Deadly Political Unrest Continues In Egypt

Massive street protests in Tunisia this month led to the overthrowing of the country's long-ruling dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Similar protests on Tuesday erupted on the streets of Egypt's capital Cairo and other towns around the country. Host Michel Martin speaks with Al-Jazeera's Rawya Rageh and Los Angeles Times Middle East correspondent Borzou Daragahi about the latest from both countries.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, as colleges and universities nationwide grapple with maintaining excellence while facing financial challenges, we will speak with the president of one of this country's most prominent historically black institutions, Howard University. They're conducting a rigorous and controversial review of all of their academic programs. We'll have that conversation later.

But first, we go overseas, where thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets of Cairo and other cities calling for an end to the rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak has been in office nearly 30 years. He's a strategic ally of the United States. So the Obama White House has been treading lightly regarding the protests, until yesterday.

Here's secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (U.S. State Department): We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people, including the right to freedom of expression, association and assembly, and we urge the Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including on social media sites.

MARTIN: That last part, social media, has played a significant role in these protests, just as it did in the uprising in Tunisia, where the president was forced to flee the country.

For the latest developments in both countries, we've called upon two journalists who've been covering those conflicts closely. Al Jazeera's Rawya Rageh is with us from Egypt's capital, Cairo. And from Tunisia's capital, Tunis, Borzou Daragahi is with us. He's Middle East correspondent and Beirut bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. BORZOU DARAGAHI (Los Angeles Times): It's a pleasure.

Ms. RAWYA RAGEH (Al Jazeera): Thank you.

MARTIN: Rawya, let me start with you. What's the atmosphere there today?

Ms. RAGEH: Well, the atmosphere in Egypt, in Cairo and other provinces around the country, remains quite tense, actually. People are still planning protests throughout the night. That's ahead of huge gatherings planned on Friday. And activists are telling us they are planning on gathering throughout the night, on Thursday, perhaps in an attempt to exhaust the officers. And also because it seems from what they've witnessed on Tuesday and Wednesday that it's the best times for them to gather at night because it's more difficult for authorities, for police, riot police and state security to recognize the leaders of the gathering and therefore allow for these gatherings to continue.

Now, this of course comes after two days of unprecedented gatherings in Egypt in various provinces on Tuesday and Wednesday. Tuesday was planned by activists as a day of anger. Soon after the ouster of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, activists took to the Internet calling on Egyptians to have an uprising of their own.

Now, the four main demands that activists were demanding, were protesting against, were poverty, corruption and unemployment and police brutality. And we've seen in the protests people chanting against the government and demanding the change of President Hosni Mubarak's regime.

Now, on Friday, people are planning huge demonstrations after Friday prayers. It remains to be seen whether these calls will continue to gain traction, but definitely a very tense atmosphere around the country.

MARTIN: And Borzou, will you pick up the thread there? And you're in Tunis now. What's the atmosphere there?

Mr. DARAGAHI: You know, things have really gotten back to normal, to a large extent. There continues to be a big political fight between some members of the opposition and the interim government over the inclusion of certain figures from the regime of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the current interim cabinet.

But they're working it out behind closed doors. There's arguments going on. There's occasional street protests over this issue. But by and large, it's quite extraordinary just how much things appear to have returned to normal. There's a lot of kids out on the street. There's, you know, lifting of the curfew, or at least a pushing back of the curfew from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. So far it's been a pretty smooth transition from this dictatorship to a possible democracy when elections happen in five and a half months.

MARTIN: Rawya was telling us that in Egypt the protesters seem to have taken their cue from what happened in Tunisia. Is there any sign that they've been in contact?

Mr. DARAGAHI: I don't think that there is a kind of backroom conspiracy. But, you know, it is the Arab world. They're all watching the same TV channels, they're all interacting through the same Facebook and YouTube and Twitter. So they're very much in touch with each other. and the Tunisians themselves are quite aware that after being, you know, for so long on the kind of periphery of the Arab world, they really feel proud to be at the forefront. And they're quite willing to try, if they can, to export the tools that they've developed here to other parts of the Arab world.

And they would love to see, if anything - to guarantee the survival of their revolution - more change in the Arab world so that, you know, countries like Libya or Egypt and Saudi Arabia aren't tempted to sabotage this experiment.

Ms. RAGEH: And just to pick up on that - thank you for waiting, Michel - an important thing, actually an important observation we've seen in the protests here, from the protests here on Tuesday and Wednesday, yes, the call was first sounded by activists, by known grassroots opposition movements. But the fact of the matter is that the people we've seen take to the streets on Tuesday were ordinary citizens, simple Egyptians, people who have clearly been crushed by poverty, by dire economic conditions. Not the usual activists that we have seen show up in protest in the past few years. And that was really the huge significance of these protests.

MARTIN: We're talking with Al Jazeera's Rawya Rageh about recent protests in Egypt and we're also speaking with the Los Angeles Times' Borzou Daragahi about Tunisia. And we're talking about the impact of these protests, why they started and what the impact could be throughout the region.

Zaria, is uprising the right word?

Ms. RAGEH: I would argue that it's quite too soon to judge what's happening in Egypt as an uprising. There has been a lot of questions about whether - about the similarities and differences between Tunisia and Egypt. Clearly the events in Egypt were inspired by what happened in Tunisia. But perhaps the main similarity is that Egyptians are no strangers to the kind of economic hardships that toppled the regime of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

But there are a lot of differences to begin with. Egypt is a much larger country than Tunisia in size and in population. There are 18 million Egyptians as opposed to Tunisia's 10 million people. But the middle class is dwindling here in Egypt, unlike Tunisia. Most importantly - perhaps the most important difference is the fact that unlike the iron or tight grip of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, President Hosni Mubarak had realized early on the importance of allowing Egyptians to express their frustration or to allow pent-up frustration through certain opportunities.

He did not completely crack down on protests in the past few years. And they've allowed certain limited opportunities of freedom of expression through independent newspapers and a handful of independent television stations, unlike Tunisia.

MARTIN: We've heard a lot about the level of corruption in Tunisia, and one of the things that's infuriating to people there is the degree to which the former president and his family injected themselves into every lucrative area of the economy. And there are a lot of people who kind of blame that for part of the reason that they don't feel that they're advancing, that the economy isn't advancing as well as it could.

In Egypt, is there a general feeling for why the unemployment rate is as it is, why sort of the general population isn't doing better?

Ms. RAGEH: The most difficult thing to try to understand here in Egypt is that this is a country with a rather remarkable growth rate. It was a seven percent growth rate before the economic crisis. Now it's (unintelligible) between four to five percent. That's a remarkable growth rate by any standard. And the country, the government had embarked on huge economic reforms over the past few years.

But the biggest question is, why aren't these reforms or these economic gains trickling down through the population? There are millions of people living in shanty towns. In fact, half of the population in Egypt, that's 40 million people, are living in or - in poverty or even under the poverty line. That's less - on less than two U.S. dollars a day, Michel. That's just to give you an idea about how poverty is widespread here.

So people often blame corruption, often blame the ruling party whose members are now predominantly rich businessmen, for increasing the gap between the rich and the poor and for clearly monopolizing these economic gains that have not been trickling down to the population.

MARTIN: Borzou, could you pick up the thread there too? In Tunisia, what are the - now that the immediate atmosphere seems to be calming down some, what are the next steps here?

Mr. DARAGAHI: Well, I think that in terms of the interim government, they're, you know, trying to assure and calm those very same youth who came out of nowhere, really, in Tunisia, and in Egypt, and we're seeing it also in Yemen today, to start demanding their rights.

And they're trying to alleviate the sense that this, you know, economic progress, very uneven throughout the Arab world, that seems to have benefited a certain elite class of businesspeople, will be trickling down. One of the things that they've announced - and we've written about this - is a $350 million package of aid to the rural people who really sparked this revolution. If listeners recall, it was a young man living in the provinces who, you know, selling fruit, who over his frustration at not being able to make ends meet set himself on fire, that sparked this uprising in Tunisia. And so you see the government right now trying to serve those constituents in an effort to calm tempers and legitimize this post-revolutionary government, as they're calling it.

MARTIN: And Borzou, will you please, just in the final minutes that we have left, will you talk about the rest of the region and what - are you seeing any sign that the events in Tunisia and in Egypt are having an effect elsewhere in the region? What are you seeing?

Mr. DARAGAHI: We're seeing major developments. We're seeing attempted copycat self-immolations - in Algeria, in Mauritania, even in Saudi Arabia. We're seeing protests breaking out in Algeria, in Jordan, in Yemen. There is real fear in the Arabian Peninsula nations. For example, in Kuwait, the emir of Kuwait handed every citizen a $3,000 bonus in an attempt, possibly, to avoid the kind of unrest that's developing in other Arab countries.

This is a major development and it's really stirring up a lot of emotion and stirring up a lot of passion. And it's reinvigorating, perhaps, the political culture of the Arab world.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break. But when we come back, we'll have more with our guests, Borzou Daragahi, Middle East correspondent and Beirut bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. And Rawya Rageh, reporter for Al Jazeera English in Cairo. We're talking about the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. We'll talk about what's next and the impact that these uprisings may be having on the rest of the region.

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Please stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program we'll hear about a story that captured the attention of many people interested in the justice system in this country. It's the story of the Scott sisters, who were sentenced to life in prison for an armed robbery that netted next to nothing. The sisters maintained their innocence. Their sentences were suspended this month after 16 years in prison, but on one condition - that one sister donate a kidney to her sick sibling. We will speak with the Scott sisters in just a few minutes.

But first, we're going to continue our conversation about the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. We're speaking with Borzou Daragahi, Middle East correspondent and Beirut bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. And Rawya Rageh, a reporter for Al Jazeera English.

Borzou, I wanted to just play a short clip from an interview that one of our NPR correspondents had with a Tunisian feminist activist, talking about the role of women in her country. Her name is Khadija Sharife. And you will hear her briefly, but then you'll hear the voice of the translator over her.

Ms. KHADIJA SHARIFE (Tunisian Activist): (Through translator) The force of the Tunisian feminist movement is that we've never separated it from the fight for democracy and a secular society. We will continue our combat, which is to make sure that religion remains completely separate from politics.

MARTIN: So I wanted to ask you about this, that as you told us earlier, the protests initially were sparked by a man who was very unhappy about his inability to progress economically, to find employment, and he set himself on fire and this sparked this larger, you know, uprising, which led to the president leaving the country.

But now you see that there are people who are hoping for, you know, a broader impact on the Tunisian society overall. And I wanted to ask you if there are signs of that.

Mr. DARAGAHI: You know, absolutely. And that's one of the most fascinating things about the Tunisian uprising. It was sparked by this very, very humble lower middle class group of people, young men, very alienated. But it received the blessing of the activists, the civil society groups, and ultimately of the very rich people in Tunisian society, because of the bizarre antics of the former president and the extremely repressive security apparatus that he put in place that was keeping down people like the feminist activist that you just played a tape of, that was preventing this really amazing and developed civil society from asserting itself.

MARTIN: Rawya, you were telling us that one of the things that's been fascinating to you as a long-time, you know, correspondent there, that this is not the usual suspects. These are not the big names that many people are used to seeing who are participating in these protests. Now, you were telling us that on Friday there are plans for what's being called a million man march after Friday prayers.

But what about people who are well known? People, like, for example, the Nobel laureate, Mohamed El Baradei. Are there signs that people like that are going to be participating?

Ms. RAGEH: Well, Mohamed El Baradei was actually not in Egypt when the protests first began. He was on holiday, I believe, in Vienna. He had returned back to Egypt a year ago and started meeting with people, visiting villages around the country, and developed quite a cult following. And he, particularly as he stepped up his campaign for reform, that a lot of people were skeptical that it was merely a campaign through statements and through Twitter - Mr. El Baradei is actually quite the active tweeter.

But Michel, we have to remember, these were ordinary Egyptians who made history on Tuesday and Wednesday with these protests. And some people are saying Mr. El Baradei and other figures should not be allowed perhaps to use - or to hijack this popular movement. Obviously they will be taking to the streets with the population and perhaps they will have a role in leading these protests. But definitely this was a people movement and it was about poverty more than politics.

MARTIN: Rawya Rageh is a reporter for Al Jazeera English. She joined us on the phone from Cairo. Borzou Daragahi is Middle East correspondent and Beirut bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. He joined us on the phone from Tunis in Tunisia. I thank you both so much for keeping us up to date on these important stories.

Mr. DARAGAHI: It's been a pleasure.

Ms. RAGEH: You're welcome, Michel, it was a pleasure talking to you.

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