Margaret Warner: ‘A Wild Scene’ in Cairo’s Streets

BY News Desk  February 11, 2011 at 3:35 PM EDT

Margaret Warner and her crew have spent much of the past two days in the streets of Cairo, speaking with Egyptians about the ongoing protests there. She spoke by phone with Kwame Holman Friday about the sights and sounds in Cairo after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down and discussed what needs to be done to get the nation up and running again. Tune in to Friday’s NewsHour broadcast for more of her reporting from Egypt.

KWAME HOLMAN: Margaret Warner, It’s about 9 p.m. Cairo time on this momentous Friday. What are you seeing and hearing, what is going on?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I am crossing one of the bridges from one side of the Nile to the other with thousands of people, cars backed up all honking, waving the Egyptian flag and just a total party atmosphere. Seconds ago there were fireworks going off overhead, a helicopter of unknown origin has been circling. It’s gotten so jammed up that I just noticed that some of these of cars are totally abandoned. People just want to get to the party on the other side and just left their cars. So it’s a wild scene.

KWAME HOLMAN: Quite a celebration and very different from last night and what you reported. So the word has gotten to the people that their wishes have been acceded to?

MARGARET WARNER: Oh absolutely, in fact the minute it was accomplished they knew it through the tweets, and TV, even though there are not big TV scenes in Tahrir Square. But yeah, very different than last night. And even today we were over in Tahrir Square for a few hours and it was just absolutely jammed with hundreds and thousands of people. And they were absolutely committed that they were not leaving that square until Mubarak left. And they had no interest in any half measures, in any kind of constitutional this or that or hand-off of power, and they got what they wanted. And the government finally belatedly realized that was the only thing that was going to get the people back to work and out of the street.

KWAME HOLMAN: Margaret, what is next? The military officials have said they will guarantee the reforms the people seek will happen. How are they communicating that? What is your sense of the military response? And how will they handle this transition in the hours and days to come?

MARGARET WARNER: Kwame, that is the $64 million question. In fact, I’ve talked to people who were in the government and they don’t even know if they have jobs. Someone in the senior level of the foreign ministry said, “We’re all waiting from a statement how this going to work, and that it’s going to be totally up to the military.” It was an incredibly odd thing, about an hour ago, it was about 7:25 (p.m.) or so here, a military official appeared on television and essentially reassured the nation that the legislative government of Egypt was not going to be scrapped, but that they recognize they had a lot of decisions to make, that they were considering all of them. He reaffirmed their commitment to absolutely making all the reforms and changes that the people had demanded, and essentially said, “We’ll be getting back to you.”

So they now have a lot on their plate, and the No. 1 thing is when work starts Sunday morning — that’s when the work starts here — who’s supposed to go to work? Who’s supposed to run the Ministry of Health? Who’s supposed to run the Public Works and so forth? And the army, even if they wanted to staff it all, don’t have enough people. So there are a lot of discussions going on right now among various groups of wise men and the military about how to actually structure a government; there are many different models and so far, at least, when I left my hotel 20 minutes ago, it hadn’t been decided.

KWAME HOLMAN: Finally, to that point of what happens before people return to work on Sunday, it sounds like there is a celebratory mood, but there will have to be announcements, decisions; there will have to be more understandings before the work week can get underway from the military and other leadership places.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Kwame, that’s a very interesting question. I mean, in other words, tomorrow morning — I imagine the party will go on all night in Tahrir Square; that’s where we’re headed now. But then, in the morning, are people going to start packing up? And there are tents there, there are beds. There’s cooking equipment, they built bathrooms, tent cities, plus, you know — it’s a humongous square where people have been living there now for days and days and days. I don’t know the answer to that; I’m not sure anyone here knows the answer to that.

Given the celebratory mood, I would be surprised if people said well we’re still going to stay here until we know what the army is going to do. Listen, predictions have been worth nothing here in the past 17 days, so I won’t venture one now.

KWAME HOLMAN: Margaret Warner in Cairo, thank you very, very much. We look forward to more reporting on the NewsHour tonight. Thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you Kwame, great talking to you.