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2011-01-28

Uprising in Egypt: "This is the Biggest Political Challenge the Regime Has Yet to See from the Streets"

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Protests have erupted across Egypt again today with the largest and most widespread anti-government demonstrations seen so far. In an unprecedented display of popular protest, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators are gathering in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Mansoura, Sharqiya and elsewhere. Intense confrontations are taking place with state security forces. The protests come amid a vast security clampdown. Earlier, the government blocked the internet, mobile phone and SMS services, with the hope of disrupting demonstration planning. We go to Cairo to speak with Ahmad Shokr, an editor at the Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

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

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman. I’m in Park City, Utah, joined by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who is co-hosting from New York with the latest news from the mass protests taking place right now in Egypt.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Thank you, Amy.

Protests have erupted across Egypt today in the biggest day of anti-government demonstrations so far. In an unprecedented display of popular protest, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators are gathering in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Mansoura, Sharqiya and elsewhere.

Intense confrontations are taking place with state security forces. Police are firing tear gas into the crowds and have begun to round people up on the streets. A number of journalists have also reportedly been arrested, including some who have been badly beaten.

There are also reports that Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace laureate and former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, has been arrested in Cairo.

The protests come amid a vast security clampdown in Egypt. Earlier, the government blocked internet, mobile phone and SMS services. Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Cairo said the government had effectively wiped the country off the global digital map. The Associated Press reports that elite special operations forces have been deployed to key locations around Cairo, and Egypt’s interior minister has warned of "decisive measures." Arabic wire news services have also reported that 1,000 activists were arrested last night, and 149 have been charged with attempting to overthrow the government. Egyptian authorities have also arrested 20 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including two of its most senior members.

For the past three days, cities across Egypt have witnessed unprecedented protests against the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak. At least seven people have died and up to 1,200 have been arrested since the protests began. Human Rights Watch said Egyptian police have escalated the use of force against largely peaceful demonstrations, calling it, quote, "wholly unacceptable and disproportionate."

We go now to Cairo, where we’re joined on the line by Ahmad Shokr. He’s an editor at the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm. It’s very difficult to get through to Cairo right now. He’s joining us from a hotel in downtown Cairo near Tahrir Square.

Ahmad Shokr, thank you for joining us. Can you describe what is happening right now in Cairo?

AHMAD SHOKR: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

Well, the scenes right now are quite remarkable. Literally, tens of thousands are taking to the streets amidst a huge security presence. I’m standing in front of a demonstration of at least a few thousand people who have taken over one of the main bridges in Cairo, calling for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. They have raised their hands, stating that they’re peaceful protesters, but have been met by a shower of rubber bullets and tear gas.

This is the scene in many different parts of the capital today, and this is happening in several Egyptian cities, as we speak. There were major demonstrations planned to take place after Friday noon prayers today. And most major mosques in Cairo have been shut down by the government. Tahrir Square, which was the site of a very large demonstration on Tuesday of about 15,000 people, has been completely blocked off by security forces.

Egyptians woke up today to find that their internet and mobile and SMS services have been blocked, as well. And so, Egypt is effectively disconnected from the digital world right now, in an attempt by the government to prevent communication about the protests. Vodafone, one of the three mobile service companies in Egypt, has reportedly confirmed that this was done under orders of Egyptian authorities.

And so, protesters are, like I said, now all over the country on the streets. They’re being violently dispersed with tear gas, and they’re facing off with thousands of Central Security police. There’s reports that journalists have been attacked. Al Jazeera has reported an attack on one of its own journalists. A BBC correspondent apparently has been injured.

Reform advocate Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has reportedly been surrounded at a mosque, where he intended to pray and then lead a march afterwards. There were reports earlier that he has been arrested, but as far as I understand right now, he has just been surrounded by security and prevented from — of course, Baradei has been encouraging people to take to the streets. I an interview with The Guardian yesterday, he stated that the regime is on its last legs — again, very, very strong words from the reform advocate, stronger than we’ve heard from him in the past few months.

So, the country is really in a state of upheaval amidst a massive security clampdown. And this is incredibly significant because these are the largest mass rallies that have happened in Egypt over the course of Mubarak’s 30-year rule. This is definitely the largest, the biggest political challenge that the regime has yet to see from the streets.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahmad Shokr, I wanted to ask you about reports that CNN — well, listening to Ben Wedeman, he said his own camera was taken, was cracked by Egyptian forces, also possibly that as many as 20 people were killed in Suez. What reports do you have, and what is the significance of Suez in this mass protest in Egypt?

AHMAD SHOKR: There have been violent clashes happening in Suez, perhaps more than any other city in the country for the past two days. The last reports I heard were that, I believe, five or six people had been killed, though it’s been very difficult to get information today because of the clampdown on mobile phones and internet. So I don’t know what the latest is out of Suez, but there definitely have been serious clashes happening in Suez for the past two days.

And like I said, the response of the security has really been quite violent. I think on Tuesday, when the demonstrations started, there were a few hours of leniency in the beginning, perhaps to gauge how big these demonstrations actually would be and whether the tremendous amount of support that they received on Facebook would actually translate into bodies on the streets. But since Wednesday night, the response has been very violent. Police have been using tear gas and rubber bullets as a first resort. Many people that I know personally have been beaten, have been detained. Over a thousand people have been detained. Journalists are being attacked. International organizations like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have condemned what is going on. The Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned what is going on. And so, the situation right now is really quite violent.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Ahmad Shokr, there were reports on Arabic wire news services that the Egyptian forces had deployed special elite operations forces across key locations in Cairo and elsewhere and also that people were rounded up last night, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood. What have you heard?

AHMAD SHOKR: Again, I’ve heard those same reports. It’s difficult to get a very accurate sense of what’s going on, again, because of the blockage of information. But I have certainly heard that leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood, which is effectively a banned political — banned, but tolerated, political organization in Egypt, which announced it would fully support the protests today. There are reports that their key leaders have been arrested in different parts of the country.

And, I mean, the security presence right now in Cairo, where I am, is quite massive. There appear to be Central Security, and there does appear to be special forces, as well, although, like I said, it’s difficult to confirm these reports. And as I’m speaking, there is actually a very violent clash that’s happening right now between the protesters on the bridge, who are being showered with tear gas canisters — I mean, literally, looking out onto the city, you know, what one sees are just the clamoring protests all over different parts of the downtown core, covered with clouds and clouds of tear gas and black smoke.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahmad Shokr, can you explain what people in the streets, what are they calling for exactly?

AHMAD SHOKR: Well, I mean, there’s a variety of grievances that are being expressed in these protests. You know, people are fed up about a lot of things. People are fed up about the emergency law, the state of emergency that has prevailed in Egypt for the past 30 years. They’re fed up with corruption. They’re fed up with unemployment and with the deteriorating economic situation of the country. You know, people — there’s been a movement in Egypt for the past couple of years to demand a national minimum wage, which currently sits at a pathetic 35 pounds a month, which is roughly the equivalent of seven or eight U.S. dollars. So there’s a variety of grievances that are being brought to the streets. But gauging by people’s chants and conversations with people on the street, the unifying — the unifying demand, the common demand that’s being articulated right now, is that people want the regime ousted. I mean, that’s sort of become the slogan of these protests over the past few days that people have been chanting over and over, that they want the regime ousted. They are fed up, and they want a new government.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Ahmad Shokr, what’s very interesting also is that these protests are largely leaderless. Can you explain who is organizing the protests, why it began on January 25th, which is National Police Day, and who is really at the forefront of what’s going on? Who are the people in the streets?

AHMAD SHOKR: Well, the people who initiated the protest call are largely a group of youth activists that have been organizing through social media, mostly through Facebook. They started a Facebook page to call for this demonstration, which immediately received just an outpouring of support. Tens of thousands of people signed up and expressed support for the demonstration, inspired largely by the events of Tunisia a few weeks ago. So this was a youth-led spontaneous movement that’s being fueled by the anger of young people across Egypt at all of the things that I listed before.

But what we’re seeing right now is very interesting. We’re seeing all kinds of different groups coming out. We’re seeing workers. We’re seeing opposition political parties, who had at first been reluctant to support these protests, coming out in full force. And so, I think what we’re witnessing is a transformation from what started as a youth-led movement, a movement of Egyptian young people demanding change, to a popular uprising.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahmad Shokr, describe the access people have to each other. Of course, you have just the mass protests in the streets, but the whole issue of Facebook and, well, social media altogether, Twitter. The internet itself is down, and yet there is a part of an internal system that can’t be taken down, or the regime will be taking down the banks, altogether.

AHMAD SHOKR: Yes. The internet has been completely down as of last night. The state has been interfering with access to both Facebook and Twitter for the past three days. And protesters have been finding ways to get around internet blockage, through using proxies and things like that. But today, I imagine, it’s very difficult to access the internet. I mean, it’s been completely shut down around the country. I think there’s a handful of providers that are still operating. But most people do not have access to internet, do not have access to cell phones or text messaging. I believe the only channel of communication are in fact land lines. But much of what’s happening on the streets right now has been planned for the past few days. People — many people intended to join protests after Friday prayers. And I also think there’s a lot of spontaneity that’s fueling this. It really is a spontaneous mass revolt that we’re seeing on the streets right now.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Ahmad, what effect has the uprising in Tunisia that led to the ouster of President Ben Ali had on protests in Egypt?

AHMAD SHOKR: Well, I think it’s left people really inspired. And it’s — you know, many people, for the first time, believe that revolution is possible, that political change from the street is something that can happen. You know, of course, there’s many differences between Egypt and Tunisia, differences in the composition of the respective societies, of the regimes. Of course, the military and security forces in Egypt are much larger and much better equipped and better funded than they were in Tunisia. So, of course, there are differences, and a replication of Tunisian-style events in Egypt is still a question. But there’s no doubt that people have definitely been incredibly inspired. I mean, people that I know personally, who just a few weeks ago would have never thought to set foot in a demonstration, who were, for the most part, completely depoliticized, are taking to the streets, are fired up and believe that being on the streets and calling for change can actually do something, can actually make a difference right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahmad, I’ve got two questions. I’d like you to end by once again describing what you’re seeing as you overlook Tahrir Square and to talk about the significance of the square. But first, the role of the United States in shoring up the Mubarak regime. This is the place President Obama chose to give his address to the Muslim world, in Cairo. Egypt is the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid, well over $2 billion a year. How do Egyptians see the United States? And has Mubarak said anything at this point?

AHMAD SHOKR: Well, I mean, like you said, Amy, the United States has long been a chief supporter of Egypt, financially, politically, militarily. And then they really see Egypt as central to their interests in the region and to preserving the status quo and stability, using their language, in the Middle East. And, you know, most Egyptians on the streets are well aware of this, are well aware that the authoritarian regime that they live under is propped up by the government of the United States, and are, I mean, obviously not happy about that.

Now, Secretary of State Clinton made a statement a couple of days ago about reform in Egypt being imperative, about the immediate need for the Mubarak regime to undertake reforms and the need to refrain from violent confrontations with protesters. But unfortunately, what we’re seeing on the streets of Cairo right now — again, right before me — is the complete opposite. We see a violent, violent dispersal of protesters, who are marching in the streets, who are telling riot police that they want to march peacefully, and they’ve been completely blocked off from getting to Tahrir Square, which is the central square of Cairo.

Now, just to clarify, I’m actually not looking at Tahrir Square right now. I’m looking at one of the main bridges in Cairo that leads into the square. So, the square is completely covered with Central Security forces, and they’re blocking any demonstrators from trying to get there, which is what these people on the bridge are trying to do. And as I speak, the clashes are still going on. There’s tear gas canisters being fired. The tear gas has covered the whole area. And it’s still going on in front of me right now.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Finally, Ahmad, we know that there’s state security forces on the streets, the infamous baltaguia, who are, you know, the thugs, paid thugs, that the government pays to beat people up on the streets. Has there been any sign of military on the streets of Cairo or elsewhere?

AHMAD SHOKR: I have not seen any signs of military presence, nor have I heard reports. Again, given all the constraints of getting information under these circumstances, I haven’t heard any reports of the military being deployed onto the streets. But there are thousands of Central Security forces, and I’m sure many, many plainclothes —- plain-clothed thugs that are ready to be deployed -—

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Ahmad Shokr, thank you very much —

AHMAD SHOKR: — and who have been deployed for the past three days to beat up protesters.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Ahmad Shokr, thank you very much for being with us. Ahmad is an editor at the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, joining us from Cairo. Very difficult to get reports from Cairo right now. We’re going to go to break. When we come back, we’ll speak with University of Michigan professor Juan Cole. Stay with us.

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