senior producer, Democracy Now!
Massive protests in Egypt have entered their seventh day as tens of thousands pack into Tahrir Square in Cairo. Protesters are vowing to stay in the streets until President Hosni Mubarak resigns. A general strike was called for today, and a "million man march" is being organized for Tuesday. We speak with Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who is in Cairo. "This is a popular uprising across all segments of society," Kouddous says. "People are so fed up with Mubarak, it’s hard to describe. They curse him. They want him to step down. And they will not leave the streets of Cairo, the streets of Egypt, until he does." [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: The massive protests in Egypt have entered their seventh day as tens of thousands pack into Tahrir Square in Cairo. Protesters are vowing to stay in the streets until President Hosni Mubarak resigns. A general strike was called for today, and a "million man march" is being organized for Tuesday.
The Egyptian government continues to crack down on protesters and the media. Earlier today, six Al Jazeera journalists were arrested, their equipment seized. On Sunday, Egyptian authorities closed Al Jazeera’s offices in Egypt and removed the news station from the main TV satellite provider.
The internet has been completely shut off across most of Egypt. One of the only internet service providers still operating is the Noor Group, the company that manages the service for the Egyptian Stock Exchange and banks. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have been completely shut down.
Well, Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous is in Egypt, and we’ve developed a workaround to circumvent the Mubarak regime’s internet blackout. His round-the-clock tweets are being read around the world. Last night, CNN International highlighted one of them.
CNN INTERNATIONAL: Let’s go to a trends map here that we’re looking at to see the trending topics out of Cairo on Twitter. Now, still at the top here is Mubarak. But what’s interesting to note is how ElBaradei has come up in a popularity so much in the last few hours. That’s referring to Mohamed ElBaradei. Now, let’s see what some Twitter users there are saying about him.
"Baradei seen as non-corrupt, is respected. But he lived away too long, didn’t join earlier protests & this revolt was done w/o his help."
AMY GOODMAN: That was CNN International last night reading one of Sharif’s tweets. Sharif grew up in Mubarak’s Egypt. He was only three years old when the current regime came to power. He comes from a prominent Egyptian family with a long history in the arts, literature, film and politics.
Sharif, you landed in your home city of Cairo just a few days ago, but it was not the same country you grew up in. Describe your feelings and what you have found, but start at the airport.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, I’ve traveled to Egypt countless times from the United States after I moved there for college and then work, and when my plane from JFK touched down in Cairo International Airport on Saturday, the day after the massive protest where the protesters beat back the Interior Ministry, police and state security forces, I did land in a different country than the one I had known my entire life. Egypt has been reborn. This is not the Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt anymore. And no matter what happens next, it will never be again.
This is a unprecedented popular uprising, the likes of which myself and many others never thought they would see under President Mubarak. They are taking to the streets, men and women, rich and poor, all segments of society. They are defying the curfew for the past few days, packing into Tahrir Square. And their mood is celebratory, and it’s victorious. They are sure. They are sure that they will not leave until Mubarak does. And they are chanting in the streets every day.
They talk about what has taken place over the past week with such pride in what they have done. Tomorrow marks a week from the January 25th National Police Day, when the first protest began, and culminated on Friday. Friday was essentially a battle between the Interior Ministry and the people, and the people won. They talk about how they came up on the bridges leading to Tahrir, faced off with hundreds and hundreds of riot police from the Interior Ministry, from the state security forces, and were met with violence. They talk with how they walked with their hands up in the air, showing that they were coming peacefully, chanting, "Salmiya! Salmiya!" which means "Peacefully." And they were beat down. They were tear-gassed over and over again.
And I’m not talking about, you know, hardcore activists and protesters, which have been taking to the streets increasingly over the last few years; I’m talking about people who had been depoliticized over the last few years, people from the middle class, young, the Facebook generation. What one person told me, this is the revolution of the Facebook generation. They came out in droves, old and young, and they took the streets. And what one person told me was, when they would be beat down and tear-gassed, others would come in and rush the police, and then they would fall down, and others would come back after them. And they said, "We gave each other courage."
And as of 5:30 p.m., the police completely disappeared, reportedly on order, from the streets of Cairo. They were in full retreat, and they have disappeared. There is not a traffic policeman in Cairo. There’s not any police anywhere. They have come down to the streets today.
But since then, the military came in. And as many saw the images on the screens of how the military was greeted warmly on the streets of Cairo, you know, crowds were roaring with approval as tanks rolled in. And what’s important to understand is that, you know, over the past decades, three decades, the state, the security forces and the police have been brutalizing, have been torturing the Egyptian people, have been wrongly imprisoning them, have been corrupt. But the army has not done this. The army has not had an interaction with the civilian population since the 1973 war with Israel. And so, people trust the army. I’ve seen unbelievable scenes in Tahrir Square, where tanks have been just covered with people riding on the turret of the tank and all over the tanks, chanting. They pray on the tanks. They chant, "Al-gysh al-sha’ab yd wahda," which means "The army, the people are one hand." And I’ve seen soldiers carried on the shoulders of crowds through the crowds, chanting, holding flowers.
Now, it remains to be seen what will happen going forward. Yesterday in Tahrir, at 4:00, there’s been a 4:00 p.m. curfew yesterday. Today it’s actually 3:00 p.m. I’m talking to you, and the curfew is now in effect. I will be going to Tahrir after this interview. But people are in defiance of any kind of authority until Hosni Mubarak leaves. And yesterday we saw, in Tahrir, military jets, two fighter jets, and a helicopter continually swoop and do flyovers over Tahrir Square right at 4:00 p.m., when the curfew went into effect. And the jets kept getting louder and louder as they came lower. And whether it was an act of intimidation or not is unclear. But the crowds did not care. They waved and whistled and shouted to the planes as they passed overhead.
There really is an unbelievable feeling of community now, of people coming together. I’ve never seen Egypt this way. People are picking up trash in Tahrir Square. People are handing out food. People are helping each other. People are sleeping in the middle of Tahrir Square and setting up tents in the middle of the square. It is a scene that is very emotional. It’s something that no one thought could come together. It’s largely leaderless. I mean, no one — there’s no one organizing group. This is a popular uprising across all segments of society. Opposition groups have come now into the fold. They are — the Muslim Brotherhood is here, and other opposition groups. But people don’t want it coopted. And, you know, one of the things that I witnessed that was very moving was a lot of the Brotherhood started chanting, "Allah Akbar," and then — which means "God is great" in Arabic. And then the counter chant that was much louder, reverberating over them, was to "Muslim, Christian, we are all Egyptian." And that really symbolizes what’s happening here in Egypt today.
And, you know, Amy, I’ve seen some reports — I’ve had very little access to any kind of outside news. They really have shut down — the internet is completely shut down here. Cell phones do work now, and people are starting to be able to call each other. There is no texting; no SMS texting goes out. And they are very afraid of the internet, because Facebook was how they organized this uprising, to begin with. It was organized on Facebook. And there’s also mass SMS texting that is very common here in Egypt. And so, they’ve kept that shut down to try and cut off the communications from people. But people in Cairo do not care. They are going right now — I can see droves heading to Tahrir. And what’s significant, they go at the time of the curfew. They go when the curfew is there, and that’s when they start heading out.
And there’s been many reports of violence, of looting. And I just want to be very clear about this, that there was a significant amount of looting on Friday after the police completely disappeared from the scene. Certain places in Mohandessin in downtown Cairo were burned. Banks were burned. Some shops were looted. And, you know, there’s been reports of armed gangs coming around and robbing houses. Some of that did happen, yes, but what’s been amazing and what’s also kind of another phase of how this is Egypt coming together in this popular movement is that people have taken to the streets and formed these very efficient neighborhood watch committees. Where I live here in Zamalek, there’s groups of men, young and old, they stand, they form barricades. They are armed with metal pipes, some with bats. Some do have guns. And what they do is they check people coming in. They check their IDs. They’re very courteous. They allow people to go through if they believe you live in the neighborhood. They have really — they’re protecting their own. They’re protecting their homes. They are directing traffic. Well, the traffic cops are back in the streets of Cairo today, but before that, they were directing traffic. I’ve never seen Cairo traffic so smooth. One former diplomat I spoke with said, "It’s amazing. These 15-year-old kids are doing such a much better job than our traffic police."
That’s the story of what’s happening here. And people are so fed up with Mubarak, it’s hard to describe. They curse him. They want him to step down. And they will not leave the streets of Cairo, the streets of Egypt, until he does.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Sharif Abdel Kouddous on the ground in Cairo, who has figured out a workaround and is tweeting tweets, being seen around the world. You can go to our website at democracynow.org, so you can see what Sharif is reporting throughout the day, as well as his blogs each day of what is happening in Cairo.
I wanted to turn now, Sharif, to the Nobel Peace laureate, the former head of the IAEA, International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, who came into Tahrir Square this weekend and spoke. Well, on Sunday, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria questioned ElBaradei about the Muslim Brotherhood.
FAREED ZAKARIA: One of the visions that haunts Americans is of the Iranian Revolution, where a dictator, pro-American dictator, was replaced by an even worse regime that was even more anti-American and more threatening to the region. People worry about the Muslim Brotherhood. Are you confident that a post-Mubarak Egypt will not give rise to some kind of Islamic fundamentalist force that will undermine the democracy of Egypt?
MOHAMED ELBARADEI: I am quite confident of that, Fareed. This is a myth that was sold by the Mubarak regime, that it’s either us, the ruthless dictators, or a Muslim al-Qaeda type. You know, the Muslim Brotherhood has nothing to do with the Iranian model, has nothing to do with extremism, as we have seen it in Afghanistan and other places. The Muslim Brotherhood is a religiously conservative group. They are a minority in Egypt. They are not a majority of the Egyptian people. But they have a lot of credibility because all the other liberal parties have been smothered for 30 years.
They are in favor of a secular state. They are in favor of working on the base of a constitution that have red lines, that every Egyptian have the same rights, same obligation. The state in no way will be a state based on religion. And I have been reaching out to them. We need to include them. They are part of the Egyptian society, as much as the Marxist party here. I think this myth that has been perpetuated and sold by the regime has no — has no iota of reality. As you know, Fareed, I’ve worked with Iranians. I have worked here. There is 100 percent difference between the two societies.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Mohamed ElBaradei speaking on CNN over the weekend. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, can you talk about the role of the Muslim Brotherhood?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, first of all, Amy, it’s not for Fareed Zakaria or anyone else to decide what groups or what people are palatable to the United States to lead Egypt. That is up for Egyptians for themselves to decide. And so, I reject the way he asked that question.
But as far as the Muslim Brotherhood is concerned, Mohamed ElBaradei did have some good points. They are a religious group. They are the largest opposition group here in Egypt, which doesn’t say much because of the clampdown on any kind of opposition and dissent. They have renounced violence decades ago. They fulfilled a lot of the services that the state abandoned. And so, a lot of people have gone to — do support them.
But again, they were not the ones that organized this uprising. They were not the ones that were in the streets. They were not the ones who fill Tahrir right now. Tahrir is being filled, and Cairo and Egypt is being, filled by people of all segments of society. In the future, will the Brotherhood play a part? I’m sure they’ll be a significant force; there is no question of that. And it is true, they are different from the Iranian regime. But again, whether the Muslim Brotherhood or anyone else fits the U.S. model of what democracy should be like — democracy is for people to choose for themselves.
And the Egyptian people want to choose for themselves. That’s all they’re asking. They’re very politically aware. They’re aware of the U.S. support for the Mubarak regime for the last 30 years. I’ve had protesters come up to me — people come up to me holding up tear gas canisters, fired tear gas canisters, showing me the "Made in U.S.A." sign, showing me how, you know, the weapons used against them were made in the U.S. They realize this. And all they ask for — you know, this isn’t a big anti-American rally. You don’t see burning of American flags or anything like that. All they ask for is to be left alone to be able to decide for themselves.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, I’d like to ask you to stay on the phone. We’re going to be joined by two guests in Washington and in New York, but I’d like you to join in at any point, as your observations are key on the ground in Cairo. Sharif Abdel Kouddous is a senior producer here at Democracy Now! He flew into Cairo over the weekend. You can follow his blogs, his tweets at democracynow.org. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! senior producer, is on the ground in Cairo. Sharif, I wanted to continue to discuss how — your feelings as you flew into the country. You come from one of the most prominent families in Egypt, your grandfather one of the most famous writers, Ihsan Abdel Quddous. Your great-grandmother, Rosa al Youssef, a magazine she founded still exists today. And your uncle — you came into Tahrir Square, where you saw him being greeted by many. Describe the scene.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, my uncle is Mohamed Abdel Quddoos. He’s a leading opposition protester. He’s now head of the Freedom Committee at the Press Syndicate, and he has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood himself. And, Amy, he’s been protesting for years. There’s been a growing movement here in Egypt of protests, of people trying to voice their dissent. But they have been harshly clamped down on. And what we typically used to see was people like my uncle and other opposition voices speaking in Tahrir on the steps of the Press Syndicate, but they would be about a dozen and then surrounded by hundreds of police, and it would be quickly shut down. They would be arrested. They would be driven out into the middle of the desert and left there, without their wallet or phone, to find their way back, which is a common tactic by the police — completely shut down. And for years, my uncle was — his standard attire, he would leave the building wearing a suit, holding a megaphone and a flag of Egypt in his hand, and he would go into the streets.
And this was — I saw him yesterday in the square. He was there with his megaphone and flag and his suit all crumpled because he had spent the night in Tahrir. And I sat down next to him, and I said, "How are you feeling now?" And he was overwhelmed with emotion. He said, "This is a dream come true." And he pointed over to where the Press Syndicate is, and he said, "You remember when I used to stand on the steps of that Press Syndicate to protest? I would stand alone. Now look at everyone. They’re all here with me."
And he went on to say how this was not his uprising, it was not his revolt. He said this was done by young people. And he’s the one who called it "the revolution of the Facebook generation." He said there’s been — he said, "Tunis was the catalyst and the spark, but it’s been building for so many years." And he said there’s three similarities between Egypt and Tunis that he saw. He said this was organized through Facebook and was a leaderless movement — that’s one. He said the president will fall; of that, he is sure — that’s two. And three, he says the army supports the people and won’t harm them; of that, he is sure, too.
But it was a very moving scene being with him there. And the people in Tahrir, the people who came out to protest, who recognized him, his years of struggle alone — and as I was talking to him, dozens of people would come shake his hand, kiss him hello, take pictures with him. And they paying tribute to his years of struggle that have helped to bring about this mass uprising in the streets.
And just one last thing, Amy, before you move on. I know —
AMY GOODMAN: Just one point, Sharif, just one point —
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Go ahead.
AMY GOODMAN: In the first few days of this uprising, he was one of the first arrested. Is that right?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Oh, yes. On Tuesday, the first day, on January 25th, he was on the steps of the Press Syndicate with other journalists. They were protesting. He was arrested by five plainclothes police officers. There was a picture of him being dragged away that was circulated widely on the internet and on Facebook. He was held for several hours at a police station. When they realized who he was, they let him go. He refused to leave until other students, 20 other students that were arrested with him, were let go. And so, he remained in the prison for about six more hours, until the students were let go, as well. He was also arrested again on Friday and driven out, in that same tactic, out into the desert. But he came back.
And one thing, Amy, I think there’s been this fear of the police force and of the interior state security forces for so long. Regardless of what happens, if they come back in the streets, if they come back into power, I don’t think the Egyptian people will ever fear them in the same way again, because they went to battle against them and they won. And I think they are the ones who will be afraid of the people now.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif Abdel Kouddous, reporting from the ground in Cairo, Egypt.