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Fighting For Freedom In Egypt, With Dignity

GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

(Soundbite of siren)

RAZ: Sounds from the streets and neighborhoods in Cairo this evening, the city - and a country - that appears on the verge of revolution. Earlier in the day, the embattled president, Hosni Mubarak, appointed a new vice president. His name is Omar Suleiman, and he heads Egypt's powerful intelligence services. Now it's not clear whether that move will be enough to keep Mubarak in power. The public, for now, seems to be demanding change.

Here's Mohamed ElBaradei, a former U.N. official and now opposition figure in Egypt, speaking to the BBC.

Mr. MOHAMED ELBARADEI (Former Director General, International Atomic Energy Agency): I don't think he can succeed, you know, what I hear today. You know, that people will go back to the streets. They will go back even in larger number, probably, in the next few days now that the police has been, you know, using violence against them.

RAZ: The uprising in Egypt, that's our cover story this hour. In a moment, a report from our correspondent in Cairo. And later, what next if Mubarak loses his grip on power?

First, though, to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson on a quieter protest. You can call it the uprising of the civilian peacekeeper.

(Soundbite of protest)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: The battle for democracy is still under way in Tahrir Square, but for these young men, the weapon of choice was a broom.

(Soundbite of sweeping)

NELSON: They, like many here, are unhappy with the Egypt the world has seen in recent days. Fighting for political and economic reform is important, they say, but so is doing it with dignity. With quiet determination, they are trying to restore that dignity by sweeping away charred metal, rocks and bullet fragments that litter the streets and sidewalks.

Nearby, Egyptian army lieutenant Amin al Masry collects garbage from the square, which he stuffs into black, plastic bags. The 24-year-old engineer says he finds the process calming, like lighting a candle in the darkness.

Lieutenant AMIN AL MASRY: I was very upset to see this chaos, this situation. I'm angry. I'm not with the mobs because it became chaotic and without aim or purpose.

NELSON: He initially came to make sure the Egyptian National Museum and its antiquities weren't being vandalized. But al Masry says when he saw another Egyptian collecting garbage, he felt compelled to join him. So did more than a dozen others. By early afternoon, they'd collected some 300 bags' worth of trash.

Lt. AL MASRY: The aim is not just cleaning the street, but the aim is to give a message of hope.

NELSON: That's what many people who are in the square seek. They say they need something more than slogans. They want to take back their streets. Young men have formed ad hoc neighborhood watch groups across Cairo. They brandish sticks to stop vandals and looters who've been breaking into stores and homes.

Other young men, like Hosni Imam, direct traffic now that the police have fled. He wears an Egyptian flag tied like a bandana around his neck.

Mr. HOSNI IMAM: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: He says he wears this because he's proud to be Egyptian. He calls himself a patriot protecting his country. He loves that Egyptians have joined to demand their rights.

Mr. IMAM: (Through translator) My head is raised up high for the first time. Now I can truly say I breathe the air of my country.

NELSON: But his smile fades when he talks about the looters and vandals who've defaced property. That includes the Egyptian Museum, says tour guide Walid Afify. But he blames the government, rather than unruly protesters. He accuses officials of allowing the country to descend into chaos to justify using violence to suppress the protests.

Afify points to the high-rise that was the ruling party's headquarters. It is burning out of control, and appears in danger of collapsing. He says not a single fire engine has come to try and put out the flames.

Mr. WALID AFIFY: I was afraid because I saw the smoke coming out of the burning building, and it's very close to the Egyptian Museum. So the fire is very close by. And I wonder why the government doesn't put the fire out. And we don't have a real government to show some strength in the country in any respect.

NELSON: He says letting the country go, as President Mubarak appears to be doing, only ensures that his legacy will be that of a tyrant.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.