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Massive Demonstrations Planned as Mubarak OKs Talks With Opposition

January 31, 2011 at 5:00 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: The opposition in Egypt laid plans today to bring more than a million people into the streets, and the army said it will not use force against them.

Late today, Egypt’s new vice president, Omar Suleiman, said President Mubarak asked him to open a dialogue with all of the political forces. That was one of the protesters’ demands.

We begin our coverage with this report from Jonathan Rugman of Independent — Independent Television News in Cairo.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: They celebrate the ending of monarchy and of Britain’s occupation here and now, they are convinced, the end of the Mubarak regime. “The people want the president gone,” they shouted, marching in their tens of thousands, the biggest demonstration here so far.

It feels like a bit of a stalemate, with the president in his palace and the people down in the square refusing to go home.

WOMAN: It’s not a stalemate because it tells that he’s brittle, he can’t do anything. He’s trying to play president, but he can’t do that anymore. We will be here until he’s out.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: The mood was one of carnival, a giant family picnic, children welcome to witness history in the making, ousting their president, exhausting work for some, who had been camping out these past three nights.

But this group of engineers seemed unimpressed by the Americans calling for a transition to democracy at last.

MAN: I don’t believe in America. They play with the — the — the winner, not with the — the people or with the power. The winner, the USA will be with the winner.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: A military helicopter made repeated passes overhead. “Leave, leave,” the crowd shouted. A soldier at one point fired shots in the air to keep the masses back.

But nothing will keep them back now. It’s a conscription army caught between the president and the people, so far unable to take sides.

A week ago, an act of defiance like this would have been unthinkable. But these Egyptians have lost their fear. And it seems that nothing will silence them now, until their president leaves the scene.

WOMAN: I have never exercised my right to elect. It’s a shame. I’m 36 years old. I have not been able to exercise the right that everybody in the Western world takes for granted. This is not right.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: If you had that here, could you end up with an Islamic fundamentalist state?

WOMAN: No, no, no, no. But, even if this happens, this is the will of the people, and I have to respect democracy.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: This religious leader in Tahrir Square prayed today for liberation in what feels like one vast open-air debating chamber for the nation’s future. They want their president gone, but what can they agree on beyond that?

These doctors seeing democracy hand in hand with Sharia law.

MAN: I want Sharia law, because Sharia and Islam is our religion. And our religion don’t just deal with relation between people. It also deals with everything in life.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Yet, put that to this singer and intellectual, and he is horrified.

MAN: Sharia, this is something between the man and his God. This is something between everybody and his God.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Not the government?

MAN: Not the government.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: So, the secular and the devout are already jousting for Egypt’s future, even before President Mubarak’s political obituary is written.

MARGARET WARNER: While Egyptians tried to get to Cairo’s center, foreigners crowded the city’s international airport trying to get out. Several governments lined up chartered planes to evacuate their citizens from Egypt. More than 1,200 Americans were flown out, with another 1,400 expected to leave in coming days.

The political unrest also spread well beyond Cairo, to the country’s other cities.

Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News has this report from Alexandria.

LINDSEY HILSUM: We set off two hours after curfew. A few cars were still on the streets being stopped at checkpoints, manned by what they’re calling the popular front, vigilante groups.

At first, we were unsure if they would let us through. But they gave us a password. And then we were free to drive wherever we wanted. So, we headed for Martyrs Square, where I had heard people were having a sit-down protest. We arrived as dusk fell and were immediately mobbed.

We met a man who said his son had been shot while peacefully protesting on Friday. He said he even knew the name of the policeman who did it.

MUSTAFA OMAR (through translator): He shot my son through the head, and the bullet came out the other side. He and his fellow officers are part of the regime. And they are thugs. The terrorism we see now, the thugs we catch in their cars defying the people are police officers and sergeants, not just ordinary criminals.

LINDSEY HILSUM: We never made it into the square because the people pushed and shouted and wouldn’t let us through until we had heard their message: Mubarak must go.

Earlier in the day, a TV crew had been chased by an unfriendly crowd, but these people just wanted to make sure we understood their determination and anger against the government. “We don’t want him,” she shouted. “Mubarak must leave, along with his gang. We don’t want any of them.”

This crowd is very passionate. People are holding up banners saying, “Mubarak is a pig.” They’re using incredibly rude language about the president. They say that they just want him to go, that what he’s done by appointing a vice president is just not enough. The people here, they — they’re just crushing against us. It’s almost impossible to film.

Such was the jostling and enthusiasm, we couldn’t reach those who say they will sit in the square until President Mubarak resigns.

Tell me why the people are so angry.

RIFAT FARHAT, protester: The people are so angry because they need to they need to — they need freedom.

LINDSEY HILSUM: They need freedom?

RIFAT FARHAT: They are looking for freedom.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Yes?

RIFAT FARHAT: We have no freedom. It’s country full of police.

LINDSEY HILSUM: We drove back through the almost empty down, the men on roadblocks looming in the dark and waving us through. From our vantage point, we saw two young men being arrested and taken away by soldiers. We don’t know why, a vestige of see authority in a city where vigilantes and protesters rule the streets.