Will Egyptian President Mubarak Step Down?

Steve Inskeep talks to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson about indications that President Hosni Mubarak may step down Thursday.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. We're watching this morning for news of the future of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Many indications in the past hour suggest that Mubarak may go. But we do not have that from Mubarak himself or his government. So we're going to sort through what we know with NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. She's in Cairo. She's been covering these protests from the first day. Hi, Soraya.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: And let me just tell you something that's coming out of Washington first. Leon Panetta, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency in the United States, is before a congressional committee today, and this a quote from Panetta. Quote: "There is a strong likelihood that Mubarak may step down this evening" - which, he says, would be significant in terms of where the hopefully orderly transition in Egypt takes place. So that's a statement from Leon Panetta in the United States. What are you hearing and seeing in the last hour or so in Cairo, Soraya?

NELSON: Well, I just got off the phone a short while ago with the general secretary of the National Democratic Party, which, of course, is the ruling party here in Egypt. And he tells that he requested of Mubarak today that he transfer his power to the vice president, Oman Suleiman. Whether or not President Mubarak will do that, he says, he doesn't know. He has not heard back, that it would be up to him and probably his circle of inner advisors. But the request has been made by the head of the ruling party that he step aside.

Before he does that, however, what he needs to do is send a letter to parliament or basically open the path to constitutional reform, that any elections that are held, any presidential elections that are held, will be open to parties other than the ruling party, which of course is the key demand of protesters.

INSKEEP: Well, this is very interesting, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. I'll repeat some of it because the phone line was not so great. You're saying that the head of the ruling party asked Mubarak to step down. You don't know for sure that Mubarak is going to do that. But it is interesting that then the discussion is moving on, even in the ruling party, not to whether Mubarak stays or goes, but the mechanics of how it happens and how elections are arranged. That in itself seems significant.

NELSON: Absolutely. Because if he steps aside without making any provisions for constitutional reform, then basically the same situation that has existed for 30 years - or I should say at least in the last several years, since the last constitutional amendments were put in place, that would just continue, which would basically shut out any of the opposition parties, anybody else from running this fall for president - for presidential election.

And so what has been requested is that Mr. Mubarak turn over a letter to the parliament which would allow them to address these constitutional amendments. Then he would call for a referendum. But then he also would transfer power to the vice president. That is something that the ruling party general secretary said he would like to see tonight, to meet the demands of the protesters.

INSKEEP: Now, we also have a general who has told the protesters that their demands will be met. He hasn't said exactly how, but he said their demands will be met?

NELSON: Well, there has been some conflicting information about that. Certainly the crowds in Tahrir tonight are expecting an army announcement. They've been told to expect an army announcement. It's interesting, though, what they have to say about this subject.

INSKEEP: Which is what?

NELSON: Well, they're saying that they think the army is going to take over. They don't want either Mr. Suleiman or Mr. Mubarak in charge. What they would like to see is a military coup, if you will, tonight.

INSKEEP: Well, now, that - that is very interesting, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, because that's been another development of the past hour, as we've seen on Egyptian state TV pictures of the supreme council of the armed forces meeting. And they haven't made any substantive announcements except to say that they're meeting and monitoring the situation. And you're saying protesters think or fear that could simply mean the army steps in this situation.

NELSON: It's almost welcoming. I mean, we didn't talk to every protester, obviously. There are very many out there tonight. The square is packed. But the ones we spoke to seemed to think that this is what's going to transpire. And they're almost welcoming it, because they don't trust the ruling party staying in charge.

INSKEEP: Meaning they would prefer a coup to the status quo.

NELSON: Some would.

INSKEEP: Okay. Now, just one other quick question here, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. What was the momentum of the last couple of days? Did it seem to be moving toward Mubarak going?

NELSON: Well, certainly the crowds have picked up. There's been a big call tomorrow for protesters to march from various squares in Cairo on to Tahrir Square here. It seemed that this announcement today, perhaps, is a way to try -the announcement by the ruling party, that is - is a way to try and hopefully prevent even more people from turning out.

INSKEEP: Okay.

NELSON: There have been mass strikes going on. Today the transportation workers joined in. And so the government is obviously trying to tamp that down.

INSKEEP: Okay. Thanks very much. That's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Cairo, where we have many indications about Hosni Mubarak possibly stepping down. We'll bring you more as we learn it.

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