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In the NewsFebruary 04, 2011 22:30

Cairo: "Out of the frying pan, into the fire"

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ABOUT Charles M. Sennott

A longtime foreign correspondent for The Boston Globe, Charles M. Sennott is the executive editor of GlobalPost and is reporting for FRONTLINE from Egypt for a broadcast that will air on Feb. 22.

Past the barbed wire and the tanks and the military checkpoints and then five other levels of security set up by the protesters themselves, we finally entered Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the revolt in Egypt.

This was the "Day of the Departure" and hundreds of thousands of Egyptians were flowing into the square, which was muddy and strewn with trash and rocks from the clashes over the last week with the army and police.

It was the 11th day of the historic uprising in Egypt calling for the ouster of Egypt's corrupt and brutal president. And it was my first day on the story. I traveled from covering the war in Afghanistan to get to the biggest story in the world here in Cairo.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

I've covered the Middle East for the better part of 20 years and the story in Egypt is still hard for me to believe. I knew I had to be here to see it. I think most journalists who've covered Egypt always wondered if the place might blow someday. And now it has in a way that leaves America challenged by a profound question: Do we support democracy or stability?

For three decades, Mubarak's Egypt has been a U.S. ally because the country had signed the 1978 Camp David peace agreement with Israel and because Egypt was a seemingly stable nation in which an autocrat kept a firm hand on an army that stood up to the Soviet threat and later to Islamic militants. Now all that has changed and there is revolution in the air.

A man held up a hand-written sign in English at the center of the square that summed up the crowd's thoughts: "Game Over!"

But questions as to when Mubarak would step down and what shape an interim government might take still hung heavy in the air.

Here are a few scenes which I recorded for my column at GlobalPost:

A big fear among many protesters in the crowd was that the large and powerful Egyptian military may assert its authority to restore order and eventually seize control of the government. And there was no more clear proof of that than the hulking tanks that flanked every entrance to the square.

"We are really afraid that the military is allowing us to gather on this nice warm day and shout against Mubarak while they know they are going to move in and take over," said Wesam Masoud, an executive chef at a restaurant in Cairo, who walked to the square with several friends to be "part of history."

Another voice that is certain to be heard in the future of Egypt rose up from the square through the call to prayer over the loud speakers in a nearby mosque. The Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed Islamic opposition movement, will inevitably be a player in life after the revolt.

Mubarak outlawed the group, but leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is known for its good public works in poor neighborhoods, have done well running as independents in recent elections. And polls show that they have wide support if they were ever allowed to be part of the political process.

"For years [Mubarak] scared us about the Muslim Brotherhood, but not anymore. We're not buying it anymore," said Farida El Keiy, an Arabic teacher who came to the square with several family members.

"At first, I wanted him to go out with pride, but not any more. Now I just want him to go. Now he has shown his real face. He is a tyrant," she said.

Fatima said that she herself is more supportive of secular opposition but that she believes all of the different opposition groups will have to work together in the transition.

"I'm here for the future of country and my children," she said.

Nawal El Saadawi, who is 80 years old, made her way through the crowd and smiled as she was helped along by a few young relatives.

A well-known author and activist, Saadawi is a grand dame of the secular opposition. She has protested and been jailed in the past and her walk through the square seemed a victory march.

"For me, this is a dream," she said, looking up at the sky and then shaking her head, overcome with emotion. "I've waited for this moment for all of my life. I protested against King Farouk and against Sadat and against Mubarak. And now we are finally doing it. It's a dream," she said, brushing away a tear.

Saadawi said that she and other leading intellectuals had created a committee to present 10 names of opposition candidates they believe should be considered in the transition government, if indeed one takes shape. And there were other similar movements among young people online, including a social networking community that had just been started at: www.shabab-masr.com.

"We have to come together now and decide, the young and the old. It can't be anyone from his regime. It has to be the new face of leadership and we don't know who those leaders are yet. They've all been kept down," she added.

Walid Ahmed, a teacher in a nursery school in the Shobra district, which is the heart of the Muslim Brotherhood, stood nearby Saadawi.

"We are one color and there are many colors that make up all of Egypt. We know we all have to work together to make a future, " said Ahmed, 36, who has been in the Muslim Brotherhood almost his entire adult life.

He was holding up a copy of the pro-Mubarak government newspaper, The Republican. It showed a photograph of the huge protest march calling for Mubarak's resignation on Tuesday. But it carried the headline: "Demonstrators show support for the president."

He pointed to the newspaper as he said, "What they've been stealing from us is not just money, but the truth. The editor is a liar, the photographer is a liar, the whole message is a lie. And that says everything about the regime."


* * *
It's 4 AM here and I haven't slept in three days coming straight from Afghanistan, as did colleague, cameraman and producer Tim Grucza. Tomorrow, Tim and I will be heading out to report together on the events, particularly on the Muslim Brotherhood.

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posted february 04, 2011

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