Anchor Lisa Mullins speaks with correspondent Thanassis Cambanis, who’s in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. He reports that hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters continued to demand President Mubarak’s resignation today, despite a number of government concessions. Download MP3
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Lisa Mullins: I’m Lisa Mullins and this is The World. Today, Egypt’s vice president vowed that there will be no reprisals against Egyptians who’ve been staging mass protests for two weeks now. And he’d already announced a plan to transfer power from the regime of President Hosni Mubarak to a new government. The promises though were not enough to persuade hundreds of thousands of people from turning out into Tahrir Square in Cairo today. The demonstrators are still calling for Mubarak to resign. Mubarak is still refusing to budge. Correspondent, Thanassis Cambanis, is just outside Tahrir Square right now. Thanassis, what is the scene like there? Is there any evidence that the demonstrators are starting to lose momentum?
Thanassis Cambanis: That’s what people were saying yesterday and early this morning around Cairo, but they were really blown away by what happened inside Tahrir Square today. It was almost impossible to move through the square. It took me something like half an hour to go about 200 feet at one point. But what’s really different about today, so this is the biggest possibly protest they’ve had so far, and what’s different about it is there’s a huge number of first-time visitors to the square. Egyptians who have maybe cast a sympathetic eye, maybe a wary eye on the protests, were really won over, and a lot of them said to me it was because of the interview on television last night with the released Google executive, Wael Ghonim. He gave this teary, very emotional, very personal interview about his arrest, the role he played in organizing the original protests, and his mistreatment at the hands of the police. And somehow that convinced a huge number of middle class Egyptians that these protests were something that was important to them and to their dignity as well. And that’s literally, dozens of people told me that’s why they came today for the first time.
Mullins: That’s very interesting. I wonder if this man, Wael Ghonim of Google, if he has been visible at the protests today at all and whether or not they’re elevating him to the position of leadership in the demonstrations and whether or not he wants one.
Cambanis: The most eager constituency to see a leadership in these protests is the Western media. The protestors themselves don’t seem in any way enamored with the idea of having a single leader. Now that being said, there’s a huge ground swell of affection for Wael Ghonim. A Facebook page was created saying, called, Wael Ghonim Speaks For Me. And last time I checked it had something like 40,000 people who’d liked it. When he came to the square this afternoon he was mobbed. He delivered a speech, people went crazy. People are following his tweets. But it’s unlikely in my view that he or any other single person is gonna emerge as the leader of these protests, although I think for the middle class he will probably be the face of this movement.
Mullins: And maybe for as you say for the outside media as well. But Wael Ghonim when the Facebook page says Wael Ghonim Speaks For Me, what’s he saying that’s resonating so much?
Cambanis: Well, he’s eloquently summarizing the message of all these protests; that Egypt is a society of competent people who have been held back by a corrupt leadership that has basically distorted everything from the ability of young people to get jobs, to have free speech, all the way up to the justice system and the rampant use of torture. One of the great twists of his release was he was released from detention through the intercession of a very powerful member of Hosni Mubarak’s party, the national democratic party. As soon as he came out he said the guy who got me released should resign and be put on trial, and just because I happen to be the one who gets a lot of attention doesn’t mean I should get special treatment and all the other people in detention shouldn’t be released as well.
Mullins: One of the things you’ve written about in your dispatch today is about the groups of men who are sleeping in shifts beneath the treads of the army tanks that mark the northern perimeter of the protests. Who are these people?
Cambanis: It’s an incredibly diverse bunch. At one point I was talking to a young doctor. Later I was talking to a man who runs a papyrus store in a village up in upper Egypt in a tourist zone. And he was sitting next to a micro bus driver. I mean this is a very working class profession from a very gritty part of Cairo. And these guys are sitting literally arm in arm. And in this case the micro bus driver had brought his three year old daughter. It’s something fantastical to see anywhere and especially in a stratified society like Egypt’s. I mean these are the bottom of the social ladder sitting next to a doctor, arm in arm, linked in this shared mission to prevent the tanks from moving any further.
Mullins: And the tanks weren’t moving.
Cambanis: Yes, in fact, the other night the army tried to disperse the guys sleeping under the treads by firing guns into the air, and it just energized the crowd. The army said, please move, we want to advance these tanks. They started firing bullets in the air and the people just went crazy and just crowded more and more people around the tanks. And basically said go ahead, there’s only one way to move us and that’s to kill us.
Mullins: I wonder if you can just finish up by talking about the current position of the White House and how it’s being greeted there because the White House is saying that it backs the transition process announced by the Egyptian government, meaning that it’s not backing the demonstrators’ main demand, meaning that Mubarak leave now. Are the protestors reacting to that word from the White House at all?
Cambanis: The protestors aren’t backing down at all. I mean they’re taking a simple, maximost position, which is they’re willing to negotiate everything, but only after Mubarak is gone. What the White House is doing is actually the same thing that the Egyptian military and the Egyptian ruling regime is doing, which is betting simply that these protests will run out of steam before they can rest further concessions from the regime. And I’d say it’s really too soon to tell. I mean there’s a bias in favor of the power winning out over popular uprisings, but there are also the revolutions that defy the norm. And this one already has. And I guess I would caution anybody who tries to write this off as you know, already running out of steam or on its last legs. It’s really just too soon to tell. And a day like today reminds us each step of the way, when all the experts and the powers to be in Egypt and in the White House have thought nothing would happen or thought it was over, this movement has defied expectations. So I’d just voice a note of caution and say it’s not clear they’re gonna win, but it’s also not at all clear that they’re gonna lose.
Mullins: Thanassis Cambanis is outside Cairo’s Tahrir Square. He is a columnist for the Boston Globe and author of the book, A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel. Nice to talk to you, Thanassis, thank you.
Cambanis: A pleasure.
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