Egypt Tense As Protests Continue

In a show of force, F-16 jets flew repeatedly fast and low over Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the demonstrations against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The message from the air may have been intimidation, but on the ground there was cooperation between the military and the protesters.

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GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

(Soundbite of tanks)

RAZ: The sound of tanks rumbling through the streets of Cairo today. It's day six of the popular uprising, and demonstrations across the country are growing. Thousands of people remain in Cairo's central Tahrir Square at this hour, and protesters say they won't retreat until President Hosni Mubarak steps down.

On the streets, soldiers are still mostly avoiding confrontations, and above the capital city, helicopters hover, watching the masses below.

President Obama has spoken to several world leaders. They are all calling for an orderly transition to a government that better reflects the aspirations of the people. For now, it appears Hosni Mubarak's days as Egypt's uncontested leader are numbered.

In a moment, chaotic scenes at Cairo's airport, as thousands of foreigners make their way out, and later, the reaction in Israel, a key ally of the Mubarak government. But first to NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Cairo on a day of growing uncertainty.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: A show of force in the air, just as the curfew was supposed to be kicking in, F-16s flying repeatedly fast and low over Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests here. The message from the air may have been intimidation. On the ground, though, there was cooperation between the military and the protesters.

The army setting up checkpoints around the square, frisking for weapons and looking at IDs, but otherwise leaving those gathered alone.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so the demonstrations continued past the curfew and into the night. At around 7 p.m., Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who is a key opposition figure here, came to the square for the first time.

Mr. MOHAMMED ELBARADEI (Nobel Peace Laureate): (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You are the owners of this revolution, he told the protesters, to cheers. You are the future. Our essential demand is the departure of the regime, he said.

But so far, there are few signs that President Hosni Mubarak is leaving. He appeared on state TV with a cadre of generals. The message he was seemingly trying to convey was that he is still in control of the country and, crucially, of the military. Their role in all of this is still unclear.

And in the square, there were mixed views. Ahmed Deif is a professor of engineering. He says the F-16s were meant to stop the protesters from coming out.

Dr. AHMED DEIF (Professor of Engineering, Nile University): They're actually trying to terrify people. They're trying to actually establish a kind of terrifying environment or a spirit so the people can leave. But definitely, the - we got the wrong message. They left us no option, actually, except to sit here until we get our - all our requirements done and all what we would like to happen happening.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the army, unlike the police, is highly respected, and so far, it has shown restraint. Protester Yasser Muhammed lauded them.

Mr. YASSER MUHAMMED: We are together, army forces and the Egyptian people. We are together. We are one, one people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But there were no mixed feelings regarding America's role here. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took to the talk shows in the U.S. This is her in an appearance on "Meet the Press."

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): I want the Egyptian people to have the chance to chart a new future. It needs to be an orderly, peaceful transition to real democracy, not faux democracy like the elections we saw in Iran two years ago.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: On the same show, she tried to deflect questions about America's support of the Mubarak regime.

Sec. CLINTON: President Mubarak and his government have been an important partner to the United States. I mean, let's not, you know, just focus on today. This is a government that made and kept a peace with Israel that was incredibly important.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back in the square, those ties were the subject of outrage. The U.S. provides Egypt with a billion dollars of military aid a year. The F-16s and the tear gas canisters that were fired at the demonstrators were all made in America.

So you're holding a sign that says USA, support the people, not the tyrant. Why?

Mr. KHALED TANTAWI: Because the U.S. is advocating for human rights and everything, and they say that they care about human rights. They do not care about human rights. They care about their interests in the Middle East. They do not care about the people.

Mr. MUHAMMED: Please, Mr. Obama, Mr. Obama, you should be - tell Mubarak leave us now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Khaled Tantawi and Yasser Muhammed. The demonstrators seem to come from a mix of backgrounds. Some traveled from the provinces, others from a few blocks away. So far, though, the protesters haven't coalesced around any particular leader. They say they want the ballot box to decide who the future president of Egypt will be.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Cairo.

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