Interview: protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square push back Mubarak thugs

An injured protester in Tahrir Square, 2 February 2011. (Matthew Cassel)

Matthew Cassel, photojournalist and an editor with The Electronic Intifada, is currently in Cairo and has been documenting the unfolding of the Egyptian revolution. He spoke with Nora Barrows-Friedman today about the unflagging steadfastness of the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square — before the interview began he said that instead of going home, people were dancing in the square.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Tell us where you are right now and what you see.

Matthew Cassel: Right now, I’m at Tahrir Square in central Cairo, where pro-democracy activists have been taking to the streets and staging sit-ins and mass protests since last Friday. All of that began on 25 January when there was a demonstration called against police brutality where tens of thousands took to the streets, something that was unprecedented in Egypt. And I knew, from spending a lot of time in this country and having a lot of Egyptian friends, that a revolution would soon follow, because once that happened, that would open the door to everything that’s happening now. And now it’s just thirty years of pent-up frustration that’s all being released on the streets of Cairo and numerous other cities around the country, calling for the ouster of the US-backed Hosni Mubarak dictatorship.

NBF: Talk about what your day was like today and how it was different from the last week that you’ve been there.

MC: The first day of the protests, Egyptian police were on the streets and tried to use force to repress demonstrators, and there were clashes — there was stone-throwing and the police lobbed tear gas and rubber-coated bullets and opened fired at protesters. But since then, it’s been completely, 100 percent peaceful in Tahrir Square and elsewhere around the country with people unequivocally calling for the ouster of the Mubarak regime.

What was different today from previous days was that last night, the government tried to increase pressure, tried to end or quell this massive demonstration. These forces, who are notorious in this country for their brutality, and others — there were genuine Mubarak supporters who were in the street. But what I saw was violence initiated by these kinds of thugs who I’ve seen in action before, and I was actually assaulted by them last Friday when I was photographing them at the protest. They started the violence yesterday, they started throwing stones at anti-Mubarak demonstrators … there were clashes between the two sides that continued through the evening.

A lot of people were able to see those clashes because the hotel where a lot of journalists stay has a direct view of the [Egyptian National Antiquities] museum where the clashes happened. So the whole world watched the demonstrators fight back against the Mubarak forces, and eventually defeat them and push them back. However, it didn’t end peacefully, and Mubarak forces — someone opened fire, and they killed four anti-Mubarak demonstrators. People who are volunteer doctors and nurses and other medical personnel told me that the shots were highly suspected to have been from a sniper … Those clashes continued today, when Mubarak forces came to try and invade Tahrir Square, where the sit-ins are happening, but the anti-Mubarak demonstrators fought back and resisted and protected Tahrir Square from being taken over by these thugs.

NBF: What’s the mood on the ground like today, after Mubarak gave his speech yesterday and after the thugs rained down this violence — what are people around you saying, and has the mood changed dramatically?

MC: Like I said, the protesters have been unequivocal in their demands that the Mubarak regime — all of it — be ousted. And the Mubarak government has tried to make small concessions here and there. But they are not enough for these demonstrators, who continue their demonstrations. And even now, as I look over Tahrir Square, these protests are continuing throughout the evening. This is the sixth or seventh consecutive day of these protests, where people haven’t gone home, they’re staying in the square, still calling for the ouster of the Mubarak regime.

NBF: Can you describe some of the scenes happening inside Tahrir Square?

MC: What I saw yesterday was an incredible resistance movement, formed after only 24 hours, set up to battle these invaders — Mubarak’s forces. Despite the gunfire from last night, people have fought them and resisted stones and other objects being thrown at them. Some people have been injured, some got too close to the other side and were hit with sticks and other objects, a couple people were also stabbed. This has also been happening to journalists, by the same kinds of forces around the country, as well as other foreigners, in an attempt to silence any and all media from reporting on what’s happening here and prevent them from reaching the outside world.

People are incredibly brave in continuing their struggle, and despite being injured, I saw protesters with bandages similar to the ones I have wrapped around my head, out in the streets, again protesting against the thugs and Mubarak. They’re continuing their protests, they’re not going to let their injuries stop them, or the violent attacks by the government. They’re here, they’re not moving anywhere. And they’re calling, as they have been the entire time, for Mubarak to leave office and leave the country, even. Or many people would prefer that he stay in the country and be tried.

NBF: What can you say about reactions by people around the country and in the square to the US administration being unwilling to address the people’s demands or stop military aid to the Mubarak regime?

MC: I think it’s not a big concern for people, because they don’t expect the US government to help them or support them in any way. The only reason Mubarak has existed as the president of this country for thirty years is due to financial and diplomatic support from the United States. So now people aren’t really concerned with the US or any other foreign government for that matter.

There are a few chants directed at the US, but they’re not calling for the US to intervene, or even cut off aid to Mubarak. Instead, their calls to Mubarak are viewed as an internal matter, and they’re trying to take their own democracy into their own hands, and the future of their country into their own hands, and so far they’re doing quite an incredible job of doing that.

NBF: What do people envision for a new face on the Egyptian political front? What are people saying?

MC: That’s yet to be decided. First they have to get rid of Mubarak, and then they have to figure it out. But I guess how they’ve characterized the demonstrations in the Western media — where they try to scare people with fear about the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic forces, saying that they’ll take power — or, on the other side, [promoting] Mohammed ElBaradei, whose name I haven’t really heard mentioned once by protesters here. He came to the square once in the past week and had a very small following.

What you have here is the most diverse protest movement I’ve ever seen in the region or maybe in the entire world. You have Egyptians from all walks of life — rich, poor, old, young, religious, non-religious, Christian, Muslim, who are out in the square right now. I found it incredible.

During the massive march and protest on Tuesday, I watched someone try to lead the crowd in an Islamic chant, and the crowd booed him down. And the crowd demanded he stop, and chanted back to him cries of Egyptian unity. So it’s extremely united, it’s a very democratic movement right now, people are working to clean up after themselves in Tahrir Square, people are policing themselves after the police were taken away by the government after the clashes happened.

If this kind of democratic movement continues to form a new government, we’re going to see something in Egypt [not found] anywhere else in the region — a very democratic government that includes all kinds of people and addresses the issues of everyone.

NBF: Have there been other scenes that you can relay that are emblematic of the entire week of protests?

MC: On Friday, when I was in a working-class neighborhood of Cairo, it was totally organic, totally spontaneous, people just took to the streets. It started with a group of fifty, and they were calling people from their houses, telling them to come out onto the streets. Two minutes later, it was hundreds, then minutes later it was thousands. That reflects the pent-up anger and frustration around the country after thirty years of the Mubarak dictatorship. And I’ve been able to talk to people who say how much they hate this regime, and how much they want freedom and their rights.

And now that the ball is rolling, everyone’s getting involved, and there is a clear majority in this country who are calling for the ouster of the regime so that they can form some sort of more democratic system in their country.

It’s eleven o’clock in the evening right now, and still the energy in the streets is so intense. People are still in the square, leading chants — people are very driven, they have a lot of momentum right now and they’re going to continue. It’s inevitable — Mubarak is going to have to step down, so a more democratic system of government can be in place.

Tomorrow is going to be huge — a lot of people are going to come out.

Nora Barrows-Friedman is an award-winning independent journalist, writing for The Electronic Intifada, Inter Press Service, Al-Jazeera, Truthout and other outlets. She regularly reports from Palestine.

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