People “Want a New Government” in Egypt: Interview with Ahmad Shokr, Editor, Al-Masry Al-Youm

Ahmad Shokr: Well, the scenes right now are quite remarkable. Literally, tens of thousands are taking to the streets amidst a huge security presence. I’m standing in front of a demonstration of at least a few thousand people who have taken over one of the main bridges in Cairo, calling for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. They have raised their hands, stating that they’re peaceful protesters, but have been met by a shower of rubber bullets and tear gas.

Qasr al-Nil Bridge, Cairo, 28.01.11, 3:30 PM

This is the scene in many different parts of the capital today, and this is happening in several Egyptian cities, as we speak. There were major demonstrations planned to take place after Friday noon prayers today. And most major mosques in Cairo have been shut down by the government. Tahrir Square, which was the site of a very large demonstration on Tuesday of about 15,000 people, has been completely blocked off by security forces.

Egyptians woke up today to find that their internet and mobile and SMS services have been blocked, as well. So, Egypt is effectively disconnected from the digital world right now, in an attempt by the government to prevent communication about the protests. Vodafone, one of the three mobile service companies in Egypt, has reportedly confirmed that this was done under orders of Egyptian authorities.

So, protesters are, like I said, now all over the country on the streets. They’re being violently dispersed with tear gas, and they’re facing off with thousands of Central Security police. There are reports that journalists have been attacked. Al Jazeera has reported an attack on one of its own journalists. A BBC correspondent apparently has been injured.

Reform advocate Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has reportedly been surrounded at a mosque, where he intended to pray and then lead a march afterwards. There were reports earlier that he has been arrested, but as far as I understand right now, he has just been surrounded by security and prevented from [marching] — of course, Baradei has been encouraging people to take to the streets. In an interview with the Guardian yesterday, he stated that the regime is on its last legs — again, very, very strong words from the reform advocate, stronger than we’ve heard from him in the past few months.

So, the country is really in a state of upheaval amidst a massive security clampdown. And this is incredibly significant because these are the largest mass rallies that have happened in Egypt over the course of Mubarak’s 30-year rule. This is definitely the largest, the biggest political challenge that the regime has yet to see from the streets. . . .

There are a variety of grievances that are being expressed in these protests. You know, people are fed up about a lot of things. People are fed up about the emergency law, the state of emergency that has prevailed in Egypt for the past 30 years. They’re fed up with corruption. They’re fed up with unemployment and with the deteriorating economic situation of the country. There’s been a movement in Egypt for the past couple of years to demand a national minimum wage, which currently sits at a pathetic 35 pounds a month, which is roughly the equivalent of seven or eight U.S. dollars. So there are a variety of grievances that are being brought to the streets. But gauging by people’s chants and conversations with people on the street, the unifying demand, the common demand that’s being articulated right now, is that people want the regime ousted. I mean, that’s sort of become the slogan of these protests over the past few days that people have been chanting over and over: that they want the regime ousted. They are fed up, and they want a new government. . . .

The people who initiated the protest call are largely a group of youth activists that have been organizing through social media, mostly through Facebook. They started a Facebook page to call for this demonstration, which immediately received just an outpouring of support. Tens of thousands of people signed up and expressed support for the demonstration, inspired largely by the events of Tunisia a few weeks ago. So this was a youth-led spontaneous movement that’s being fueled by the anger of young people across Egypt at all of the things that I listed before.

But what we’re seeing right now is very interesting. We’re seeing all kinds of different groups coming out. We’re seeing workers. We’re seeing opposition political parties, who had at first been reluctant to support these protests, coming out in full force. So, I think what we’re witnessing is a transformation from what started as a youth-led movement, a movement of Egyptian young people demanding change, to a popular uprising. . . .

I think it [the Tunisian revolution] has left people really inspired. Many people, for the first time, believe that revolution is possible, that political change from the street is something that can happen. You know, of course, there are many differences between Egypt and Tunisia, differences in the composition of the respective societies, of the regimes. Of course, the military and security forces in Egypt are much larger and much better equipped and better funded than they were in Tunisia. So, of course, there are differences, and a replication of Tunisian-style events in Egypt is still a question. But there’s no doubt that people have definitely been incredibly inspired. I mean, people that I know personally, who just a few weeks ago would have never thought to set foot in a demonstration, who were, for the most part, completely depoliticized, are taking to the streets, are fired up and believe that being on the streets and calling for change can actually do something, can actually make a difference right now. . . .

The United States has long been a chief supporter of Egypt, financially, politically, militarily. They really see Egypt as central to their interests in the region and to preserving the status quo and stability, using their language, in the Middle East. And, you know, most Egyptians on the streets are well aware of this, are well aware that the authoritarian regime that they live under is propped up by the government of the United States, and are, I mean, obviously not happy about that.

Now, Secretary of State Clinton made a statement a couple of days ago about reform in Egypt being imperative, about the immediate need for the Mubarak regime to undertake reforms and the need to refrain from violent confrontations with protesters. But unfortunately, what we’re seeing on the streets of Cairo right now — again, right before me — is the complete opposite. We see a violent, violent dispersal of protesters, who are marching in the streets, who are telling riot police that they want to march peacefully, and they’ve been completely blocked off from getting to Tahrir Square, which is the central square of Cairo.

Now, just to clarify, I’m actually not looking at Tahrir Square right now.  I’m looking at one of the main bridges in Cairo that leads into the square.  So, the square is completely covered with Central Security forces, and they’re blocking any demonstrators from trying to get there, which is what these people on the bridge are trying to do.  And as I speak, the clashes are still going on.  There’s tear gas canisters being fired.  The tear gas has covered the whole area.  And it’s still going on in front of me right now.

This interview was broadcast by Democracy Now! on 28 January 2011 under a Creative Commons license. The text above is an edited partial transcript of the interview. Al-Masry Al-Youm is still online: