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2011-02-03

A Battle for Democracy: Sharif Abdel Kouddous Reports on How Anti-Government Protesters Are Resisting the Mubarak’s Regime Crackdown

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Egyptians vowing to oust President Hosni Mubarak continue to occupy the streets in Cairo today as pro-democracy crowds stand up to violent Mubarak forces. Reporting from a rooftop, Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous describes the scene on the 6th October Bridge, where he reports pro-democracy activists are standing their ground on the “frontline of the struggle” for democracy. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

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

AMY GOODMAN: And we just got this message, as messages are coming into us right and left. This is a message from our guest yesterday on Democracy Now!, Noha Radwan. She’s a professor at UC Davis, University of California, Davis, Egyptian American. She’s been in Tahrir Square for days now, part of the protests. We had her on the show. She was in a studio with Sharif, who joined us yesterday from the studio. By the way, they won’t be able to join us from studio today, because the studio is shut down as a result of security concerns. But Noha Radwan was attacked. She said, "I wanted your show to know that as I left the studio to go back to Tahrir, I got attacked by the mob and beaten half to death by the Mubarak thugs, who were happy to snatch my necklaces off my neck and to rip my shirt open. I am now fine, but the big thug must go. Wish us the best. Our Internet comes and goes." Again, that was Professor Noha Radwan after she left the studio yesterday.
We are going right now to Sharif Abdel Kouddous, our senior producer, Democracy Now! senior producer, on the ground. He was supposed to be in the studio in Cairo. That studio has been shut down.

Sharif, describe the whole scene in Tahrir Square right now.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Amy, I’m talking to you — I’m standing on a rooftop near the 6 of October Bridge, just a few hundred yards from where the studio is. It’s impossible to get across. I’m standing basically on the frontlines of the battle between the pro-democracy uprising and the Mubarak regime. There is a lot of rock throwing that is happening back and forth. There are army tanks that are stationed on the bridge. And there’s the crackle of gunfire, and it’s unclear who is firing.

The people in Tahrir that I met throughout the day today were very proud of the fact that they held the square, that they — despite this brutal assault that they came under, that they managed to hold Tahrir. You know, "Tahrir" means "liberation." And what the people say now is that they’re going to stay in Liberation Square until liberation.

And I’m speaking to you right now — the pro-democracy forces seem to have pushed back and keep on pushing back the Mubarak thugs. We were here earlier, and the border was further near Tahrir. And now they seem to be pushing back the Mubarak forces.

Right now, it’s unclear what is going to happen in the evening. Tomorrow, Friday, is going to be a decisive day. Of course, Friday is the day for Muslim prayer, and they expect hundreds of thousands to come to Tahrir. And they want the ouster of the Mubarak regime, and they demand nothing less.

We were walking around Tahrir yesterday. They held the square, but they suffered terribly. There are people — many, many hundreds wounded. I’ve seen broken legs and arms. I’ve seen many people bandaged. They’ve shown me bullets that were fired. There’s a man right now trying to give me bread. We went to a makeshift hospital, where people have been — the doctors have been up for more than 48 hours, tending to the wounded. The numbers of the dead vary, but there’s somewhere between five and 10 people, they say, were shot in the head, people hit by rocks, who died. They said they weren’t allowed to leave the square yesterday and that they were trapped inside.

Another thing is that the army — people are very angry at the army, because they say they were complicit in all of this. You know, in my earlier reports, I said that the Egyptian army — people were convinced that the army wouldn’t harm them. But what they didn’t imagine was that they would just stand by and allow these pro-Mubarak thugs to come in hordes, on horseback and camel, to attack them with rocks and Molotov cocktails and to lay siege to Tahrir to try and make them leave.

But the people here are defiant, and they refuse to leave. And there’s more coming into Tahrir, as I speak. But right now, I’m on the very edge of it, and the battle continues to rage. I can see more Mubarak forces continuing to gather at the foot of one of the bridges. It’s unclear what will happen next. There are rocks absolutely everywhere on the ground, rocks that were thrown from both sides, mostly from the baltaguia, from the thugs. The people in Tahrir point to the square that they were so proud of, that they had cleaned up the garbage and tended to it so well, and now there is trash, there are rocks everywhere, because they had to defend themselves. They say they are forced to throw back, that they don’t want, but they were forced to throw back to defend themselves. And they appear to be holding their ground.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Sharif, you mentioned the role of the military. We did get some reports that when the pro-Mubarak forces started shooting machine guns, that the army did intervene and tried to confiscate those. Are you getting any sense that there’s an increase in the military presence, or does this represent basically conflicting orders that are coming in to the military about what to do in this situation?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Juan, they certainly did let in the pro-Mubarak thugs to come in on horseback and camel, which people are very shocked at. You know, they say, "What are we living in? Barbarian times?" I have heard the same reports, that when machine gun fire started, that the army did come in and pushed back Mubarak’s forces. So, it appears that at a certain point they intervened, but people don’t understand why they let it come to that point. Many were wounded here, hundreds were wounded, and some were killed. And they want the army to do more to protect Tahrir. Tahrir has become the epicenter in all of Egypt for this struggle for democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, we’re going to break, and we’re going to come right back. We’re speaking to Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who is in Tahrir Square. We also finally got Noha Radwan on the line, who was with Sharif yesterday in the studio, who was beaten badly when she left the studio after her interview with Democracy Now!. This is Democracy Now! We’re covering the uprising in Egypt, live on the ground. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We’re live on the ground in Cairo in Tahrir Square with our senior producer, Democracy Now!'s Sharif Abdel Kouddous. We're also joined by Noha Radwan, assistant professor of comparative literature at the University of California, Davis, who is currently taking part in the protests in Tahrir Square. She joined us yesterday with Sharif in studio.

Noha, describe what happened when you left the studio.

NOHA RADWAN: Hi, Amy. What happened is I left the studio with Sharif and your cameraperson Jacquie, and they were stopped at the Ramses Hilton and had to stay inside the hotel. I actually moved towards the square. And as I approached, I could see the thugs, the Mubarak mob, but I totally underestimated what they’re capable of doing.

They asked me why I was trying to get into the square. I said I had friends and relatives who are injured, and I’m just checking on them. But then the big question came: "Are you pro-Mubarak or anti-Mubarak?" And I didn’t want to answer the question. I just left the person who was asking the question and tried to get in.

Two, three meters later, somebody caught on to the fact that I was trying to get in anyway, and then they yelled to the mob, "She’s with them! She’s with them! Get her!" And I found two big guys who came and held onto my arms and took me out, and they kind of handed me on to a mob that started beating me and pulling my hair. They ripped my shirt off. They ripped a gold necklace. If you see the recording from yesterday, you’ll see that I was wearing a very close-to-the-neck kind of big necklace. So, in ripping this, they actually injured the neck. And through all the beating, I had to get a couple of stitches to the head yesterday.

I’m fine now, and I actually really wanted to give this report as a minor, you know, firsthand testimony to what is happening. What has happened to others is a lot more. We have seen people get hit by the stones thrown in by the mobs, and they have lost their eyes. There are people with concussions. I was taken in an ambulance much, much later to a hospital, where I had to spend most of the night, because there was no way of getting out. The mob is really singling us out.

The worst part of it is that the Egyptian media has been broadcasting nonstop that we are infiltrators, that we are foreign-paid, that most of the people in Tahrir are not actually real Egyptians, they are, you know, paid by foreigners outside. There have been reports about a Belgian who was caught and turned out to be a spy, Israelis who were caught in the demonstration, and so on and so forth.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of being caught, Sharif, the reports of the number of pro-Mubarak forces that have been captured by anti-Mubarak forces, the protesters in the square, The Guardian has something like 120 IDs of police. What do you know about this? And as you were reporting, Juan, the busloads of these pro-Mubarak forces being shipped — shipping them in.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah, the New York Times, Sharif, is reporting that they were bused in systematically throughout the day, apparently, obviously by the government. Who else would pay for all those buses?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That’s right. I mean, there’s no question who these people were who attacked last night. I have seen, myself, at least four police IDs. People say they grabbed — as you know, on the ground, it’s difficult to get numbers. I get between dozens and hundreds of them. And they say that 90 percent of them had some sort of ID that linked them to the police or state and Central Security forces. They say many of them are baltaguias, just these kind of — these thugs that the Mubarak regime has used for many years.

And let me just say also that I watched as they arrested a policeman in uniform today, two policemen in uniform. And in stark contrast to the way that they beat the members of the popular uprising here, like Noha Radwan and others, they arrested this man very peacefully. You know, they had just held him stiffly and put him into an army tank. And so, the difference is very clear.

And let me just add, I was devastated to hear that Professor Radwan came under attack. We left the hotel maybe 20 minutes after her. We tried to re-enter Tahrir Square. These mobs are very intimidating. They’re very hostile. They’re men, mostly, that range from about 20 to 45 years old. They wear sweaters and thick leather jackets. And they were basically holding a mini riot at every entrance into Tahrir, preventing anyone from going in. We tried to force our way in, Hany, Jacquie and I. We held each other and tried to go through. But we were on the verge of being beaten ourselves, and we backed off and then had to go home, and we were unable to go inside. It was a very dark day in this struggle, but the people are very proud here in Tahrir that they held their ground under this brutal assault. And to this day they remain defiant. And it remains to be seen what will happen tomorrow, but I think it will be a decisive day in this struggle.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Noha Radwan, I’d like to ask you about what I asked Sharif, the role of the military, because obviously many of the protesters at first felt that the military was on their side. Your assessment now, after what happened in the past 24 hours?

NOHA RADWAN: Can I answer that question?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes.

NOHA RADWAN: I was actually saved by the military. I was going to practically die on the street, had it not been for the fact that some very low-ranking army officer — and I cannot give any more details than that — actually asked his soldiers to pick me up and put me inside the tank, and where I stayed until it got dark. And then they called an ambulance for me to get out in the ambulance and go straight to a hospital. The mob outside were really calling for my head, as a traitor, an American-paid Baradei supporter.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Amy, I had just ducked into a stairwell to talk to you. I’m back on the roof right now. There’s some kind of fire bombs thrown back and forth. You can hear — I don’t know if you can hear them exploding in the background. There’s smoke coming. They are coming in the air, and there’s just tons of — Jesus, tons of rocks on the ground. It’s unclear where they are coming from, but they seem to be coming largely from the pro-Mubarak forces.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, where are you in relation — in Tahrir Square, what area are you looking on it from? And be very careful. Don’t be on the phone if you’re in any danger.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Amy, I’m on a rooftop. I’m on a rooftop that is near the museum, that is overlooking near the Hilton hotel and where we were staying, near the studio. And I can see — it’s right on the 6 of October Bridge. Clashes are breaking out right on the 6 of October Bridge. There’s a lot of rock throwing. People are advancing forward now. This is really the frontline of the struggle between the pro-democracy movement and the Mubarak regime. And it remains to be seen what will happen next, but right now the battle is raging.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, we have unconfirmed reports, but tweeted by various journalists on Twitter, that Shahira Amin resigned from Nile TV, citing her inability to lie any longer. Nile TV is state TV. The significance? And describe what you’re seeing now. Just tell us what’s happening.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Amy, I don’t know about her resignation. I know a lot of people have come up to me, and any time we kind of were filming, they say, "Make sure you film the reality of this." They’re very aware of the propaganda of the state TV. And the state TV is filming Tahrir Square, just filming these empty spaces, to try and show that there’s hardly anyone there, when in fact there are tens of thousands there, that they do not show the brutal assault that they came under. And so, they know the state TV and the bias that it has. If someone resigned — and I’ve heard of other resignations, not sure if it’s from Nile TV.

But right now, again, I’m standing on this roof, and basically what it is is, from the main square, there’s a big street that runs next to the museum. And the people have created three lines of barricades, with burnt-up trucks to form barriers. They’ve also torn corrugated iron from a construction site, and they’re using that to barricade themselves, as well, and use it as shields under the shower of rocks that keep flying over. And so, they have fortified themselves here after the assault yesterday, and they’re ready to defend Tahrir Square, Liberation Square, they say, until liberation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Sharif, I know it’s difficult with the events you’re seeing right now unfold before you, but I’d like to ask you a little bit in terms of — have you seen any evidence of involvement of the Egyptian labor movement in any of these protests? I’m not talking about the official labor organizations that the government basically sponsors. But there has been, over the last few years, a very strong labor — independent labor movement in Egypt. And one report that I saw recently said that there have been over 3,000 actions by Egyptian workers since 2004, involving more than two million people. One historian called it the largest social movement in the Arab world, and it’s gone largely unreported. Do you have any sense of whether the masses of Egyptian workers, in one way or another, are poised maybe to act on Friday or in the coming days in any kind of organized form?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Juan, I would say that the labor movement has been extremely important in this struggle. I think this popular uprising really started to gain strength a few years ago during the strike in Mahalla, which is the site of the biggest textile factory in the Middle East. I think it’s something like 30,000 to 40,000 workers. They held a strike, and they were brutally cracked down upon by the Mubarak regime. And after that, the uprising — many believe that’s when it started. Demonstrations started in bigger, bigger and bigger numbers. And, you know, what is — this uprising that started a week ago was really led by the youth movement, and one of the youth movements that helped organize it on Facebook calls itself the April 6 Youth Movement. That is the date of that strike. And so, the labor movement is very important to this. It’s hard to say how many of them are here in Tahrir, but, you know, many of them — many of the people here are the youth. And so — but labor, indeed, has been very important in this uprising.

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