Hundreds of thousands of Egyptian pro-democracy protesters have returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square in defiance of violent attacks from supporters of President Hosni Mubarak in the last two days. The New York Times reports the Obama administration has opened talks with Egyptian officials on Mubarak’s immediate resignation. The proposal under discussion would see Vice President Omar Suleiman lead a transitional government before elections later this year; however, Suleiman remains deeply unpopular in Egypt. Pro-democracy organizers have labeled today the "Day of Departure," a final push for Mubarak’s immediate resignation. The demonstrations immediately swelled at the end of Friday prayers. We speak to Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who reports live from Tahrir Square. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Thousands of Egyptian pro-democracy protesters have returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square in defiance of violent attacks from supporters of President Hosni Mubarak. Over the past two days, the square was the scene of shocking violence broadcast all over the world. Mubarak loyalists, many of them riding horses and camels, attacked pro-democracy protesters with guns, Molotov cocktails and other weapons.
Government forces, meanwhile, have intensified their crackdown, assaulting and arresting activists and journalists, as well as raiding the offices of several legal and human rights groups.
AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times is reporting the Obama administration has opened talks with Egyptian officials on Mubarak’s immediate resignation. The proposal under discussion would see Vice President Omar Suleiman lead a transitional government before elections later this year. The former head of Egyptian intelligence, Suleiman is deeply unpopular in Egypt. There is also no indication Mubarak or his top aides have shown any willingness to seriously consider the proposal.
Mubarak has defiantly vowed to finish out his term. On Thursday, he told ABC News he’s tired of the presidency but fears stepping down would lead to chaos. Pro-democracy organizers have labeled today the "Day of Departure," or D-Day, a final push for Mubarak’s immediate resignation. Protests are beginning to swell with the end of Friday prayers.
For more, we go right now to Cairo to Tahrir Square to Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous.
Sharif, welcome to Democracy Now! What do you see?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Amy, I’m standing on a balcony, 10 stories up, right overlooking Tahrir Square. I’m just looking at an ocean of people here, as they’re streaming tens of thousands of more in over Kasr al-Nile Bridge and the other entrances into Tahrir. This is the day that they call the Day of Departure. It’s one week since the people of Egypt went to battle against the Interior Ministry and won and claimed the streets of Cairo and claimed Tahrir. And they have occupied Tahrir ever since. And they have come under brutal assault by Mubarak’s loyalists, by the Mubarak regime, in a coordinated campaign of violence. They resisted, and they managed to keep Tahrir Square. And this is the day that they say Mubarak will go. They have said this before, and they are hoping that this time it will be true. He does not seem to be acceding to the protesters’ demands, although he continues to make concessions, except the one that they want. They want his ouster. So, they remain hopeful. They remain defiant.
I spent the night here last night. It was a very different scene at night. There’s many — there’s much fewer people at night, but there’s a lot of political discussion, a lot of conversation. There’s fires. There’s singing. There were also moments of tension, following Wednesday’s brutal day and night assault. People have set up barricades that are increasingly sophisticated, with warning signals, several levels of security. And throughout the night, when it got late, starting at about 1:00 a.m., we would have moments where the alarms would be — alarms would be sent out, where, you know, people would start whistling and banging on metal, and everyone would rush to that entrance to protect it. The baltaguia, or the pro-Mubarak thugs, were just kind of taunting, I think, at different entranceways, and people would rush to them at various points of the night, but never any real threat. Right now they would not dare enter the square. It is just packed with people. And I have a great view from here. And more are just streaming in.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Sharif, some of the reports that we’re receiving now are saying that the military has once again reasserted itself in taking over a lot of the entrances to Tahrir Square and that basically that they are keeping out some of the pro-Mubarak folks that have created all of the violence over the last couple of days. What’s your sense from what you’re able to tell of the access to the square and where the pro-Mubarak thugs are right now?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, I mean, the military has always had tanks stationed at every entrance point. They’ve always had soldiers there. But the main people who control the access are the citizens here that do all the ID checks. Then, after you get past the military, they check you again to make sure you’re not state security.
But Juan, we’ve never seen the numbers of the Mubarak loyalists try and rush into the square as they did on Wednesday. There were — there are a number of infiltrators that are in the square. I, myself, was tailed yesterday. I found a man just continually asking my name, following me, just did not look the part. When I asked him who he was very directly, he just scurried off. And every once in awhile during the night, they would find one of these people, ask for his ID; he would turn out to be police or state security. There would be a scuffle, and they’d grab him and deposit him to the military to take into custody.
But the military does seem to be having more control. But, you know, that’s what we thought earlier, and they allowed in these thugs on horseback and camel to attack these people with Molotov cocktails, with knives and guns. So it’s unclear what will happen next. But what we do know now is that the people of Egypt are coming out in a very strong show of force despite this brutal assault.
AMY GOODMAN: We hear, Sharif, that violence is breaking out in Alexandria, where major protests have been going on. Is there any communication between people in Tahrir Square and in Alexandria?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, as you know, being on the ground here, it’s hard to get information from other parts of Egypt. I haven’t spoken to anyone who’s been in touch with people in Alexandria, so I can’t speak to that. What I can say is that there have been sporadic incidents of violence here, but nothing like that we saw on Wednesday evening.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the ability of the international press to get around the square? Obviously, in the last two days, that was severely curtailed, as more and more attacks on journalists and harassment of journalists occurred. What’s the scene like today?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, you know, the crackdown on the press was harsh, and it was ominous. Let me just say, I think the safest place for a journalist to be is inside Tahrir Square. You know, journalists are welcome here. They’re able to fill. It’s once you leave Tahrir, you’re on the streets of Cairo, that the Mubarak regime still controls, where journalists have come under heavy crackdown.
We were almost taken, actually, yesterday, when we were coming from when I spoke to you on the outskirts of Tahrir Square, walking back in. At an army checkpoint, what looked like maybe military police for Mubarak started questioning us, asking us for our journalism credentials, something we’ve never been asked before. And we were very, very close to being taken in. But we talked our way out of it. So there is — and also, you know, our camerapeople hide their cameras now when they go into the streets of Cairo. They don’t show them as they did. But again, I think the safest place for a journalist is right here in Tahrir.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to go to break. We’re speaking to Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous. He’s in Tahrir Square, where he stayed all last night. We’re also going to talk about the number of journalists who were cracked down on. The Committee to Protect Journalists says more than 50, and we’re going to talk to them next. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a second.
AMY GOODMAN: We are in Cairo with Ahmad Shokr, who is an Egyptian newspaper editor, who is right there looking out over Tahrir Square. Ahmad, can you hear me?
AHMAD SHOKR: I can, Amy. Thank you for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: Ahmad is on Sharif’s line. Ahmad, can you hear me?
AHMAD SHOKR: Yes, I can hear you, Amy. Thank you for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: Hi, it’s good to have you with us. So, the latest news we have, the U.S. government putting pressure on Mubarak to resign. He tells ABC that he’s tired of the presidency. The suggestion that we hear is that the Vice President, who was just named by Mubarak, would take over. What is your assessment of what’s happening?
AHMAD SHOKR: Well, the Vice President was on Egyptian television yesterday, and he gave a speech, which I think was intended to diffuse this uprising, which has lasted for well over a week now. But I think his attempt has largely failed, as we can say today. Tens of thousands of people are taking to the streets once again.
And the problem now for the regime is that they’re essentially not offering any major political concessions. I mean, yesterday in the Vice President’s speech, he did not vow to end the draconian emergency law that’s been in place for the past 30 years. He said he would keep in place the current parliament, which was brought to power in elections that were marred by fraud and that lacked any independent supervision. His discussion of constitutional amendments was very limited. He didn’t talk about articles which grant extensive and unchecked powers to the president or articles that govern judicial supervision over the elections. I mean, basically, what he talked about yesterday was very limited amendments to the constitution, in particular two articles that govern presidential eligibility and term limits.
So this was far short of what the opposition has been demanding. And of course, most importantly, the Vice President did not meet the most important demand of the protesters, which is for the ouster of the current regime and a peaceful transition to democratic government with a popular mandate. So, the scenes that we see on the streets today are likely to continue until people feel that they’re getting real political change from the government, which has not happened so far.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Ahmad Shokr, this is Juan Gonzalez here, also in New York. I wanted to ask you, in terms of the role of Suleiman, clearly the United States appears to be directing its efforts now, recognizing that Mubarak must go, to see Suleiman as the guy who will replace him and maintain U.S. presence and influence in the region. Can you give us a sense of how he is regarded, how Suleiman is regarded, among the Egyptian people and whether there’s any distinction that they see at all between him and Mubarak?
AHMAD SHOKR: I think Omar Suleiman is someone that will make both the United States and Israel quite happy. He was the director of the Egyptian intelligence for almost 20 years. He basically ran the Egypt end of the rendition — U.S. renditions for torture program. He’s the architect of Egypt policy towards Israel and Palestine and is largely responsible for Egypt’s complicity in the blockade on Gaza, which has strangled the population of Gaza there for almost five years now. So, he’s someone that will make these powers quite happy.
On the Egyptian side of things, of course, people see him quite differently. Omar Suleiman is a very close aide to Hosni Mubarak. He is someone who — he’s a senior leader from the military establishment that has been ruling this country for almost 60 years now. So I think many people are likely to see his rule as an extension of the Mubarak regime rather than a dramatic rupture. The real question is, will people then continue taking to the streets and opposing him the way they did Hosni Mubarak, or will they let him rule for an interim period and trust that real democratic change will take place over the course of the next few months? Public opinion in that regard seems to be divided, I would say.
AMY GOODMAN: Vice President Omar Suleiman, who was only named by Mubarak after the protests, has been very close, as you said, to the U.S., to the military, to the CIA, trained at the U.S. Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, described as the CIA’s point man in Egypt for the secret extraordinary rendition program, blamed the media for inciting the unrest. How is he different from Mubarak?
AHMAD SHOKR: Well, he’s — like you said, Amy, he’s someone that’s worked very closely with Mubarak, and he’s a leader who is from the military establishment. I mean, the difference is his tremendous experience that he has in the intelligence services. He was a spy chief that was well respected by intelligence agencies around the world, especially in the United States. And, you know, he’s — I think there’s real questions about whether he’s a man who believes in democracy, whether he’s the right person to undertake a democratic transition.
I think, you know, right now, there is a lot of focus amongst the opposition on Mubarak. He’s sort of become a symbol of the regime that they want ousted as soon as possible. And if that happens, large chunks of the population may settle temporarily for Omar Suleiman, but I think, sooner or later, you know, many people will come to see — and many people are already saying this on the streets; I mean, you can hear this, you know, people chanting against Suleiman just as they’re chanting against Hosni Mubarak. You know, many people will come to see that his rule is in fact no different and that he comes from essentially the same system.
AMY GOODMAN: Ahmad Shokr, we want to thank you very much for being with us, a journalist who’s been working out of Cairo for years now and all through this protest. He is an editor at the Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm.