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Defying Regime Threats, Thousands of Workers Join Protesters in Tahrir Square

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Reporting from Cairo, Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous says thousands of workers, including doctors and lawyers, have joined the protests in Tahrir Square. The demonstrators continue to flood the streets despite government threats and just one day before what is expected to the largest day of protests to date. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryFeb 02, 2011Voices of the Egyptian Revolution: Democracy Now!’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous Speaks with Demonstrators in Tahrir Square at “March of Millions”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Professor Joel Beinin at Stanford University, who used to head up Middle East Studies at the American University of Cairo. And joining us now in Cairo is Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who has just come from the streets of Cairo, in Tahrir Square.

Sharif, what is happening there today?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, as Professor Joel Beinin was talking about, there are thousands of strikes happening across Cairo and across Egypt today, tens of thousands of workers staging sit-ins and staging strikes. But we’re also seeing members of the professional class taking to the streets, as well, and entering Tahrir. I have just come from there. There was thousands and thousands of doctors wearing white medical coats who have entered Tahrir. Doctors and nurses from Kasr Al-Ainy Hospital, they marched along there, along a main road into Tahrir, chanting, “We are doctors, and we are against the dictator,” which rhymes in Arabic. And they’re calling for better wages. And just as I was leaving, thousands of lawyers wearing their black lawyer’s robes were streaming into Tahrir, as well. I spoke to a couple of them. They said they were 50,000 strong. They said, “We are lawyers, and we’re not going to be judged by a dictator.” And so, we’re seeing a swelling of the protest movement that’s happening, now that it’s entering its third week.

Tomorrow is expected to be just utterly massive. They’re expecting millions in the streets, and not just in Tahrir. They’re expecting people to go to the places where, on January 25th, when this uprising began, to fill those areas, as well. So they want to go to the parliament, in front of the People’s Assembly building, which has been already taken over — they want to fill that area — places in Mohandessin, in Ramses Square, which is a big convergence point, and other areas around Cairo. And so, we’re seeing, with organized labor joining this revolution, a real upsurge that’s happening right now. People are very optimistic about what’s going to happen tomorrow.

But let’s keep in mind that this is all coming in the shadow of a threat by Vice President Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief, saying that he will not tolerate any further protests, also issuing a threat saying that this could amount to a coup. People are trying to understand what he meant by that.

And also, we know that the military, which has been not criticized by the protesters — you know, a common chant is “The army, the people, one hand!” — we know that they are detaining people, hundreds, if not thousands, of activists. There have been allegations of torture.

So, this is all happening against the backdrop of what’s happening in Tahrir. It’s a tense moment, but also one that people are hopeful for, that with this pressure coming down on Mubarak — the tourism industry has been hit very hard by this uprising, and now there’s 6,000 Suez Canal workers who are striking, as well. If that culminates in the Suez closing, as well, then those are two huge influxes of money for Egypt that will further put pressure on Mubarak to step down. So, we’ll have to see what happens.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Professor Beinin, this whole issue of this unauthorized labor movement, as you’ve been mentioning, that’s been developing for several years, the Mubarak regime attempted in recent years, even though it was unauthorized, to at times negotiate with it. And even this week, they announced a 15 percent increase in pay for all government workers, almost as an effort to stave off spreading protest. Your sense of how the government has been dealing with the labor movement, both before January 25th and now?

JOEL BEININ: Well, over the — excuse me, over the last decade, the government has had quite a lot of cash. It’s been selling off public assets, firms owned by the public sector. Suez Canal tolls were raised. The price of oil was high. So there was a lot of cash in the public till. And as it was moving very rapidly to implement the neoliberal economic restructuring, the thinking apparently was, “OK, we have this money. We know that workers are going to suffer from this transition. If they protest, we will meet their economic demands. We won’t entertain any political demands whatsoever. But if they demand a wage increase, if they demand payment of back bonuses that are overdue or any such things like that, we’ll talk to them about it.”

And in many, many cases, workers actually won very substantial economic demands, and there were only a few instances when the security forces intervened to crush strikes. And this is very different than what happened in the 1980s and 1990s: when workers went on strike, the security forces, and in some cases even the army, rolled into factory towns and literally shot people down. So, throughout the last 10 years, what workers have learned is, if you engage in struggle, A, you won’t be crushed, more likely than not, and B, you have a pretty good chance to win something. And that, of course, encouraged people, emboldened people, taught them that they didn’t need to be confined by the trade union — official trade union apparatus, which is an arm of the regime, in any case.

AMY GOODMAN: I just want to go back to the issue of Suez, because it is so massive. Eight percent of world trade goes through there, 35,000 ships a year, about a hundred every single day; 1.8 million barrels of oil a day go through there. First, Professor Beinin, and then Sharif, the fact that these workers are going on strike, who, as you said, have been in sort of yellow unions, government-run unions, and yet they are standing up now, what this will mean for world trade and the pressure that will come down now on Mubarak from outside Tahrir Square?

JOEL BEININ: Well, so far, the canal has not been shut. The operation of the canal depends on, primarily, the pilots. I haven’t heard that they have even discussed going on strike, and they haven’t participated, as far as I know, in the labor upsurge of the last 10 years. So as long as they are continuing to work, the canal will be open. But with this increasing wave of protests, not only by blue-collar workers but, as Sharif mentioned, by doctors, by lawyers — tomorrow there’s also a call for university professors from the University of Cairo to march from the university to Tahrir Square — so at a certain point, the pilots might actually get caught up in it, as well, but so far not, as far as I know.

AMY GOODMAN: And Sharif, the knowledge you have of what’s going on in Suez, there in Tahrir, and then the danger that you were talking about — I mean, the ominous words of Suleiman, the Vice President, who was just named vice president, what, a week or two ago, saying — warning of a coup if the unrest continues, saying protests must end or “the dark bats of the night” would emerge to terrorize the nation. And this is a man who knows torture. He headed the feared Egyptian General Intelligence Service. He was the CIA’s point man for extraordinary rendition, the covert program, of course, of taking people from wherever they were to a third country, who were tortured. Jane Mayer has written about him, saying all of these things, snatching — CIA snatching terror suspects from around the world and returning them to Egypt and elsewhere for interrogation, often under brutal circumstances.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, on Suez, you know, this was a real flashpoint in the uprising. The crackdown there by the state security apparatus and the military, as well, which is stationed around Suez, was fierce. And the fighting back was fierce. And it was much more fierce than what we saw here in Cairo. There were — you know, here it was broadcast all over the world, with tear gas, with beatings and with open fire, as well. So, Suez has always been a place of fierce resistance, and many credit a lot of the strength of this movement to the strength of the people in Suez.

As Professor Beinin said, the canal has not closed. And again, there’s three sources of foreign income for Egypt which are crucial: tourism, that one has basically collapsed as this uprising has began; if the Suez closes, the only thing left is U.S. aid, which comes in mostly military aid. So, the question then remains, is, will the pressure that — the economic pressure be put then on Mubarak, or will it go towards the protesters? I think that, increasingly, people are moving away from Mubarak and demanding his ouster. This is the number one principal demand. You know, he shuffled his cabinet around, and that’s why everyone is focusing on him now, for him to step down and allow things to move forward.

With regards to Omar Suleiman — you know, I was just coming from Tahrir. Rumors are always rampant in these situations, and there’s been many rumors that have always been around Tahrir. One of them today was there was going to be — Omar Suleiman was going to disperse the protesters today. I heard it from three separate people, three separate sources saying that they were going to come in, tear gas people, beat them and force them out. It’s very hard to believe these rumors. I think it’s part of an effective and — well, not effective, but a very well-aimed propaganda campaign by the government to dissuade people from coming, especially on the verge of tomorrow. But we know that Omar Suleiman is capable of this. He has been the intelligence chief and Mubarak’s right-hand man for many, many years, and this regime was characterized by this kind of violence.

But people here don’t seem to be dissuaded whatsoever. I, for one, was very surprised at the level of people that were here in Tahrir on Thursday. Usually the day before one of the big days — tomorrow is expected to be the biggest — you see a little bit of a lull. But there are simply tens of thousands, and they are streaming in. It was very hard to actually leave, because there were so many people. I almost didn’t make it to the studio. And we’re seeing, you know, lawyers and doctors come in. So, we’ll have to see what transpires tomorrow.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Sharif, it seems that all this week the attempt of the Egyptian government has basically been to begin the return to normalcy, to basically whither down the crowds there and to manage the situation. But all of your reports this week so far seem to indicate that exactly the opposite is happening, that instead of a return to normalcy, the protest movement seems to be growing and actually spreading across the country. And do you get any sense, either on the military side or the government side, of increasing frustration with their inability to control the situation?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, it’s unclear, Juan. The military, outside on the streets of Cairo, has not really done a mass crackdown anywhere. They’ve arrested hundreds of people, maybe thousands of activists. We have yet to see a major crackdown. As one young activist, Mona El Seif, told me, we’re just going to maybe have to take Cairo piece by piece until Mubarak steps down. That seems to be the case. You know, they took the parliament street yesterday, and they’re planning to take more places tomorrow.

We’ve seen the government’s response to this change as this uprising began. In the beginning, they tried to forcefully stop it, with the Interior Ministry apparatus, the state security apparatus. We saw the tear gas. We saw the beatings. They were overwhelmed by the protest. Then we saw them remove the entire police force from Cairo, from most of Egypt, even from police stations, and release prisoners from jails to try and foment chaos to have people run back into the arms of security of Mubarak. That failed with the establishment of these neighborhood committees that were set up in solidarity by people across Cairo. We then saw Mubarak try and make so-called concessions, none of which the protesters — meet any of the protesters’ demands. That did not quell the size of the protests at all. And so, the government is — the regime seems to be trying to adapt and trying to somehow quell this protest, but it doesn’t seem to be working. They’ve tried different strategies. We should not rule out the possibility of more violence, with Omar Suleiman and Mubarak still at the helm of this regime. But just the vast numbers of people — and Tahrir is filled with families now and a lot of children — I would be very surprised if they try and strike this down with violence. And if they don’t, the only option will be for Mubarak — more and more pressure will come on him to be the only option for him to step down.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, we talked about this yesterday, but Kareem Amer, a well-known blogger in Egypt, just recently came out of four years in prison for his dissident blogging, disappeared on Sunday just before Wael Ghonim, the Google executive, was released. We don’t know how many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people remain detained, but is there any word of Kareem?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Amy, I have not heard any word of Kareem since yesterday. It’s a very common topic that’s discussed on Twitter and on the blogs. As you mention, of course, he was jailed for years, was kind of, you know, the blogger of Egypt that raised the specter of the regime cracking down on bloggers and jailing them. And Wael Ghonim, of course, is very significant. The interview that he gave a couple of days ago with Mona El Shazly, a very popular show here in Egypt, really moved a lot of people and brought new people that hadn’t protested before into the streets. And so, while many call this the revolution of the Facebook generation — it was organized by the April 6 Youth Movement and Khaled Said, which is the one that Wael Ghonim organized, the Khaled Said Support Group — that was very significant, but as Professor Beinin outlined, all of this had the roots in the labor struggles that have been smoldering for years in Egypt. Of course, you know, April 6 Youth Movement is named after the Mahalla strike, April 6, 2008. They have really led the fight in the years that led to this explosion by young people, led by the youth here in Egypt, that led to this really incredible popular uprising.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Professor Beinin — you taught at the American University in Cairo. You’re very familiar with the social and labor movements in Egypt. Where do you see the possibilities now of where this is going, in terms of Mubarak’s insistence on remaining in office at least until the elections later this year, and also of the role of Suleiman in this as the chosen apparent successor by both the United States and, according to the WikiLeaks, also favored by Israel, to be the man to replace Mubarak?

JOEL BEININ: Well, there’s no question that Omar Suleiman is the man for both Washington and Tel Aviv. That’s quite obvious, and it’s been obvious from the beginning.

In my view, it’s still a little bit too early to tell. If the demonstration tomorrow is very successful, as it is expected to be, and if the movement continues to grow after that, there will be obviously increasing pressure on Mubarak and Suleiman. The United States government has been hot and cold. In the beginning, the Obama administration was very clear: a transition has to begin now, it has to begin right away, has to be clear. Then the Obama administration backed off. Now again, yesterday, the Egyptian ambassador started to complain that the Obama administration is putting too much pressure on Egypt.

So, I think there are three forces here: there’s the people, there’s Mubarak, and there’s the Obama administration. And I don’t think that this popular movement yet has the power of its own to topple Mubarak. We’re talking about an extremely well-entrenched and ramified police state with an internal security apparatus that numbers somewhere over one-and-a-half million people, an army apparatus of about a half a million people, a civil service that is huge, two million people probably. So there are several million people who are directly, personally dependent on the survival of this regime in some major way. That’s going to take a huge, huge pressure to move. And the popular revolutionary movement isn’t quite there yet. If the United States decides at a certain point that the cost is too much, that can tip the balance. The army also hasn’t really weighed in yet. The army, at a certain point, can say, “OK, in order to save this regime, Mubarak has to go.” So, there are several possibilities. It’s still too soon to tell what exactly might happen.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, while you say the U.S. government’s going hot and cold, in fact, what they’re doing, as opposed to what they’re saying, is continuing the arms flow and the money flow to Egypt. The Los Angeles Times says Egypt is due to receive a wide variety of U.S. military hardware over the next year, including F-16 fighter jets, naval vessels, air defense missiles, surveillance radar. They get close to $2 billion a year from the U.S. If that’s not cut, what does Mubarak care what Obama says, as long as he still supports him?

JOEL BEININ: Well, this, I think, is — to the extent that this continues — and it’s been going on since 1978 —- the United States government is hoping that it can salvage its relationship with the Egyptian army. The relationship with Mubarak personally, OK, that’s important, but that can be given up. He’s not the key to the puzzle. The key institution in Egypt for the United States government is the army. So, as long as the army is capable of holding onto power, they will continue to get this kind of military assistance. It’s only if the people become strong enough -—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s interesting, because France — France said they’re cutting military sales while Mubarak is in power.

JOEL BEININ: Well, the Europeans are always a step ahead of the United States in terms of doing the right thing — or not always, but often. So it’s not surprising that our government, as in many other respects, is reactionary.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much for being with us, Professor Joel Beinin, professor of Middle East history at Stanford, formerly director of Middle East Studies at American University in Cairo, author of a number of books on Egypt. And Sharif, thank so much for being with us. We look forward to your reports tomorrow. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, speaking to us from Cairo, Democracy Now! senior producer. And you can follow his blogs, his tweets, as well as Anjali Kamat’s, at We will keep you posted throughout the day, as well as the web exclusives and specials of interviews that he has done in Cairo.

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