Smoke, Uncertainty Fill Egypt's Streets
Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:28 am
There was chaos in Cairo on Sunday, the sixth day of protests in Egypt against the government of President Hosni Mubarak, and as night closed in on the capital, the streets were still filled with uncertainty about what will happen next.
In a show of force in the air, just as the curfew was supposed to be kicking in, F-16 jets flew repeatedly fast and low over Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests. The message from the air may have been intimidation, but on the ground there was cooperation between the military and the protesters.
The army set up checkpoints around the square, frisked people for weapons and looked at IDs, but otherwise it left alone the 5,000 demonstrators gathered at Tahrir Square, which has been occupied since Friday afternoon.
The demonstrations continued past the curfew and into the night. At around 7 p.m., Nobel Peace Laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, a key opposition figure, came to the square for the first time.
"You are the owners of this revolution. You are the future," he told the cheering crowd. "Our essential demand is the departure of the regime and the beginning of a new Egypt in which each Egyptian lives in virtue, freedom and dignity."
The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to establish an Islamist state in Egypt, has made some statements that it was willing to let ElBaradei act as point man for the movement. But it also appeared to be moving for a more prominent role after lying low when the protests first erupted.
On Sunday evening, the presence of overtly pious Muslims in the square was conspicuous, suggesting a significant Brotherhood representation. Hundreds performed the sunset prayers. Veiled women prayed separately.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested there were U.S. concerns over the possibility of the Brotherhood seizing direction of the movement. She warned against a takeover resembling the one in Iran, with a "small group that doesn't represent the full diversity of Egyptian society" seizing control and imposing its ideological beliefs.
So far there are few signs that 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, whose role in the developments was still unclear.
At Tahrir Square, there were mixed views.
Ahmed Deif, a professor of engineering, said the F-16s were meant to stop the protesters from coming out.
"They are 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 we got the wrong message," he said. "They left us no option except just to sit here until we get all our requirements done."
But the army unlike the police is highly respected and so far it has shown restraint. Protestor Yasser Muhammed lauded them.
"We are together, the army forces and the Egyptian people, we are together," he said. "We are one, one people."
U.S. Role Criticized
But there were no mixed feelings regarding America's role in Egypt.
Clinton took to the talks shows in the U.S.
"I want the Egyptian people to have the chance to chart a new future," she told NBC's Meet the Press. "It needs to be an orderly, peaceful transition to real democracy — not faux democracy like the elections we saw in Iran two years ago."
On the same show, she tried to deflect questions about U.S. support of the Mubarak regime.
"President Mubarak and his government have been an important partner to the United States," she said. "Let's not just focus on today. This is a government that made a kept a peace with Israel that was incredibly important."
In Tahrir Square, those ties were the subject of outrage. The U.S. provides Egypt with $1 billion of military aid a year. The F-16s and the tear-gas canisters that were fired at the demonstrators were all made in the U.S.
"The U.S. is advocating for human rights and everything and they say that they care about human rights," said protester Khaled Tantawi. "They care about their interests in the Middle East, they do not care about the people."
In a statement, the White House said President Obama discussed the developments with the leaders of Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Britain. The statement said Obama supported "an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people."
At Cairo's airport, meanwhile, thousands of passengers were stranded as flights were canceled or delayed. Several Arab nations, meanwhile, moved to evacuate their citizens and the U.S. Embassy in Cairo said it is arranging to begin flying Americans out of Egypt on Monday.
Overnight, residents and shopkeepers in affluent neighborhoods boarded up their houses and stores against looters, who roamed the streets with knives and sticks, stealing what they could and destroying cars, windows and street signs. Gunfire rang out in some neighborhoods.
All around Cairo, groups of armed young men like Mark Rafat are out in force.
"We are trying to protect our neighborhood over here," he said. "Many assaults have been going on though the night. We've been able to capture many thieves."
Before dawn on Sunday, gangs of armed men attacked at least four jails across Egypt, helping to free hundreds of Muslim militants and thousands of other inmates as police vanished from the streets of Cairo and other cities.
An eyewitness told NPR that inmates had taken over one Cairo detention facility and were trying to shoot their way out.
At least one Nile-side shopping mall in Cairo was on fire after being looted the previous day.
On the main street in the suburb of Giza, at least a dozen shops were looted. Mohammed Fawzi's souvenir shop was completely gutted and only broken glass remained.
"They stole all my shop — everything," he said. Maybe more than 100 people they [had] weapons. That's why I can't do anything. Some people, they [don't] love Egypt."
The army sent hundreds more troops and armored vehicles onto the streets of Cairo and other cities but appeared to be taking little action against the gangs of young men with guns and large sticks who were smashing cars and robbing people.
Instead, the tanks and armored personnel carriers fanned out across the city, guarding key government buildings, and major tourist and archaeological sites. Among those singled out for special protection was the Egyptian Museum, home to some of the country's most treasured antiquities, and the Cabinet building. The military closed the pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo Egypt's leading tourist site.
The Internet also appeared blocked for a third day Sunday, an effort to hamper protesters who use social networking sites to organize. But Egyptian mobile networks were back up after days of cutoffs but with text-messaging widely disrupted. Blackberry Messenger and mobile Internet services were operating sporadically.
The pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera said Sunday that Egyptian authorities ordered the closure of its Cairo news hub overseeing coverage of the country's massive street protests, denouncing the move as an attempt to "stifle and repress" open reporting.
Meanwhile, police could be seen returning to some streets nearly two days after virtually disappearing, creating a security vacuum only partially filled by the presence of army troops backed by tanks at key sites around this city of 18 million people.
Mubarak, 82, clinging to power with promises of reform and a new government, named his intelligence chief as his first-ever vice president on Saturday, setting the stage for a successor as chaos engulfed Cairo. Soldiers stood by, a few even joining the demonstrators, and the death toll from five days of anti-government fury rose sharply to 97.
But in Tahrir Square, they were unappeased by Mubarak's move Saturday to appoint a vice president, Omar Suleiman, and a prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq.
"Omar Suleiman is like Mubarak," said Ahmad Musleh, who was among the demonstrators. "They are two faces of the same coin, actually."
Israel Watches Developments
Israel's prime minister told his Cabinet that he was "anxiously following" the crisis, saying in his first public comments on the situation that Israel's three-decade-old peace agreement with Egypt must be preserved.
Aluf Benn, editor at large for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, said Israel views Mubarak as the cornerstone of stability in the region.
"Israelis have been worried about succession in Egypt and its possible implication on the relationship, on the stability of the peace treaty and on the future of the neighborhood in general," Benn told Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz.
Martin Indyk, vice president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, said Egypt is a "strategic cornerstone in the Middle East" for the United States and is key to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Egypt is the custodian of the status quo," Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday. "It's as if Mubarak serves as the anchor for all the other Arab autocrats in the region, who happen to be our allies as well. So Egypt is so much bigger, so much more important that if Mubarak goes, it can create a kind of tsunami effect in the region.
"On the other hand, the compact with the Egyptian people has clearly been broken. I think that Mubarak by this point is a dead man walking and the United States has to get on the side of history if it's going to preserve its interests" in the region, Indyk said.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press