NBC News’ Producer Charlene Gubash has lived and worked in Egypt for over 20 years. In a Q &A over the phone from Cairo, she explained the mood in the city today and her sense of how the country is on a precipitous tipping point that could go either way.
What is the mood in Cairo today?
People are already gathering in Tahrir Square today in anticipation of Tuesday’s planned “million-person march.” Hundreds of thousands of people are reportedly already camping out for the night.
President Hosni Mubarak has just named the new Cabinet – but it hasn’t been accepted by anyone because it’s very similar to the old Cabinet. Many names are similar, but the major posts have changed.
Basically, people are demanding that Mubarak step down and that there is a transitional government – but they obviously don’t want it to include members of the old government.
What to watch next?
A huge portion of the Egyptian population have now joined the young activists who got the protests going – it’s now swollen into a popular movement to bring down Mubarak’s government.
People are no longer afraid of anything. They are no longer afraid of the police, they have found their voice. And they are going through with this thing until the end – until Mubarak steps down and the government is changed.
That’s what we have to watch out for.
Meantime, the security situation – is bad. It’s so bad that the U.S. Embassy has offered to help Americans to leave Egypt. Out of the tens of thousands of Americans who are here, many of them have taken the U.S. up on their offer and are heading to places nearby like Istanbul and Athens.
There is also an exodus of Egyptians. One person who has already left is Mubarak’s daughter-in-law. Many other wealthy families – including one of the most reviled people in the country and a prominent person in the government, Ahmed Ezz, – have left. They have flown to various destinations – primarily London. So, a lot of money has presumably flown out of the country, too. And a lot of other business men are trying to get out.
As someone who has lived in Egypt for over 20 years, are you surprised by how quickly things have changed? Does the speed of recent turn of events seem almost unbelievable?
My sense is that Egypt has entered a new era. This may be the day that people rue actually.
They need to have a transition – a true democratic transition – with a leader like Mohamed ElBaradei around whom the country can coalesce as kind of a progressive, reformist, revered world figure who is well respected by everyone. Or Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, who is also well-respected by a large segment of the population.
Unless they have moderate transition figures and democratic elections where we don’t see an Islamist figure emerge as the leader of the country, then this country may be headed down the path of becoming another Islamic state. I don’t think that’s completely out of the picture.
It’s a very conservative society. There is no real vigorous political or civil life here. For example, the best organized-party is the Muslim Brotherhood.
People have become increasingly conservative over the years, so there is a fear that if people do vote, they may be swayed to vote for something like the Muslim Brotherhood.
There is a real concern that Egypt will move away from being what it was – which is an extremely tolerant, Westernized society – to something that is more of an Islamist, conservative society that would be hostile to Israel.
If it went that way, probably one of the first things Islamist leaders would do would be to abrogate the peace treaty with Israel which has been a big demand of the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups for years.
But by the same token, you talk to a lot of people and they do bring up the names of ElBaradei and Moussa as people they would like to see as candidates.
So what I think we have to look for is: what’s going to happen with the government. That’s the million dollar question.
Obviously appointing the former head of intelligence as the vice president was not well received. Unless Mubarak appoints someone like ElBaradei or Moussa to head up the government or as vice president and then resigns so that person can effectively become head of a transitional government, I think that these demonstrations will continue until they force the government to fall.
People are coming out because they feel like unless Mubarak steps down, the bloodshed will continue, the looting will continue, the criminality will continue.
You have to understand this is a place where there was almost no crime. For instance, rape is punishable by death. You could walk on the street at 3 or 4 a.m. and no one would touch you. So people have this feeling of safety all the time here – unlike what you would find almost anywhere else in the world. And now it’s the total opposite of that.
So for people to be subjected to the kind of criminality we saw over the weekend – is completely foreign. It’s a different place. It’s like it lost its innocence.
How do Egyptians see ElBaradei? As an outsider or do they revere him?
A lot of Egyptians do see him as an outsider. He did two things wrong in Egyptian’s eyes when he recently ran for president.
When he had the chance to explain his platform, he never really did. He said he didn’t really have a plan of action, he didn’t really have a five-year-plan. He said he was coming to listen – and that wasn’t enough for people, they wanted something concrete. That was just before he returned to Egypt. Then when he did come to Egypt, he left right away and didn’t come back until just now.
I think a lot of Egyptians are wondering, why was he absent so long? Why did he just come back now? Is he being an opportunist? So he really needs to prove himself to people.
Of course, they are immensely proud of him because he is a Nobel laureate, he was head of the IAEA, he stood up to the United States. So he has a lot of credentials, but he does have prove himself as a patriot.
I think he’ll hang on until the bitter end. If he were not going to hang on, one would think he would seen the writing on the wall and have left by now out of concern for the country.
But it’s difficult to say. He’s obviously out of touch. He’s obviously concerned about the stability of the country. And I think in his mind, stability means having a tight grip on things.