Egypt Deploys Military; Protesters Defy Curfew

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There was chaos in Cairo on Friday, as anti-government demonstrators clashed with police and security forces in several parts of the city. Cell phone and Internet were cut off shortly before the protests erupted after Friday prayers. For more, host Melissa Block speaks to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Parts of Egypt resemble a warzone today. Tens of thousands of protesters filled the streets, not only in Cairo but other cities as well. And there were widespread clashes with police. There are reports of some deaths and hundreds of injuries. In the evening, the Egyptian army was deployed.

BLOCK: Today's protest began after Friday prayers with loud demands for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak has yet to issue any statement. His government has blocked Internet sites and cut cell phone networks to try to keep protesters from organizing.

Earlier today, I spoke with NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. She was on her hotel balcony in downtown Cairo, and throughout our conversation, we could hear loud noises in the background.

(Soundbite of explosions)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: This is the sound of teargas canisters. Every so often, we hear what sounds like rubber bullets, and then, there are these things that sound like percussion bombs. But that pop that you just heard, for example, is a teargas canister. And they've been firing this nonstop since maybe about 1 o'clock, 1:30 this afternoon.

I mean, I've gotten gassed several times myself today. It's just completely enveloped the center of town. But people are somehow breaking through this. It's amazing how many people are just pushing through despite the efforts here of the police.

BLOCK: And they're defying the curfew at this point. How many people would you say are in the streets from where you stand right now?

NELSON: I mean, it's very difficult. Again, how do you estimate something like this? But it definitely sounds like thousands to me because it's completely enveloping this very huge square. Again, the place they're trying to get into - and this is where the police are making what many are describing here as the last stand - is Tahrir Square.

This will be a very much a symbolic - a very strong symbolic victory if the protesters are able to take this. Or in reverse, if the government is able to keep the protesters out, but that does not seem likely anymore at this point. We already have hundreds of protesters surging through the square. You can hear them cheering now, pushing their way in. There are many, many people here despite there being so much teargas.

BLOCK: There are reports from earlier today, Soraya, of riot police who have been taking off their uniforms and badges and joining the demonstrators. Have you seen or heard about that?

NELSON: I have not seen that. I, unfortunately, have seen much sadder pictures. As we were approaching here in the earlier afternoon hours, you saw many protesters carrying other protesters that were bloodied and injured. They were - some were crying, saying that the police had taken to using live bullets. No way to verify that.

I've heard some sharper sounds that sound like they might be live fire, but again, I'm no ammunition expert. And there has been no way to do any kind of confirmation given the fact that Internet and mobile phones are down. The only thing that is working is this landline, and even that, as you hear, is sporadic.

And there has been no comment from the government, except for yesterday, the ruling party - one of the ruling party officials gave a press conference. It's important to note that the ruling party building is now on fire. The National Democratic Party headquarters is on fire in Cairo.

BLOCK: We did hear today, Soraya, from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking for both sides to refrain from violence but also calling on the Egyptian government to respect the aspirations of the people.

NELSON: Yes. But it seems to be a little bit too little too late for the people that I've spoken to on the streets. They're very angry with Americans right now. What particularly stuck with them was a statement that Mrs. Clinton made earlier on about the Egyptian government being stable, and they feel betrayed.

People I've spoken to today keep complaining it's American teargas that's being used. Again, no way to verify that that's, in fact, the case. But they're done with it. I had people who refused to speak to me because I would identify myself as working for National Public Radio, an American radio station. They're like anybody but Americans. They're very, very angry right now. So it seems that there is some fence mending to do if, in fact, Mr. Mubarak's government falls.

BLOCK: Walk us through just a bit about who is responding on the military side. It's the Egyptian army, as well as the interior ministry, right?

NELSON: Well, actually, the Egyptian army has not been involved at all until today, and people actually would welcome that. They feel the army would be on their side. It has been police forces, state security forces, forces that answer to the interior ministry, and which many Egyptians complained had been acting with impunity under the state emergency law that's been effect for nearly three decades.

BLOCK: Soraya, you mentioned that the people thought the army would be on their side. Why would that be?

NELSON: They're thinking that once the army comes that a coup will take place. So that somehow this will end. They don't see the army as being their enemy but, in fact, as their friend. They don't see them as being on the side of Mr. Mubarak's government. So, in fact, the army as they're rolling in armored personnel carriers, they've been cheered. They have not been booed. And that is the case here as well as they start to roll into Tahrir Square.

BLOCK: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson talking with us from Cairo.

Soraya, thanks so much.

NELSON: You're welcome.

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