senior producer, Democracy Now!
One week after the unprecedented popular uprising began in Egypt, more than two million people descend on Tahrir Square in Cairo, defying the military curfew, to demand regime change in the country. The Egyptian army has declared they will not use force and have recognized the "legitimate grievances" of the people. We speak to Sharif Abdel Kouddous, senior producer at Democracy Now!, live from Tahrir Square. "I am standing in an ocean of people... They are demanding with one voice for the President Mubarak to step down," Kouddous says. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We begin our coverage of Egypt with Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous in Tahrir Square in Cairo. He’s been on the ground in Egypt reporting on events as they unfold. In the last few days he has been interviewed on independent radio stations in the United States, on Al Jazeera, last night on two programs on MSNBC and other news outlets. We go right now to Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who is in Tahrir Square.
Sharif, what is it like on the ground? What are you seeing right now?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Amy, today is the one-week anniversary of this popular uprising in Egypt, this unprecedented revolt where hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have taken to the streets. I am in the middle of Tahrir Square. I am in the middle of a sea of people, an ocean. They have come from everywhere across Cairo, from across Egypt, with one voice, for the president, Mubarak, to step down. I’ve spoken to Egyptians from all walks of life, to journalists, to lawyers, doctors, laborers, peasants, men, women, young, old, rich, poor, and they’ve all come here to speak with one voice and have a full-throated call for democracy. They want Mubarak out, and they will not stop coming until he does.
If today is not the day, then the next big decider will be Friday. Friday is the day when Muslims go to the mosques for communal prayer, and everyone will be on the street at 1:00 p.m. after the noon prayer, and they will flood again the streets. They will continue to do this until, they say, Mubarak leaves.
And the solutions that they see after — these people are very politically aware. They have lots of varied and interesting ideas about what can come next. The one thing that they all agree on is that they want the right to choose. And this has been denied them for the last 30 years. They’re also very politically aware about the United States’ role in all of this. Many of them say they respect President Obama. They respected his speech, that he gave it here in Cairo in 2009 to the Muslim world. But they are very disappointed in his response to this popular uprising, that he has not given an outright call for Mubarak to step down.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, what are the numbers that are being expected today? We’re speaking to you as a military curfew descends on Cairo. What does that even mean?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Amy, the curfew has been in place since Saturday. Every — each day, people come out in defiance of the military curfew. In fact, they come to Tahrir. On Saturday, it was 4:00. On Sunday, it was 3:00. Today, it’s — yesterday, it was 2:00. And today, it’s 1:00, the curfew. People come in defiance of the curfew at the time of the curfew to show that they are not afraid. They’re not afraid of the military that encircles this square. They are convinced they will not harm them. In fact, the military chief of staff yesterday said that he will not open fire. And they are convinced of that.
It’s hard to tell the numbers here, Amy, but this is the biggest, by far, that I have seen since I have been there. Some put the numbers at 250,000. A friend of mine, an activist here, showed me a photo that she had taken from atop a hotel. It is just an ocean of people. And it’s really an amazing, an amazing expression of political dissent. And when I came here on Saturday, people were — were just doing chants and marches, but — and you have to understand that people in Egypt have not had an opportunity to voice their opposition for so many years, so many decades. And they’re evolving now [inaudible] street theater. You see now political art. It’s a blossoming of political expression that is happening here. Egyptians are finding themselves.
And what I hear over and over again is that people were being strangled so much by the Mubarak regime, by crushing poverty, by crushing unemployment, by repression of the despised state police forces, by imprisonment and torture, they were turning on one another. And now that they have come to the streets with one voice asking for Mubarak to go, they have become a community again. They are picking up the trash here. They’re even recycling the trash. It’s unbelievable. They have set up a small makeshift medical center. They’re handing out food and water. People have spent the night here for a week now, and there’s tents and a whole communal space that is set up. It really is an inspiring popular movement, the likes of which I don’t think much of the world has ever seen.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, there’s been descriptions of the military facilitating the protests. yesterday the head of the military announcing they will not open fire on protesters, that they have legitimate grievances. Is that an accurate description of the military’s role today?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The military has had a small role here. They have — they do have tanks at every entrance to the square. They are checking the IDs of everyone who comes in. Every Egyptian has to have a national identity card. And the reason they’re doing it is because they look at the back of the card, and that on that back they see whether — what your job is. They are checking to see whether state security forces are coming in, or police. These are the only Egyptians that are not allowed here. Everyone else is allowed here. And when I came in, there was three checkpoints by the military and five citizen checkpoints. They were also frisking people, and they were telling people, "Be peaceful. If someone antagonizes you, be peaceful. Don’t throw trash on the floor." They want to own this popular uprising, and they have.
The military, again — there’s a helicopter hovering over me overhead. Every time it comes low, the people wave to it, and they say, "Ad-dhab! Ad-dhab!" That means "Leave! Leave!" They are not intimidated at all. They are convinced the military won’t fire upon them. And they continue to gather here in defiance of the Mubarak regime, and they will not stop coming. I mean, I have spoken to so many different kinds of people, and they just say — I keep asking, "What if Mubarak doesn’t step down?" They say, "We will just keep coming here in bigger and bigger numbers."
AMY GOODMAN: We have reports that the Mubarak house is being surrounded, is being barricaded. Is there still a plan to march to his residence?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, it was actually quite confusing here. As you know, the communications have been completely shut down [inaudible] off the digital map since Friday. This is really unprecedented. Cairo is one of the biggest cities in the world, 18 million strong, and there has been absolutely no internet, no SMS. The cell phone service is back up, which is how I’m speaking to you today. But the organizing has — it’s been difficult. And so, I spoke to some people who said that they were going to march. Some said they decided they weren’t going to march. And some said, "We’re going to still decide." From what I can tell now, I don’t think there will be a march to the residence. Hosni Mubarak himself is not even in Cairo. He’s in Sharm el-Sheikh. People say — they keep calling him a coward for being there. So it’s unclear what’s going to happen. A march would be a much bigger display of defiance. I’m sure it will happen at some point, but it’s unclear what’s happening right now.
And I think it’s important for people to understand that this crackdown on the protesters continues in the form of cutting off of communications. The Obama administration said something very light about it on Thursday or Friday of last week, but they have not spoken up since about it. And it’s another form of repression. And if the Obama administration and the State Department can call the Mubarak government and get those six Al Jazeera journalists freed, then they can certainly call the Mubarak government and ask him to turn the internet back on.
AMY GOODMAN: And Sharif, can you talk about the U.S. role in supporting the Mubarak regime until this point and what people in Egypt feel about that today? Are they calling for a cutoff of aid to the Mubarak regime?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: People are very aware that the United States has propped up this regime for the past 30 years. They’re calling on the Obama administration to take a stronger stand and to ask for — and to call on President Mubarak to step down. They don’t understand why President Obama has to equivocate and he can’t come out with a strong voice to support what is a clear, popular, widespread democratic movement here. I haven’t spoken to people about, you know, the future about aid. Step one is to get Mubarak out, and that’s what everyone is focused on. But they’re very aware of the role the United States has had in propping up Mubarak, and they’re disappointed that the Obama administration hasn’t come out with a stronger voice on this.
AMY GOODMAN: I understand there’s a cutoff of trains to the area, interfering with transportation, Sharif.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yes, the regime cut — stopped the train lines to prevent peasants coming in from the countryside to arrive here. I’ve had reports that people [inaudible] many, many miles to come here. They’ve taken buses. But, you know, the regime continues to try and quell this uprising. And every movement it takes only creates more solidarity amongst the people and more — more solidarity amongst them that this regime must go, that it doesn’t care about the country, that it would like to let the country go to ruins before it will release its grip on power. They’ve seen that in the looting. They’ve said, "How can he let just all security go away and let people loot?" They’ve formed their own committees, these neighborhood committees, which are very organized now all across Egypt, and there’s been very little crime. Egypt is reborn in this way. Egyptians have come together to claim this country, and they’re going to continue to do so until Mubarak leaves.
AMY GOODMAN: Al Jazeera English is already reporting a million in Tahrir Square, where you are, Sharif. Is there a call for a general strike?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, there have been calls for a general strike, but it’s difficult to say the effectiveness of that, because nobody is working. I mean, everything is closed. The banks are closed. The stock market is closed. Many shops are closed. You know, the curfew, when it gets dark, the streets do get empty. So, there is an effective halt on the country. It’s hurting the country. And the longer that Mubarak stays in power, the longer that the economy is going to suffer. And so — but people are still defiant, and the mood here is not angry or — the mood here is celebratory and almost victorious. People are so happy to be out in this way and so happy to have finally found their voice after so many years.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, I want to thank you very much for being with us. You can continue to follow Sharif’s reports today at our website, democracynow.org, his tweets as well as his blogs. Sharif, thanks so much for being with us.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif Abdel Kouddous, senior producer here at Democracy Now!, in Tahrir Square, where history is being made, in Cairo, Egypt.