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Protesters Look to Step Up Pressure on Mubarak as Concerns of Violence Resurface

February 10, 2011 at 6:39 PM EST
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From Cairo, Margaret Warner reports on the day's protests in Tahrir Square and reactions to President Hosni Mubarak's announcement that he's handing over some powers to Vice President Omar Suleiman, but not resigning immediately as many had expected.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Margaret Warner is in Cairo. I spoke to her a short time ago.

Margaret, what’s been the immediate reaction to President Mubarak’s speech?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Jeff, we got to the square — it was our second visit today — I would say maybe a half-hour before he spoke. And it was really an air of jubilation and just tens — hundreds of thousands, maybe a million, people in the square, some big TV screens set up.

When he started to speak, at first, people couldn’t hear him, but then they crowded around. The loudspeakers went up. And people were pretty quiet. And then, suddenly, you could see the deflation and then the anger.

And at one point, when he said something about giving some power to Suleiman, and that was it, and then he blew right by it, and he started saying, I was a youngster, too, this crowd started chanting, “Leave, leave, leave, leave.” And it started mocking him.

And it was just — it was just an incredible turnaround. And I turned to this young man who’s a systems engineer who had kind of been watching with us, and I said, what did you think? And he said, “I am so deeply disappointed.” He said: “Oh, my God. I am spending the night here. And, tomorrow, tomorrow, we go for it.”

And what he means is this call for tomorrow for a 20-million-people march. Then we were trying to get back here. I’m in a building right on the Nile. And the crowds were — actually, a lot of people didn’t leave the square, but there were some crowds leaving. And one whole group going next to us was chanting: “Tomorrow afternoon, we go to the president’s palace. We bring it down.”

And there was another group heading for the state television building, which is just about a block this a way. And I can hear them chanting outside these windows. So, it is really almost amazing that the government built up all this anticipation and, at least to the crowd in the square tonight, did not meet it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Margaret, speaking of that anticipation, what happened today behind the scenes? What — what have you been able to find out — find out?

MARGARET WARNER: It’s interesting, because all day long — and we got to the square about 11:00 in the morning — and even before we got there, just working the phones, there was the sense that something had to give, something had to happen.

And it was really a concern about what would happen tomorrow if 20 million people turned out. Amongst some of the organizers and people on the square — and this was not all of them, but they — some of them said to us — one young man said to me, a student at Cairo University, you know, “We’re not going to just sit here like dummies forever. If they don’t do something soon, we’re going to have to ratchet up the pressure.”

So — and I know from talking to senior people in the government yesterday and today, and as well as senior opposition leaders, there was just a sense that these people don’t want to just inhabit this square ad nauseam, that they were going to put on more pressure if the government didn’t do something.

And so we were told when we left the square at 3:30, oh, don’t leave; there’s going to be a big announcement. Now, rumors fly, but then — then the government made the expectation even worse by giving out all these contradictory statements.

And I was talking to certain people who said, no, no, he’s really not stepping down. You had that new head of the party, the NDP, say, oh, I think he should step down. I mean, the old days, with the way Egypt was run, if the head of the party said that, you could take it to the bank.

So it just showed also this kind of total confusion in the ruling — in the ruling elite. But — and the final reason I would say is that, as it’s explained to me, the revolution has moved outside Tahrir Square. It’s one — I’m sure you have already reported this, that you’ve had labor strikes and — and you’ve got demonstrations in other cities.

But also, in these companies and in what’s called syndicates, which are sort of like unions — if you’re a journalist, if you’re a doctor, you’re a dentist, you’re a lawyer, you have to belong this to thing. And there are always party guys who run them.

And apparently today, at the press syndicate, there was a revolt internally, and they wouldn’t even let the head of it come into the building. And then Tom Friedman, our New York Times colleague, was at the — at a press conference at the journalists’ club, and he said that it was almost as if the head of the syndicate there was hiding under his desk.

And there were similar movements. I talked to some young doctors today. So, there was a sense among people even in the government that they had to do something, or there was going to be just kind of a revolt from within. It wasn’t just going to be the kids in the square.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, given the — given the results of this speech tonight — and you referred to tomorrow the potential for more demonstrations — what — what can you tell about what happens next? And is there a real fear of renewed violence now?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I have to say there is.

And — and, again, Jeff, I mean, I — I can’t predict anything, but, based on talking to people in the square today, and then this sense — one young man in the square, after the Mubarak speech, “You know, he’s just making a fool of us.”

There’s a sense of deep — they’re being deeply disrespected, even though, of course, he actually had the first words he’s ever said about expressing deep remorse for the — for the killings of some of these young people, that he really was going to get to the bottom of it. I think, at one point, he said, it woke the whole country up, or at least that’s the translation I was getting contemporaneously. So again, he — he did things that the crowds have been calling for days earlier, but they had gotten past the point of hearing him.

So, here’s the big danger. The army has been, as far as the demonstrators are concerned, superb. They are all around the square. You have seen pictures a million times. People are sleeping under it. The army is incredibly friendly to the protesters.

But they do have a job to do. And part of their job is to protect certain secure installations, I mean, the presidential palace and state television being two of them, but particularly the presidential palace. If these demonstrators decide to go after some of the real symbols of Egyptian power and authority like that, the betting here is that the army will have no choice but to respond. And then, you know, who can predict? But it — it could be chaotic.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Margaret Warner in Cairo, thanks so much.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Jeff.