Public order in Egypt - the watchword and raison d'être of Hosni Mubarak - is crumbling, after a day of mass protest and a night of defiance of a national curfew. The protesters' grievances have focused on Mr. Mubarak, and they will not go away with the sacrifice of his hand-picked Prime Minister. However it organizes itself in this volatile time, the regime needs to respond with an end to the emergency law and with greater freedom, including truly democratic reforms.
The abdication of leadership was shameful and total. Ludicrously, Mr. Mubarak took credit for the protests, saying the freedoms he allowed made them possible, despite laws that prohibit such assembly, and a record of suppression of organized political parties demonstrated as recently as this November's parliamentary elections. He presented himself as a pharaoh figure, as the only possible, legitimate ruler of Egypt, standing above the unseemly conduct of his government. He proposed no new meaningful reforms or plans for a democratic succession.
Mr. Mubarak is apparently counting on an old assumption - that Egyptians are fundamentally passive, bowing to unchallenged authority if that authority can buy quiescence by keeping prices low for such staples as food and gas. Surely events have proved such a posture inadvisable.
These protests were different from the proto-democratic movements of Egypt's recent past, which rarely registered more than a thousand protesters. The turnout on Friday was in the tens of thousands. Women joined in surprising numbers. It will be a great challenge for any regime to completely bottle up the popular sentiment - both frustration and hope - that has been unleashed.
Egypt matters because it is the Arab world's largest country, its cultural and geopolitical heart, and an essential bulwark that allows for Israel's continued peaceful existence and for a taming of radical Islamism. Not only do its people deserve a peaceful, orderly transition to democracy; its allies must insist on it. And if Tunisians help to inspire the Egyptians, Egyptians could provide an incalculable inspiration to the rest of the Arab world.
There are many minefields ahead, as opportunistic radicals and religious hardliners will seek to tap into these largely leaderless movements for illiberal purposes.
Egyptians, however, are already showing a patriotic resilience. According to reports last night, the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party were torched and ransacked. But the nearby Museum of Egyptian Antiquities was surrounded by protesters, as they sought to protect its contents.