DUSHANBE, February 12, 2011, Asia-Plus – Hosni Mubarak stepped down as leader on Friday, after 18 days of widespread anti-government demonstrations.  The country is now in the hands of the high command of the armed forces, headed by the defense minister, BBC reported on February 12.

Shortly before the announcement of his resignation, Mr. Mubarak left Cairo for the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where he has a residence.

The anti-government protests that began on 25 January were triggered by widespread unrest in Egypt over unemployment, poverty and corruption.

Announcing Mr. Mubarak''s resignation on Friday, Vice-President Omar Suleiman said the president had handed power to the army.

Mr. Suleiman said on state TV that the high command of the armed forces had taken over, a body composed of high-ranking generals and headed by Defence Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

"During these very difficult circumstances Egypt is going through, President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down from the office of president of the republic and has charged the high council of the armed forces to administer the affairs of the country," he said.

BBC says that after Mubarak''s resignation, a military spokesman appeared on state TV and promised the army would not act as a substitute to a "legitimate government acceptable to the people."

He said the military was preparing the next steps needed to achieve the ambitions of "our great nation" and would announce them soon.

Demonstrators in central Cairo celebrated the departure of Mr. Mubarak through the night and into Saturday morning, dancing, chanting slogans and singing songs.  In Tahrir Square the news was greeted with jubilation by a crowd of tens of thousands.  A huge poster hanging in the square read, "Breaking news: The people have brought down the regime."

The celebrations continued in other cities, with hundreds of protesters in Alexandria waving flags, whistling and dancing.

Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei described it as "the greatest day of my life."

President Obama described the Egyptian people as an inspiration to the world for carrying out a non-violent revolution, adding: "Egypt will never be the same again."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Saturday called for swift democratic change in Egypt, Russia’s news agency, RIA Novosti, reports.  "Russia hopes that democratic procedures in Egypt will be restored in full and that all legitimate electoral procedures will be used to that end," Medvedev said in statement.  Moscow hopes the changes will be nonviolent, Russian Foreign Ministry said earlier on Saturday.

A senior Israeli official expressed the hope that Mr. Mubarak''s departure would "bring no change to its peaceful relations with Cairo," BBC said.

An official Chinese newspaper however has warned in an editorial that the situation could become "nightmarish" if stability is not restored.  "Social stability should be of overriding importance. Any political changes will be meaningless if the country falls prey to chaos in the end," the China Daily newspaper said.

According to BBC, Mr. Mubarak''s departure was greeted with jubilation throughout the Middle East and North Africa, including in Tunisia, where people overthrew their own president last month.