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2011-01-27

Guardian Reporter Jack Shenker on Egypt Protests: "Fear Barrier Seems to Have Been Broken"

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Unprecedented protests in Egypt continue for a second day. On Wednesday, demonstrators defied a government ban on gatherings and took to streets in the biggest popular protests against President Hosni Mubarak in three decades. We go to Cairo to speak with Guardian reporter Jack Shenker. "That fear barrier seems to have been broken," Shenker says. "These are sort of middle-class people who are generally enjoying quite a comfortable standard of living... They’ve got a lot to lose, and yet they’re still being motivated to come out, to be beaten, to be hit by water cannons, to be carried off into the desert," he says. "There’s so much energy and so much momentum behind what’s going on ... I think we’ll still see a lot of people on the streets tomorrow." [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Guardian reporter Jack Shenker, who is with us on the telephone from Cairo.

We have just listened to very dramatic reporting, Jack, of your time Tuesday night when you were thrown into a van, not knowing where you would be, with scores of other people. Describe what happened after that and then, in these next few days, what has been taking place in the streets of Cairo.

JACK SHENKER: Hi, Amy.

Well, it was certainly a very dramatic — dramatic scene. After we were hauled into the truck, we were taken right out into the desert, and there was a lot of confusion, and everybody was very disorientated. And as you heard in the audio report, we also had a lot of injured people, people losing blood, and one man who had passed out into a diabetic coma. We actually managed to force our way out of the truck and escape into the street in the end. One of the people with us in the truck was the son of a very prominent political dissident here, and his relatives had shown up, and they helped secure our release. After that, we had to make our way back into the city. The police had already taken and have still got our wallets and mobiles, so we were obviously quite hampered in terms of being able to move around. But the important thing, I think, although it was a horrifying experience for me, was that this is very much not an exception but a rule when it comes to the way in which the Mubarak security apparatus is dealing with members of this uprising.

The kind of scenes we saw on Tuesday and again yesterday are really, really unprecedented. I’ve covered Cairo for The Guardian for a few years now, and I’ve been on dozens of protests, where you just see the same old faces, maybe 100 or 200 people, surrounded by twice as many riot police. And even though there’s a lot of latent hostility to the Mubarak regime among members of the Egyptian population, many people feel too intimidated, too scared to come out and confront the regime directly. And they also have too much to lose. You know, people — unemployment is very high. Prices are very high. People’s standard of living is — has taken a real battering. And people don’t want to risk what they’ve got for them and their families by going out and confronting the regime. That’s really been the status quo for the past few years. And yet, what we’ve seen on Tuesday and Wednesday is that that fear barrier seems to have been broken. I’ve spoken to so many people who — including people in the truck with me the other night, who are lawyers and bank analysts and software engineers. These are sort of middle-class people who are generally enjoying quite a comfortable standard of living; they’re not on the poverty line. They’ve got a lot to lose, and yet they’re still being motivated to come out, to be beaten, to be hit by water cannons, to be carried off into the desert. And that’s really a remarkable change from what we’ve seen over the past few years.

So I think the next few days are going to be very interesting. There are big protests planned for tomorrow. Today is slightly a lull in the storm, although there’s a lot of violence still going on in Suez, which is a big city to the east of Cairo. In the capital itself, though, today has been a bit quieter. Activists are preparing for tomorrow. After the afternoon prayers, there’s going to be a really big surge, and people are going to try and retake the streets and reoccupy the central square, which holds so much symbolic significance for the protesters, because they really — you know, Egyptians haven’t been in control of their own streets for decades now. The emergency law prohibits people organizing and rallying. And the fact that they took control of the central square on Tuesday has really emboldened people, and people obviously feel inspired by Tunisia, as well. So I think the next couple of days are going to be very, very interesting.

AMY GOODMAN: Jack Shenker, has there been much discussion of Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace laureate, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, for a while talked about as a presidential candidate, returning today from Vienna to Egypt to join in these massive protests?

JACK SHENKER: Yes. Well, perceptions of ElBaradei are quite mixed. As you probably know, when he arrived back in Egypt after a long absence early last year in 2010, he brought with him a huge wave of optimism. Here was an establishment figurehead who had the kind of credibility of being part of the Egyptian elite, and yet who was standing up and having the courage to stand up and point out all of the political and social and economic grievances which have been ailing Egyptians for so many decades. And there was a real feeling that momentum was going to build behind him and that he could put a lot of sustained pressure on the Mubarak regime.

In recent months, that has faded somewhat. There have been criticisms, rightly or wrongly, that ElBaradei has spent too much time out of the country, he hasn’t spent enough time on the streets with Egyptian protesters, where he could offer them protection through his fame. And there was a criticism, as well, because his initial response to these protests was quite lukewarm. He said that he didn’t want to see a Tunisia-style explosion on the streets of Cairo, and he would rather use existing avenues, including a petition, which he’s been — he’s collected almost one million signatures, for political reform. And obviously that doesn’t feel radical enough for a lot of the people who have been brought down to the streets in recent days.

Since the uprising began on Tuesday, he’s become a lot more vocal. And as you say, he’s flying back from Vienna. And from the activists I’ve spoken to, opinion is split between those who are angry at him and think that he’s trying to jump on the bandwagon much too late and sort of crash the party, as it were, and — but there’s also those who believe that actually his presence on the streets, if indeed he does come down to the streets, would be incredibly helpful, because he is a man with international recognition, he’s feted by Western capitals, including London and Washington, and quite simply, if he’s standing in the middle of Tahrir Square — that’s the central square in Cairo, which was occupied by demonstrators on Tuesday — then the police are going to have to think very, very hard about firing tear gas, firing water cannons, and pelting protesters with rocks, which is what happened on Tuesday. So, there’s a feeling that he could offer protesters a measure of protection, but also anger that he hasn’t been more involved and more vocal about what’s going on in the last few days.

AMY GOODMAN: Jack Shenker, has the president, has Hosni Mubarak, issued any statement? And also, what about the police crackdown on the streets?

JACK SHENKER: Well, President Mubarak has stayed uncharacteristically silent, and that’s become a real talking point in the last few days. There’s a feeling that he doesn’t want to bestow any kind of — any kind of legitimacy or credibility on the uprisings going on by stooping to discuss it. He’s trying to sort of stay above the fray, even though it’s very clear that, not just this government regime, but him personally, he is a personal target of many of the protesters. And, you know, what started as a demand for — specific demands — the resignation of the interior minister, an increase in the minimum wage, political reform — that has now changed. And I have spoken to dozens and dozens of protesters, all of whom say nothing less than President Mubarak standing down and leaving the country will be acceptable for them.

Whilst talking on the phone to you, actually, I’ve just been contacted by the Ministry of Information here, who say that the ruling NDP party are about to have a press conference around the corner, where Safwat El-Sherif, who’s a senior member of the ruling party, will be addressing reporters about the protests. So, that could be our first full official statement on what’s happening from the government. But we still haven’t heard anything from Mubarak himself.

As for the police crackdown on the streets, the last tally that I had was that between 800 and 900 protesters have been arrested. To be honest, it’s likely that the figure is much higher, because many people, as we were when we were taken away — we weren’t registered or processed. We were just beaten up and herded into a van and driven off. There was no formal, you know, registration or compiling of lists. So the official figure stands at close to 900. I’m sure that that will increase as the day goes on. And several hundred of those will — are being taken to a prosecutor’s office in Cairo today for the first stage of their interrogations. And there’s a big push by activists today to get lawyers down to them to help them through that.

But very much, security remains very high on the streets. There is an absolutely massive police presence on pretty much every street corner in downtown Cairo, both uniformed riot police and plain-clothed state security officers. And small groups of people, especially young men, are being targeted. People are being snatched off the streets. If it looks like they might be protesters, if it looks like they might be political activists, they are being targeted by the state security services to try and avoid anybody being in groups coalescing and rallies spontaneously breaking out. So, yeah, I imagine things will only intensify over the night. And certainly tomorrow afternoon, we’re going to see a very, very big presence of both protesters and police on the streets.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Jack Shenker, where is the Muslim Brotherhood in all of this, the largest opposition group to President Mubarak?

JACK SHENKER: Well, the Muslim Brotherhood has had quite a schizophrenic attitude toward these protests. They initially said they weren’t going to participate in them. This was the previous week before they started. Their Guidance Council announced that they would be having nothing to do with them, which provoked the anger of some of their younger members. There’s a real split within the Muslim Brotherhood between the older, more conservative members of the group, who believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is better off concentrating on social work and evangelism and strengthening the Islamic nature of Egyptian society and steering clear of politics, and they are very much at odds with a much younger generation of Muslim Brotherhood activists who want to confront the regime and who want to form alliances with liberals and secular activists and Coptic Christian groups, as well, to challenge the regime together. And after the Guidance Council said they wouldn’t be participating in the protests, they then had to issue a U-turn of sorts, which said that younger members or all Muslim Brotherhood member were welcome to participate in a personal capacity and that they would be doing some — they would be symbolically supporting the protests.

Now that things have really taken off, and, you know, we’ve seen this uprising in the streets, I think they’re reassessing their strategy. And they remain — despite the fact that the Western media often exaggerates their influence, they do remain the largest organized opposition force in Egypt and certainly the most — the organization with the most capability to bring large numbers of people onto the street. So, their response in the next few days is definitely going to be crucial to all of this. But to be honest, even if they don’t get involved on a formal level, I think there’s now so much energy and so much momentum behind what’s going on that I don’t think it will make much difference. I think that we’ll still see a lot of people on the streets tomorrow. And whatever happens over the next few days and the next few weeks, I think a really crucial fear barrier has been crossed in Egypt, and that’s going to have major consequences further down the line.

AMY GOODMAN: Jack Shenker, I want to thank you very much for joining us from Cairo, and I am glad you’re safe.

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