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Reporter in Cairo: ‘They Want a New President, a New System’

January 28, 2011 at 6:06 PM EDT
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Margaret Warner speaks with John Ray of Independent Television News about what he's been seeing and hearing on the streets of Egypt's capital as protests -- as calls for the president's ouster -- have grown more intense.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And for the latest on the ground in Egypt, Margaret Warner spoke by phone a short time ago with John Ray. He’s another of ITN’s correspondents in Cairo.

MARGARET WARNER: John Ray, reporting from Cairo, we’ve just heard this dramatic announcement from President Mubarak, that he’s asked his whole government to resign; there’s going to be a whole new government in place tomorrow.

Has there been any reaction yet?

JOHN RAY: I think it’s far too early. There are still, even at this late hour — it’s midnight thirty here in Cairo — a large, large number of people on the streets. We are hearing the sounds of battle in the distance from our hotel room. There is still tear gas being fired, baton rounds as well.

I think the reaction, though, when they do hear the news, will be one of great disappointment, because, remember, these protesters really have a load of complaints about unemployment, about high prices. But it all coalesces around one demand, and that is for Mubarak to go. And Mubarak isn’t going. He’s still there. He’s still saying tonight that: I’m the man in charge, and I’m staying.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, he was offering the opportunity to communicate. He kept saying, you know, not through violence, but we — we can communicate about these grievances.

Is there a leader of these protests? Are there opposition leaders to communicate with who would step forward, if — if this is a genuine offer?

JOHN RAY: Well, the problem is, of course, there is a great deal of leadership in the opposition, too much leadership, you might say.

There are moderate reformers like Mohamed ElBaradei, the former U.N. nuclear watchdog chief, a reasonable man, a diplomat, a moderate reformer, a man maybe that Mubarak could do business with.

But the problem is ElBaradei has no constituency here. And then there’s the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, they are probably the most organized of the opposition groups, but they’re not legal. They are sort of tolerated, but they are illegal. So it’s difficult to think of him doing business with that group of people.

MARGARET WARNER: So…

JOHN RAY: I think the real difficulty here is to believe that President Mubarak is offering any — any kind of significant compromise. This is a man who has made a career out of inflexibility. To do anything otherwise, he is breaking the habit of a presidency.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when you talk to leaders of any of these protests, do you get a sense that — that they would stand back and let somebody negotiate with the government?

JOHN RAY: I can’t believe that will happen.

There is only one chant. There is only one slogan. There is only one thing that they shout out on the streets. And that is that Mubarak must go. They want a new president. They want a new system, that he has got to go.

It seems, for them, they would be sitting down with the very devil.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, he also, of course, strongly emphasized the security of the state, how he wasn’t going to let fear run his country.

The army came in this afternoon, as you all reported today. How aggressive are their tactics?

JOHN RAY: It’s really hard to say. I have watched tonight as row upon row of armored vehicles roll towards the main central square in this city, not just armored personnel carriers but tanks. We counted one, two, three, four, many, many tanks heading that way.

At the same time, there’s no sign yet of them opening fire on anybody, which I suppose would be a dramatic way of restoring some kind of government control to the streets of Cairo. But, of course, I think that would open up a whole hornet’s nest.

But the army’s position now is pivotal. Mubarak is relying on them. He needs their support. The army — I think, if they — if the Egyptian army thought that Mubarak’s continuing presidency damaged their cause — and that is particularly significant in relationship to aid packages from the United States — then I think they may do as the army in Tunisia did to their president and say listen, it’s time to go.

MARGARET WARNER: Have the protesters been reacting differently to the army than they did to the police, where they have been attacking police vehicles, for example?

JOHN RAY: There has been a real mixture of reaction. I have seen scenes of protesters pelting armored vehicles with missiles as they passed.

But in other parts of the city, we have seen a row of — of army trucks moving in. And they’re being mobbed and — and welcomed by the people, an attempt to bring them on side. The army is more popular here than the absolutely hated police and security forces, who have been making themselves even more unpopular as every day protests have continued here.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, before President Mubarak spoke, what were the opposition’s plans or the protesters’ plans for tomorrow?

JOHN RAY: I’m not sure they were thinking beyond today, to be honest with you, Margaret.

This was the second big day of a week of protests, you know, a week of unprecedented protests, which culminated in truly momentous scenes in Cairo. I — I cannot think they have made plans for tomorrow, except perhaps to do the same thing again, though not on this scale. They will have the army parked on the street, tanks parked on the street. It will make things more difficult for them.

And, of course, the Internet is still down here. Mobile telephone communications have been severed. Egypt is a communications black spot at the moment, so it will be difficult to organize in that sense. But seeing what they did today, without the help of social media, is pretty impressive.

MARGARET WARNER: John Ray of ITN News, thank you so much.