Frustrated Protesters Return To Tahrir Square

Tahrir became synonymous with revolution in Egypt, and now thousands of protesters are demanding that the current military government cede more power to the people, guarantee fair elections and assure former President Hosni Mubarak's trial takes place. NPR correspondent Mike Shuster reports.

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LAURA SULLIVAN, host: Protesters are back in Tahrir Square, the site of hundreds of thousands - the site where hundreds of thousands of fed-up Egyptians forced the resignation of former President Hosni Mubarak. Thousands of young Egyptians flock to the square in central Cairo every night, many after school, others after work. They're frustrated with the pace of the revolution. Activists like 25-year-old - excuse me - Sarrah Abdel Rahman say packing the square is the only way to get the attention of the military council that's running the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

SARRAH ABDEL RAHMAN: There is no other way that we know that can make a difference. I mean, whatever happens, the Supreme Council does what they think is good for them, not for the country and not - they don't take into consideration anyone's opinion.

SULLIVAN: If you've been in contact with family in Egypt, what are they saying? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joining us from his hotel in Cairo, where he's been covering the latest protests, is NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster. Mike, thanks so much for joining us.

MIKE SHUSTER: Hi, Laura.

SULLIVAN: It sounds like the people in the square are complaining about the pace of the revolution. Has it stalled?

SHUSTER: Well, many people who are camped out in Tahrir Square believe that it's stalled. They don't see change taking place very quickly, and they believe that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces - which is the small group of military generals that are now essentially the government of Egypt - they believe that they're holding it back. That's what they argue, if you go and walk through the square. They believe that they're holding it back. They don't want to see change.

They're from the old regime, the younger protesters say, and that they don't have the revolutionary fervor that the younger generation has. So there's this growing tension between the Supreme Council of military leaders and the young folks in the square, and it's becoming more tense. I think there's no question about that.

SULLIVAN: The military leaders have promised, I believe, to hold elections in September, even, which is only about six or seven weeks away at this point. Is - I mean, is - do they feel like this isn't going to happen? Do they not trust that this process is going to work?

SHUSTER: Well, the original goal for the first round of elections was September, but in the last couple of weeks, the generals have essentially put that off. They have promulgated a roadmap of sorts, which designates mid-September as the beginning of the planning for the elections, the likely holding of parliamentary elections in November. After that, the convening of an assembly that could write a new constitution for Egypt, and then holding presidential elections perhaps by next March across Egypt.

So there's a rough blueprint for the future, but there have been earlier ones since President Hosni Mubarak was toppled. And they have been constantly modified and significant steps put off. It's not clear that a lot of the demonstrators dislike the roadmap as the generals have laid it out right now. They're less - they seemed less urgent about holding parliamentary elections as putting Hosni Mubarak on trial, putting other leaders of the old regime on trial, ending certain practices that military has allowed, like arresting protesters for street crimes and then putting them before military tribunals.

The protesters say that's completely - that's a complete misuse of military power. So there are - and I have to say one of the things, Laura, that - there are as many demands and as many criticisms of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces as there are people at any one time in Tahrir Square. It really is - it's a hodgepodge, and it's just an extraordinary amalgam of political argument and political debate and demands from - coming from all directions.

SULLIVAN: So it's not - it's - they're not a unified group when they're out in the square. There's actually different groups all in the square together, wanting different things.

SHUSTER: Exactly. And, in fact, that's something that critics of the protesters in the ongoing protest in Tahrir Square have focused on, which is that the protest groups haven't coalesced around some form of leadership that could represent them and their views and perhaps the wider views of impatient protesters across the country, so that it doesn't feel like it's anarchic in a sense, but that they're coming together over a specific set of demands that has priorities and perhaps is realistic. You hear that criticism of the younger generation from a lot of people, actually, who are quite sympathetic to change continuing in Egypt, but are frustrated that the younger generation hasn't coalesced around something more systematic and clear, to make their views clear.

SULLIVAN: Have they all coalesced around the idea of trying Mubarak?

SHUSTER: No, I don't think so. But Mubarak's - Mubarak was scheduled to go on trial next week, August 3rd, next Wednesday. And there's been a lot of talk in the last couple of weeks, a lot of questioning about whether that trial will actually come off. And today, there were some developments about that. A senior Justice Ministry official essentially said that, yes, the Mubarak trial will go ahead. It will start on August 3rd in Cairo. Mubarak is not in Cairo at the moment. He is in Sharm el-Sheikh, the seaside resort that he fled to after he was ousted.

It's believed that he's been in the hospital for quite some time. There have been statements that he has been in and out of a coma, that he's refusing to eat, that he may have been fed recently intravenously. But today, someone from the health ministry said that he's healthy enough to stand trial - at least that's a quotation that emerged. And a senior official from the justice department said he would be brought to Cairo to stand trial. Now, I think there are those who are skeptical that this is really going to take place, anyway. It will be an enormous story, and it could lead to much more tension in Cairo and perhaps across Egypt. So I think we'll have to wait and see whether this (technical difficulties) comes only next week.

SULLIVAN: When it comes together. There were huge - large clashes outside the Egyptian defense department just this past weekend. What happened?

SHUSTER: Well, what happened was that it was Saturday afternoon. And in a very spontaneous outburst of political excitement, several thousand people started to (technical difficulties) to the Ministry of Defense, which is where the headquarters of the Supreme Council is, and to demonstrate and show their displeasure with the stalled pace of political change, in their view, in Egypt. And when they got closer to the Defense Ministry, they began to be pelted by rocks and threatened by men with knives. And clashes started to occur, first between these - this kind of anarchic situation.

And then the riot police weighed in with their truncheons. They fired live ammunition over the heads of the marchers. And then there was tear gas. There were some firebombs thrown. And these clashes lasted well into the night on Saturday night. A lot of people were injured. Nobody, thankfully, was killed. A lot of the demonstrators were injured. More than 100 had to be taken to hospitals. And this has really upped, I think, the level of tension over the political - the immediate political future of the revolution in Egypt. I think it was something that wasn't expected. It wasn't planned for. And the protesters, in particular, are in a rage that they were (technical difficulties) in this way, because, again, they didn't employ violence in their march. They were just marching to express their impatience, I'd say, with the pace of change.

SULLIVAN: And if you have family in Egypt, tell us what you're hearing at 1-800-989-8255, is the number. We'd love to hear the experiences of your family members. Mike, these, I mean, these protests and the gatherings, at least, in the square are much smaller than what we saw during the revolution.

SHUSTER: That's certainly true. It was far smaller than - there were millions of people in the streets of Cairo and other cities in Egypt in January and February. And they led to the very rapid toppling of longtime president Hosni Mubarak. It only took 18 days from the point at which it started in January. The regulars in Tahrir Square probably don't number more than a few hundred. In the evenings, when a lot of students or young workers get free, they come down to the square, and there might be a few thousand every night in the square.

SULLIVAN: You interviewed a number...

SHUSTER: There's a lot of talk about - I'm sorry.

SULLIVAN: That's OK. You interviewed a number of them in your reporting from the area. I think we have some tape of them. One activist, Hisham - sorry, if I'm pronouncing this wrong - Hisham Kassem, I do believe it is.

SHUSTER: It is.

SULLIVAN: Has pretty much lost his appetite for protesting. Let's hear what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

HISHAM KASSEM: Most of the demands are ridiculous and unacceptable. To expedite Mubarak's trial is unacceptable to me. I have fought for the rule of law. And this is the country I hope that we will build together. Now, summary trials is something I refuse completely, and Mubarak must face justice, not revenge.

SULLIVAN: So this particular activist, Hisham Kassem, is a human rights activist. And...

SHUSTER: Right. He's been a crusader for human rights and civil rights in Egypt for a very long time. He's also a journalist. He's published papers and he's written a great deal. And he expressed the fear that this ongoing demonstration and the kind of spontaneous outburst of political fervor that comes with these (technical difficulties) we were talking about on Saturday night, is a real threat to Egypt. He fears that if things like this lead to violence, and they - it's easy to see that they do - that the generals might use that as a pretense to crack down and to end this process altogether.

And he - and Kassem, and I think there are others like him in the older generation - are arguing that the demonstrators need to get back to their homes, that Tahrir Square be cleaned up, let traffic move through, focus on economic issues, and let the political roadmap that's now laid out take its course to see where it takes the whole mission.

SULLIVAN: We're talking with Mike Shuster, NPR's foreign correspondent, who's been covering the new protests in Egypt. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Mike, do you think that there is a possibility that all of these protests that are going on in the square and their - how they continue to just keep fueling on themselves, that it's really going to do some damage to the ability - to the military to be able to, you know, put in a new government?

SHUSTER: I think, Laura, that it's very difficult to predict how the political process will play itself out in Egypt. They did really undergo a significant revolution in that Mubarak, who had been in power for nearly 30 years, was toppled and toppled quickly. It's - now, the issues become more difficult, how to replace his regime with a new regime that is far more representative and democratic. And everybody has their own notion of what that means.

Every - there are an enormous number of political issues that people want to see tackled in Egypt. So it's a very fluid situation, politically. And in a fluid situation, politically, in a country this size, in a country this complex, it's really difficult to predict the course of politics, how things will play out. And I think it's fair to say that there are no guarantees. The fact that Mubarak was overthrown is one thing. But there are no guarantees that Egypt will move on a smooth and clear course representative democracy and political safety, in a sense, and secure its national security in this context. So I think people instinctively feel that in Egypt and know that it's a difficult situation and potentially dangerous situation.

SULLIVAN: We have an email from Jamila(ph) in Giza, Egypt, who writes: I'm an American living in Egypt for 11 years, married to an Egyptian. The vast silent majority of Egyptians are getting so tired of a Tahrir Square group stopping business. Tourists are afraid to visit a country where a protest erupts at whim. The criticism of the army is unfounded. They need to remember it was the army that saved this revolution. Unrealistic expectations of how fast change should come - protesting has become a career for some of this people, a claim to fame. Nobody wants Mubarak back. People want a true democracy, and they are tired of being held hostage to the protests. Mike, what do you think about that?

SHUSTER: Well, that's interesting. I mean, that - there is definitely that view spread in - across Cairo and much of the rest of Egypt. It's hard to know how deep that feeling goes in the population. But there's no question that there are significantly different political groupings in - and sentiments in Egypt. And you hear that kind of criticism from a lot of people. You also hear the protesters and supporters of the protesters push back, who want to see more political change more quickly, and who don't trust the military leadership to carry it out, because those military leaders were identified with Mubarak and his regime for so many years. So there are powerful arguments on all sides, it seems to me.

SULLIVAN: Well, let's take a call from Ahmed in Portland, Oregon. You're on the air. Please...

AHMED: Hi. How are you?

SULLIVAN: Good.

AHMED: OK. I just wanted to call and let you know that I have a friend that is studying in Cairo, at the American University. And she actually put out a warning on Facebook this morning to any of her American friends out there in - that are in Egypt to avoid the square over the next couple do days. So apparently, they're thinking that it's not - she's thinking that it's not safe in general, but particularly for Americans.

SULLIVAN: Thank you so much for the call. Mike, have you found anything coming up, just quickly? Is anything coming up in the next few days that Americans should be wary about?

SHUSTER: Well, I'm not sure whether Americans or anyone else, but they are - there is talk of a very large demonstration originating in Tahrir Square tomorrow, Friday. It could be very large. And if it is, it'll have a very large impact in Cairo and beyond.

SULLIVAN: And that's Mike Shuster. He's foreign correspondent for National Public Radio. He joined us from Cairo. Mike, thank you so much for joining the program.

SHUSTER: You bet, Laura.

SULLIVAN: And tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. And Joe Palca will be here with a look at "Project Nim," a new documentary about a 1970s experiment, teaching a chimp sign language. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News, and I'm Laura Sullivan in Washington.

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