Tension, Anticipation Build In Egyptian Capital

After weeks of protests, Egyptians continue to fill Cairo's Tahrir Square to demand the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson and Anthony Shadid of The New York Times provide an update from the Egyptian capital.

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ARI SHAPIRO, Host:

Right now, we're about to get an update from Cairo.

And in this part of the show, we want to hear from Egyptian-Americans. What does this moment mean to you? What are you watching for? What are you waiting to hear? The number is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can also join the conversation online. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now by phone from Cairo is NPR correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

Hi, Soraya.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Thanks for joining us. Tell us about the scene in Tahrir Square. What's going on around you?

SARHADDI NELSON: Well, there are many thousands of people. I mean, the place is packed, and it's almost jubilant. They're singing. There are speeches or smaller speeches going on, and everyone seems to be getting really riled up and excited waiting to hear what President Mubarak is about to say.

SHAPIRO: What do they expect? Are people anticipating that he will resign?

SARHADDI NELSON: Well, they - it's amazing. You have a variety of things that the people are saying, but there seems to be a lot of people who think the army is going to take over, and they almost seem happy about it.

But it's important to note, I did get off the phone with the general secretary of the ruling party not too long ago, and he says what he has asked the president to do is to step down or to basically cede his powers to the vice president. And he doesn't know for a fact whether or not Mr. Mubarak is going to do that, but that seems - that's certainly the pressure that's coming from up high. That he make some constitutional changes so that there can actually be open elections this fall or at least pave the path for those constitutional changes, and that he then turn the rest of the power over to Mr. Suleiman, the vice president.

SHAPIRO: Soraya, let's listen to a bit of what it sounds like there in Tahrir Square right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

Unidentified Man: I'd love one.

SHAPIRO: And, Soraya, you have been covering these protests for more than two weeks. Does this moment feel different?

SARHADDI NELSON: It's much happier. I mean, we've had a couple of times where the protesters feel they've made some progress where things have turned happier. I mean, one example, of course, was after Friday night, the first Friday night, when - this was about two weeks ago - after the gunfire stopped, after the teargas stopped being lobbed and the police went away basically, and there certainly was jubilance there.

We've had several other occasions since then where that's been the case, but tonight, certainly, there is a level of anticipation that I have not seen since this all began.

SHAPIRO: And when you talk to people, aside from the jubilance, are there specific things that they are really looking to hear as the day unfolds?

SARHADDI NELSON: They really want to see real change, and for them, that means Mr. Mubarak must step down, and that Mr. Suleiman really shouldn't just be taking the mantle. I mean, they don't want to see a shifting of chairs on the deck of the Titanic, as people have described it. I mean, they just - they want to know that all their efforts are not in vain, and that in fact there will be a more democratic Egypt. One that is also more economically viable for its people.

SHAPIRO: And if they see that happening today, do the crowds disappear, or do people plan to stay there regardless?

SARHADDI NELSON: At this stage, no one is moving. I think they really want to see what is going to be said first and whether this is significant change. And then, I think one can anticipate even if they get everything that they want, that they will be in the streets celebrating tomorrow. Tomorrow is the weekend here. It's like Sunday in the United States.

SHAPIRO: We heard President Obama say earlier that the United States wants to do everything it can to help Egypt transition to democracy. Do people you're talking with in the square feel that the U.S. is there to help them? What is their sense of the role of the United States?

SARHADDI NELSON: There's actually been a lot of anger. They feel that America has supported Mr. Mubarak for the past 30 years, and that's why he's been able to remain in power as long as he has. They feel that the United States has also been very slow in seeming supportive, if you will, of the popular uprising that's going on.

So, at this stage, it's a little bit too little, too late, I mean, at least to the - if you ask the protesters out there.

SHAPIRO: Soraya, thanks so much. It's great to talk to you. We'll keep checking in with you as the day unfolds.

SARHADDI NELSON: Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: We're going to go now to a caller. We have Halil(ph) from Orlando, Florida on the line.

Hi, Halil.

HALIL: Hello?

SHAPIRO: Yes. Please, go ahead.

HALIL: Yes, sir. If you ask me my opinion about what's going on right now, as an American citizen, Egyptian citizen, I'm really supporting the people in Egypt, supporting the administrators. And I'm asking again and again and again for the number of millions, please, for the president, just leave. All I need right now is people to be safe. If America will support Egyptian citizens, well, that would be a very wise decision. If the people in America will support the people in Egypt, that means we're all in the same boat. What's happening in Egypt right now can happen anywhere in the world again, with any dictator. I believe Hosni Mubarak is a dictator. I believe his regime has to go, exactly the way Saddam Hussein was gone.

SHAPIRO: So you would like to see Mubarak step down immediately. Let me ask you, Halil, being in Orlando, being an Egyptian-American, is it difficult for you to watch these scenes in Cairo and not be there?

HALIL: I tried to go back home for the last week. I couldn't. I made a - not really a mistake, but I sent my passport to be renewed - the American passport to be renewed, and I called the State Department a couple of times to send me my - the passport as soon as possible, but it's OK. I'm right here watching the - everything going on in Egypt. I'm watching the Internet, Al Jazeera English, Al Jazeera Arabic. I'm watching the CNN. I'm watching the news. I'm following up with what's going on. I'm right there by my heart with the people in Egypt.

SHAPIRO: So you're with...

HALIL: My family's still in Egypt.

SHAPIRO: ...with the protesters in spirit, calling for President Mubarak to step down. Well, thanks for the call.

Let's hear a different perspective now from Peter in Portland, Oregon.

Hi, Peter. Hi, Peter?

PETER: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Please, go ahead.

PETER: Well, I'm Egyptian. I grew up in Egypt. I live in Portland, Oregon. And I have a family member that - actually, one of the people that died in the protests. I'm following very closely what's happening there. I just got off the phone with my dad. And it's - there's a very controversial opinion about whether Mubarak is leaving or not. And if he does, who's going to take over? I've always had the fear of, like, the Muslim Brotherhood take over by supports from Iran and from Hezbollah or other countries, not by the support of the Egyptians. Because all of my friends, whether they're Christians or Muslims in Egypt, have been - they all seem not to support the Muslim Brotherhood.

However, as, you know, as an American, I believe that, you know, it was - historically, it was the U.S. support to Israel, it's almost like the U.S. will ensure that, like - I mean, (unintelligible) like the Muslim Brotherhood wouldn't take over Egypt. However, we can't really tell what's going to happen now.

SHAPIRO: So you're afraid of what'll happen if Mubarak does step down later today.

PETER: Correct. I'm in support of that - I'm against that regime, but afraid of what would happen next.

SHAPIRO: All right. OK. Well, thanks for the call, Peter.

We're going to go now to NPR for - sorry - New York Times foreign correspondent, Anthony Shadid, who is joining us by phone from Cairo.

Hi, there.

ANTHONY SHADID: Hi. Hi.

SHAPIRO: Give us sense of why this is happening today. What was the last straw?

SHADID: Well, I think what is important to keep an eye on are the wave of protests that we've been seeing over the past two days. They gathered force over the past 48 hours. And I think there's a sense out there that while the military thought they could manage the protests we've seen in Liberation Square, it couldn't manage what was looking to be like civil disobedience, spreading protests, clashes in those(ph) cities, cutting off the rail links in southern Egypt. I think there was a sense of growing civil disobedience that the army and the state, by default, could not manage.

SHAPIRO: You know, we heard such a shift from last night, when Egypt's foreign minister was telling an interviewer on PBS that he needed to wait until things were calm and Cairo returned to normal before beginning to make changes. And now, suddenly, it seems as though those changes could be coming any moment.

SHADID: You know, exactly. And I think that was the government's sense, was that it could somehow return the city to normal. And we saw that, you know, very clearly on Monday, when banks reopened. They announced the opening of the stock exchange this week. There was a sense of trying to demonstrate that Cairo was returning to normal. But what we've seen over the past two days with the biggest protests yet, the civil disobedience, the labor strikes, was that there was no way Cairo was, in fact, going to return to normal.

SHAPIRO: All right, Anthony Shadid, let's bring in another caller. This is Aida(ph) from Robbinsville, New Jersey.

Hi, there.

AIDA: Hi. How are you?

SHAPIRO: Fine. Thanks. Go ahead.

AIDA: Yes. I just wanted to say that I'm an Egyptian-American. I never lived in Egypt. I actually was born there and grew up in the States and Dubai. And I feel - I was in tears today when my husband called me and said that Mubarak will be calling - talking to his people, saying that he's going to step down. I honestly have mixed feelings. One is that I felt bad for the people all these years, that he had forgotten about them. And secondly, I didn't want him to leave humiliated. I just wanted him to step down with dignity. And I just - I'm very proud, extremely proud of the Egyptian young men and women.

SHAPIRO: All right. Thank you for the call, Aida.

AIDA: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And Anthony Shadid of the New York Times, we're talking with you from Cairo. Can you give us a sense of what role the military has played in these fast-moving developments over the last two days?

SHADID: Well, it's interesting. The military has long played a behind-the- scenes role in Egyptian political life. It has vast business interests that have grown in the years that there's been peace with Israel. The Egyptian military doesn't fight wars, really, anymore. And over that time, it has become an institution that, you know, has gone far beyond just, you know, an institution that fights wars. It's gone into businesses. It's gone into, obviously, the political, you know, weight that goes behind that.

What we're seeing over the past few weeks - especially when the security collapsed here, when the police withdrew from the streets - was that the army became the default instrument of violence, in a way, in its streets - not that it used violence. But it was the safeguard in a way. It's tried to stay on the sidelines, and it's gone to great lengths to cultivate this notion of being neutral. I think the military is very much - it's very much on the military's mind to somehow retain its power, retain its influence, retain its business interest in whatever transition transpires.

Now, what we're seeing today, though, is very clearly, the military aggressively inserting itself into the crisis, taking control of the country, to some extent. We're not sure what it's going to lead to in the next few hours, but there are at least suggestions of a military coup.

SHAPIRO: We're talking about the fast-changing situation on the streets of Cairo today, here on TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Let's bring in another caller. This is Tariq(ph) from Scottsdale, Arizona.

Hi, Tariq.

TARIQ: Hey, how are you doing?

SHAPIRO: Fine.

TARIQ: I'm very excited about what's going on. This is a new dawn for Egypt. Pretty much, the government and the people have been disconnected for years. The country has decayed. And this is the chance to renew the country, to have a new secular government and move forward. We've been waiting for this for years.

SHAPIRO: Well, Tariq, let me ask: Are you confident that this will be a new dawn? Or are you concerned that it could be what our colleague Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson earlier described as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?

TARIQ: No. No. I'm very optimistic about this. I have friends that are in Tahrir Square right now that I talk to every couple of hours. And they're telling me there is - the presence of even the Muslim Brotherhood is very little, and that this has actually - this has actually taken support away from the Muslim Brotherhood. (unintelligible) only had the Muslim Brotherhood as their other option. Now they feel they have different options.

SHAPIRO: Different options, but not one clear option. It sounds as though there's a lot of uncertainty.

TARIQ: Exactly. But things will come together. And we have lot of secular people. And all - the majority of Muslims and Christians in Egypt, of course, want a secular government.

SHAPIRO: OK. Tariq, thanks for the call. And I want to remind listeners that we're interested in this - hearing in this hour from Egyptian Americans about what this moment in Cairo means to you: What are you listening for? What are you paying attention to? What do you want to hear?

And Anthony Shadid in Cairo, that uncertainty of what comes after Mubarak seems to be hovering over this whole day. What do we know about what happens next?

SHADID: Well, I think that's the key question. I think in one sense, a revolution has happened. If Mr. Mubarak does, in fact, step down, the Egyptian revolution achieved its key and central demand, and that was the resignation of a president who has served in power for 30 years. I think another revolution may be underway, and that is what kind of government is going to emerge - not only in Egypt, but in the Arab world, a region that Egypt had long served as a leader.

We don't really have an example of a secular, democratic system in the Arab world right now. And I think Egypt is on the cusp of trying to at least, you know, bring about a vision in which that might be realized.

SHAPIRO: All right, let's take another call. We're going to go to Messine(ph) from Las Vegas, Nevada.

Hi, Messine.

MESSINE: Hi, my name is Messine.

SHAPIRO: Messine. Sorry.

MESSINE: I'm from Las Vegas, Nevada. I'm actually not Egyptian. I'm from Ethiopia.

SHAPIRO: Mm-hmm.

MESSINE: So I'm really happy to hear that Mubarak is going to leave soon. And that will be - pave a way for other despots all over Africa, like the one we have in Uganda, you name any African country, who are living, you know, for over 15, 20 years.

SHAPIRO: Interesting. Many people have talked about the repercussions of this in the Arab world, throughout the Middle East. You're looking at other African dictators. And what do you see in Africa that makes you think other regimes could start to fall?

MESSINE: They've been in power for over 20 years, some of them, at least. There is no any other citizen in their respected countries. Take the one in Ethiopia. He has been there in power for nearly 20 years. And take the other guy in Uganda. He is over 25 years, I believe. So does it mean that there is no any other citizen in that respective country to represent and, you know, fill the position? So that makes me feel sick when I see here Americans or other Western countries living in a very democratic and free, happy life.

SHAPIRO: Mm-hmm. All right. Well, thanks for the call. And I want to remind listeners that while we're hearing conflicting reports that Hosni Mubarak may step down today, we have not heard from the president yet. The reports are conflicting. We may hear from him in about five minutes.

Anthony Shadid, in Cairo, what could the repercussions be in other African regimes, in other Middle Eastern regimes? Is this the first of many dominoes - or the second, I suppose, after Tunisia?

SHADID: You know, it's hard to say. I think there's a sense out in the Arab world that this may be, you know, bringing about change rather quickly. But I think the reality may be it's a much more longer process. It's - you know, Egypt, again, is emerging as a leader of a region that it really hasn't led in a long time. But there's no question that people in the rest of the Arab World are looking to Egypt. People following almost - the events, minute by minute. The crowds in Tahrir Square are undeniably inspirational, I think, to people across the Arab world.

This is a moment of, in some ways, of jubilation. This is a moment of excitement, a moment of optimism. And it comes, I think, most remarkably after some of the lowest points in the Arab world. I think if you talk to people in December in the Middle East about their hope, their optimism of the future, you may have heard a very bleak message.

And what you're hearing today is almost the exact reverse of that. You're hearing for the first time in - maybe even a generation - widespread optimism, even a kind of almost innocent jubilation over what this could represent for a region that hasn't had its fair share of good years.

SHAPIRO: It's an exciting moment. That's New York Times foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid. He joined us by phone from Cairo.

Thanks a lot.

SHADID: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Listeners, we will be following the situation in Cairo as the day unfolds throughout NPR News programs. We are waiting to hear from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Earlier today, we heard from American President Barack Obama, who said the U.S. will stand by Egypt and do whatever it can to help the transition to democracy.

Tomorrow, it's SCIENCE FRIDAY, and Ira Flatow will be here. Rebecca Roberts will be filling in on Monday.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro, in Washington.

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