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Egypt Activist: As Mubarak Clings to Power, People Become More Disappointed

February 4, 2011 at 5:51 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: We begin with Egypt, where vast crowds of protesters assembled in central Cairo today. It was the latest attempt to force President Mubarak to resign immediately. And there was growing talk of how to form a transitional government.

But the prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, said 95 percent of Egyptians want Mubarak to stay until a new president is elected in September.

The scene on the streets was relatively peaceful, after two days of violence that saw 11 people killed, hundreds more wounded.

Behind the scenes, U.S. officials conferred with top Egyptian officials today. And President Obama talked of a transition that begins now.

He spoke after meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the White House.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I believe that President Mubarak cares about his country. He is proud, but he is also a patriot.

And what I suggested to him is, is that he needs to consult with those who are around him in his government. He needs to listen to what’s being voiced by the Egyptian people and make a judgment about a pathway forward that is orderly but that is meaningful and serious.

And I believe that he’s already said that he’s not going to run for re-election. This is somebody who’s been in power for a very long time in Egypt. Having made that psychological break, that decision that he will not be running again, I think the most important for him to ask himself, for the Egyptian government to ask itself, as well as the opposition to ask itself is, how do we make that transition effective and lasting and legitimate?

And, as I said before, that’s not a decision ultimately the United States makes or any country outside of Egypt makes. What we can do, though, is affirm the core principles that are going to be involved in that transition.

If you end up having just gestures towards the opposition, but it leads to a continuing suppression of the opposition, that’s not going to work. If you have the pretense of reform, but not real reform, that’s not going to be effective.

And, as I said before, once the president himself announced that he was not going to be running again and since his term is up relatively shortly, the key question he should be asking himself is, how do I leave a legacy behind in which Egypt is able to get through this transformative period? And my hope is, is that he will end up making the right decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner is in Cairo.

And today she sat down with a key opposition figure, the writer Wael Nawara. He helped found the El Ghad — or Tomorrow — party, 17 years ago, along with another prominent activist, Ayman Nour.

Nawara was at today’s demonstration at Tahrir Square, and he spoke with Margaret afterwards.

MARGARET WARNER: Wael Nawara, thank you for joining us.

WAEL NAWARA, Secretary-General, Tomorrow Party: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: This was billed, today’s, as the day of departure, the day that would force President Mubarak to recognize he had to leave. As of this evening, he is still in power.

WAEL NAWARA: Well, you know, it’s very unfortunate that we become stubborn before the will of the people, because at the end of the day, a president is really a public servant at the end of the day.

And if the people send this message clearly, loudly, many times, various cities — so, I just hope that President Mubarak realizes that he is actually putting the country’s interests in great risk and that these unrests are upsetting the economy, they are upsetting security, and they are causing a lot of havoc and chaos.

So, we hope that he would get the message sooner rather than later.

MARGARET WARNER: But he said yesterday in an interview with Christiane Amanpour of ABC that actually he was tired of being president, he would like to leave, but that he was afraid that the country would descend into chaos if he left abruptly.

Does he have a point?

WAEL NAWARA: He always has this — being proud of being stubborn, not listening to the people, which I think is not really a great virtue for a president, not to be able to listen to his own people.

So, now he has appointed Vice President Suleiman. I think, if he now makes the gesture that he delegates his power to Vice President Suleiman, I don’t see why this could be a chaotic situation.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you saying, though, you could imagine a transition period in which perhaps Mubarak remained technically as president, but he delegated powers to his new vice president, Suleiman, and they started this process of constitutional reform?

WAEL NAWARA: I think it’s very likely that protesters and other opposition groups will find possibly this acceptable. But again, what I want to say is that President Mubarak is always a few days behind. If he said that the Tuesday speech…

MARGARET WARNER: The one where he said he wasn’t going to run in September.

WAEL NAWARA: Exactly. If he made that speech eight days before, there would be no protests.

So, I really hope that he realizes that the more that he clings to power, the more people are becoming more disappointed and more also untrusting. So the way to do it really is to go now and try to get as close as possible to the people’s demands now, and not really to stall for time, because, for — quite honestly, I mean, for 30 years, he has been making promises for reform and so on and so forth.

MARGARET WARNER: We read that there are — quote — “opposition groups” meeting with the new vice president, Suleiman, and I think maybe the new prime minister.

Which groups are doing this meeting? Whom do they represent?

WAEL NAWARA: Well, he is really meeting with the parties which are sanctioned by the party’s committee, which is presided upon by the NDP secretary-general.

MARGARET WARNER: That is the ruling party.

WAEL NAWARA: Yes, that’s the ruling party.

So, really, what he is meeting with, he is meeting with opposition parties which are loyal to the regime. So, it’s like being not a dialogue. This is kind of a monologue, because he is kind of speaking to himself. He really now needs to recognize that protest — the protest movement, which is represented by many groups…

MARGARET WARNER: And that’s not happening now?

WAEL NAWARA: We haven’t seen that happening yet. We have seen a continuous approach of what we had seen before, that the regime wants to choose who governs, but who the opposition is also.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what is your concern that the Muslim Brotherhood is going to somehow take over — I mean, they are better organized — that they are going to become the face of the opposition?

WAEL NAWARA: We — we have to realize that the regime always designed the situation like that, to have this sort of polarization. It is either us or them, us being the ruling party, the NDP, and them being the Muslim Brotherhood.

And in the middle, the regime did its best to crush all sort of other opposition. If we have elections today, I agree with you that we might be — the Muslim Brothers might be able to — and especially if it is the Parliament, they might get too many seats.

Too many seats — when I say too many, I mean that not representative of the people. So, that’s why we need a transition period to allow that process to prosper.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what’s the endgame you foresee now? Do you think the young people, who have been the foundation of people in the square, that they are going to stay there until Mubarak leaves?

WAEL NAWARA: Well, actually, I really think that we need to think also of, you know, new ways of how to sustain this. Maybe we go only once a week, or maybe twice a week, to the square.

So, we need to start thinking also of ways to sustain this with minimum damage, collateral damage, to our people who Mubarak is holding hostage. He’s holding our people, our folks, our families hostage with no money, running people out of cash, running people out of groceries.

And we have to be smart also and start realizing, we don’t want to lose the popular support. We want to continue our movement, but also take into consideration the interests of little people who — who depend — the taxi driver who has to pay the installments of his taxi, so that he needs to work to be able to pay.

We need to think of ways, creative ways, to sustain the movement while at the same time also allow our folks to — to — you know, to breathe some air.

MARGARET WARNER: Wael Nawara, thank you so much.

WAEL NAWARA: You’re welcome.