Amid Protests, Egypt Shifts Focus To Presidential Transition
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
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And we'll have another in our series of essays highlighting figures from black history that our commentators most admire.
But first, history in the making in Egypt. After nearly 30 years in power, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak says he will not step down. But he says he will not run for a new term in September. Here's Mubarak speaking late last night. This is the voice of a translator you'll hear. Here it is.
President HOSNI MUBARAK (Egypt): (Through translator) I tell you in plain words that in the few months remaining in my current term, I will work towards ensuring the measures and procedures that will guarantee the peaceful transition of power.
MARTIN: But that did not seem to be enough for the Egyptians still gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo after earlier massive demonstrations.
(Soundbite of protest)
Unidentified Man: ... Cairo, Alexandria and other places, meaning leave, leave. If President Hosni Mubarak was hoping his words would come down as the soothing balm on the nerves of Egyptians, it doesn't appear to be going that way.
MARTIN: That was coverage from the English language service of Al Jazeera, which today was focused in part on pro-Mubarak demonstrators clashing with the opposition.
Abdur-Rahim Fuqara is back with us to better explain what's happening and what may come next in Egypt and the region. He is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. Abdur-Rahim, thank you so much for joining us once again.
Mr. ABDUR-RAHIM FUQARA (Washington Bureau Chief, Al Jazeera International): Good to be with you, Michel.
MARTIN: And I do want to mention, before we get into today's events, that I want to say you were sitting across from me just two weeks ago, after the Tunisian president fled, saying, and you said then, keep your eyes on Egypt, that if any country will be next, it will be Egypt. And you were you were right. So I wanted to acknowledge that.
And I wanted to say then, to talk about what's happening right now. One of the things that we are seeing are a military spokesman coming on state television to tell protestors to go home for the sake of bringing back stability, that your message has arrived, your demands became known, that you are capable of bringing normal life to Egypt. Do we know, you know, how that decision was made that these military figures would come and give that message?
Mr. FUQARA: Well, first of all, talking of Tunisia, Michel, Tunisia has obviously become the reference to what's happening in Egypt. When the president of Tunisia, Ben Ali, fled, it was always expected that should a similar thing happen in Egypt, the regime in Egypt would be a much tougher crowd. And certainly what we have seen and heard from President Hosni Mubarak so far does confirm that this is a much tougher crowd than the crowd of the former Tunisian president.
It seems to me that he's coming under increasing pressure, not just from his own people, but also from the international community, particularly from the United States. But I think what he's suggesting is that if I'm going to go out, I may have to go out with a big bang rather than with a whimper. His exit seems to be arranged incrementally.
What we heard from the speech yesterday, it was interesting, but it was also cause for concern. It was interesting because he said, OK, I will step down. But it's also cause for concern because it was - there were many indications in his speech that he's actually trying to divide the opposition, to divide the protestors. And to a certain extent that has happened.
Those divisions I think we are seeing today in terms of the clashes among Egyptians, which is a very serious, very dangerous turn of events indeed. But I think the larger segment of Egyptian society has said its word, and that is they want him gone and they want him gone now. Remains to see what happens this Friday. Friday, as you know, is a very important day in the Muslim calendar.
And I think in the same way that we saw in Tunisia, Friday was a crucial turn of events. It's - this coming Friday should also be decisive in terms of us knowing whether he's going or whether Egypt is going further into chaos.
MARTIN: Well, I want to speak more about the chaos on the ground and also the message that Mubarak was sending with his comments. You mentioned in his remarks that you felt that there was an attempt to divide the, sort of the Egyptian population. Certainly there was an attempt to defend his record. I'll just play a short clip of that. Again, we'll hear the voice of the translator. Here it is.
Pres. MUBARAK: (Through translator) I defended its soil, sovereignty and interests, and I will die on the soil of Egypt. And I will be judged by history for my merits and demerits.
MARTIN: And I interpreted that to mean that he will not follow the course of the president of Tunisia and go into exile, that he will not leave the country. But when you say that you thought that was an attempt to divide the population, what do you mean?
Mr. FUQARA: Well, the fact that he said he would step down, but he will stay until he arranges a smooth transition after elections in September, that was clearly a shot at trying to divide the opposition. And we have seen and heard some smaller parties in Egypt actually rallying to that position.
We've also heard some important people in Egypt such as Amr Moussa, the general secretary of the Arab League, an organization that is not particularly very important. But the figure of Amr Moussa is important. And he's basically telling Egyptians, look, you need to take a closer look at the speech yesterday. There are some good elements in it. But as I said, I think the majority of people, millions of Egyptians who have been protesting this week, I don't think they're buying that message.
It's interesting what he said, that I have defended this country - and he certainly has. He was in the military, in the air force, and he fought some heroic battles against the Israelis in the past. It's also interesting what he said about this is my land also and I intend to die here.
You know, that reminds me of Dan Rather when he interviewed Saddam Hussein before the invasion of 2003. And he asked him, the Americans want you leave Iraq, and Saddam at that time said, why should I leave Iraq? I am an Iraqi and I will die in Iraq. The only difference this time is that Saddam faced an international ultimatum from the Americans and their ally. Hosni Mubarak is facing an internal ultimatum from his own people. Remains to see what happens on Friday.
MARTIN: I wanted talk about the U.S. reaction in a minute. This is Abdur-Rahim Fuqara. He's the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. And of course we're talking about the events in Egypt. Before we turn to the U.S. side of this, Abdur-Rahim, I do want to ask you about the appearance - what seemed to be the sudden appearance of pro-Mubarak demonstrators.
And you know, early in this in these street protests we saw what many people believed to be plainclothes, you know, security forces. You know, basically police officers in plain clothes, you know, attacking people. But now - who are these people now? They are telling reporters on the street that they have not been paid to be there, that they aren't representing anybody but themselves, that they support Mubarak. What do you believe to be true, based on your reporting?
Mr. FUQARA: Well, again, if Tunisia is anything to go by, we saw a similar thing in Tunisia. When after the president fled Tunisia, we saw looting, for example. And the looting was attributed in many cases to either security forces, former allies of the former president masquerading as looters, or by real gangs looting at the instigation of former security officers.
We've heard reports from Egypt that we have a similar thing going on and that's why we've seen these militias of Egyptian protestors actually organizing to protect, for example, the national museum. What we have seen after the speech does suggest that they may be a similar case of the regime of Hosni Mubarak actually enlisting the help of some of its allies to masquerade as genuine protestors wanting his stay in power until he arranges the election.
But as I said at the outset, this is a much tougher crowd. And it certainly is much more entrenched. It wouldn't surprise me that he may have some genuine supporters out there who've benefited in one way or another from his regime and who see the departure of his regime as undermining their interests. And therefore they are genuinely protesting in his favor and support.
But the majority of Egyptians, I think, have said their words, which is they want him gone.
MARTIN: And, finally, Abdur-Rahim, we have about a minute and a half left, so I do want to get to the U.S. reaction and how the U.S. response to these events and how that is being viewed around the world, particularly in the Middle East. This is President Obama, who gave a press statement shortly after Mubarak spoke last night. I'll just play a short clip of his remarks.
President BARACK OBAMA: The people of Egypt, particularly the young people of Egypt, I want to be clear. We hear your voices. I have an unyielding belief that you will determine your own destiny and seize the promise of a better future for your children and your grandchildren.
MARTIN: We don't have time to talk about events around the region. It is worth noting that Jordan's king, Abdullah, sacked his government in response to these protests and other regional events. But how is the U.S. response being perceived, Abdur-Rahim, very briefly, if you would.
Mr. FUQARA: Well, there are a lot of people who are saying that the Obama administration started off sitting on the fence and it has gradually incrementally moved towards supporting the protestors. It's not - its support for the protestors is certainly perceivable, but it's not as clear cut as many of those protestors want it to be. But I think there are indicators that the Obama administration is telling President Mubarak it's time to go.
MARTIN: Abdur-Rahim Fuqara is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. He was kind enough to join us from our NPR studios in New York. Abdur-Rahim, thank you so much for joining us at such a busy time.
Mr. FUQARA: Great to be with you, Michel.
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