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‘Great Sense of Threat and Menace’ in Egypt’s Chaos

February 3, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Margaret Warner, newly arrived in Cairo, gives her assessment of events on the ground in Egypt as thugs, who many believe are linked to the government, attack protestors, journalists and Westerners.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Our own Margaret Warner arrived in Cairo earlier today. I spoke with her a short time ago.

Margaret, hello.

What can you tell us so far about the security situation and level of violence?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Jeff, I just arrived here about noontime. By the time we got out of the airport, it was after 5 p.m. This was getting through customs and trying to secure our equipment, which many reporters have had confiscated.

By that time, it’s after curfew. So, we are not downtown. We were told about all the violence against Westerners, journalists and others, and warned not to try to go downtown, no matter by how circuitous a route.

However, I have talked to a lot of people downtown, from activists, to people in the Muslim Brotherhood, to Western observers who were down there.

People do feel trapped inside their hotels or where they’re staying. It was actually less — it was actually more peaceful today than it was, say, yesterday, which was really horrific.

But there is a great sense of threat and of menace. I did also interview a journalist who was badly harassed and shaken down, a young man who actually was now trying to get out of the country on a State Department evacuation flight. He had been out in — in the streets just interviewing people about the oil situation and the oil prices, and was with his translator, and suddenly was beset by a guy who tried to drag her off.

Two military men jumped in to try to protect them from this crowd that gathered. They got in a taxi. He said the crowd tried to flip over the taxi before they got away. So, no doubt, Westerners are targets here. And, so, I am doing what Jonathan Rugman says he’s doing, which is staying put.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what have you learned about who’s behind the rise in violence, the government’s role in this?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, as you know, Jeff, President Mubarak spoke to Christiane Amanpour of ABC and said — late today — and said — in fact, this evening here — that he deplored it and the state wasn’t behind it. And so did the vice president.

But nobody I have talked to believes that. And there are two reasons.

One is that the rhetoric coming out of the government has been very much about foreigners trying to stir up trouble. And you even heard that in — the vice president, Suleiman, today in his press conference — I mean, in his interview.

But, secondly, that these are the same guys, thugs they’re often called, who are turned out at — during election time, when there are smaller protests, that they are a mix of the state security police, which is sort of like the secret police, but it’s a big group, and hired thugs and hooligans and various fellow travelers.

One Western observer, an election person, said to me, you know, we see these guys all the time. We know these guys.

And that’s exactly what I’m hearing with absolutely — from absolutely everybody in the street.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, there are calls for another huge march tomorrow by opponents of the government. What have you heard about that?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Jeff, I would say there’s a — there’s a sense of foreboding.

On the one hand, the — the organizers that I talked to and the activists said they think the Egyptian people will again turn out, that, tomorrow — and one Muslim Brotherhood leader said to me today, is, February 4, it will be like our July 4. It will be our day of liberation.

So, on the one hand, there’s great expectations about it. But, on the other hand, there is great foreboding that the — that — that what happened yesterday will be repeated, that it won’t be like Tuesday’s march, which was huge, jubilant, and fairly peaceful, that it will be like yesterday.

And nobody knows for sure. A lot of the press has been — has been intimidated away from the square. One human rights activist said to me she hasn’t seen a lot of live footage from that square, not down on the square, in quite a few hours. There are helicopters circling overhead all the time.

So, it really depends on how the pro-Mubarak forces respond as to how tomorrow goes.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Margaret, you and our other colleagues there, take good care of yourselves.

Margaret Warner in Cairo, thanks a lot.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Jeff.