same time, both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue offered cautious views on what is to come next in Egypt, one of only two Arab countries with peace deals with Israel.
Lawmakers this week urged the administration to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from taking power in Egypt, and there are also concerns that unrest could spread throughout the Middle East.
Obama, speaking in the White House Grand Foyer, acknowledged that there will be “difficult days ahead” and “many questions remain unanswered.”
“This is not the end of Egypt's transition,” the president said. “It's a beginning.”
Adressing concerns that the power vacuum in Egypt might be filled with anti-American actors, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said: "I don't think we have to fear democracy."
Gibbs acknowledged that administration officials were thrown off by Mubarak's feint toward resignation on Thursday, saying "I think everyone was surprised a bit yesterday."
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry (D-Mass.), said the United States "must help Egyptians turn this democratic moment into a process that builds a government responsive to economic needs as well as demands for freedom.”
Obama praised the non-violent efforts of the Egyptian protesters and the restraint of the military, and pressed the new regime to continue with a transition fully representative of the Egyptian people that would include “free and fair” elections for a new president.
The protesters made clear, Obama said, that “nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said representatives from Egypt’s opposition, including pro-democracy parties, must be included in the transition government.
Before any elections, he said, “Egyptians must be free to exercise their universal rights peacefully – to speak and express themselves without interference, including over the internet; to organize independent political parties; to register candidates of their choosing for office; and to participate in elections that are free and fair by international standards.”
This story was updated at 3:45 p.m.