New Protests at Cairo's Tahrir Square

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman : Next door to Gaza in Egypt there were big protests all over the country today, in fact, these were some of the biggest protests since February. That was when President Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down after 18 straight days of massive protests against his rule. Five months later Egyptians are increasingly frustrated by how little anything else seems to have changed. You remember that the hub for the anti-Mubarak protest was Tahrir square in Cairo. Well today the square was once again filled with protestors. Reporter Thanassis Cambanis was there.

Thanassis Cambanis: Well this was probably the biggest crowd we've seen in Tahrir since Mubarak resigned. There was a relatively large protest in May, but this one, I'd say was about half a million people and it really closed up the square since almost ten o'clock this morning which is unheard of especially in this kind of summer heat. And it also featured for the first time since the revolution the entire coalition of groups that made the initial movement happen. So we saw Muslim brothers, we saw older people, we saw Salafi Fundamentalist Muslims, we saw Muslims, we saw liberals, we saw bourgeois rich kids. The whole sort of panoply that made the Egyptian revolution what it was, and which had largely gone into abeyance in the last couple of months.

Werman : So why are they protesting?

Cambanis: Really there was one demand that everyone in Tahrir expressed today, and that was to see the leaders of the old regime brought to justice. And that's really been the issue that's enraged people the most. In the last couple of months we've seen delays in the prosecution of Mubarak and of his Minister of the Interior, we've seen police who were accused of shooting demonstrators acquitted just this past week. And this really strikes the hearts of even the moderate Egyptians who had been kind of satisfied in the initial months after Mubarak stepped down.

Werman : Well, politically, what has evolved in Egypt. I mean, in advance of elections in early fall. How many parties have evolved who are the front runners and who are the main candidates, any names pop out?

Cambanis: There are a couple of front running presidential candidates including Amr Moussa, the former head of the Arab League, and Mohamed ElBaradei, and there are a lot of political parties that have formerly registered including three major liberal parties, more than 5 Islamist parties, and at least 3 major socialist parties. What we've seen in the political scene is a lot of fragmentation so within each ideological current instead of one major party emerging we've had three or four or five. The other problem we've seen is a very vague time table for the transition to democracy. The generals who run Egypt have set a timeline: Parliamentary elections in September, presidential elections in November. But they've neither set a date, nor published the actual rules of the process. So, all the political players are in limbo. Political parties haven't been able to come up with candidate lists because they don't even know how the Parliamentary elections will be organized. And that, seemingly intentional murkiness has kept the transformation from feeling like it's real, but there have been these concrete steps to form a real political life in Egypt.

Werman : Why the vague dates from the government on this election. You'd think that putting some hard and fast dates might make the public feel like democracy really is in the government's interest.

Cambanis: There's two competing theories on this: One holds that the generals, frankly, want to keep their firm grip on power and they're looking for a way to make a nominal transition to democracy while retaining all the authority for themselves, hence the ambiguity in which no real serious contenders could emerge. The other theory holds that these generals really just don't know what they're doing, and are bumbling forward looking for some way to hand off the hot potato of governance to something else, and as a result, this confusion is simply the result of incompetence. Frankly, I'm not sure where I come down on that debate, but I think there's a lot of evidence for both, that the military likes having power, and that it has no idea what it's doing.

Werman : Journalist Thanassis Cambanis in Cairo speaking with us about today's protest at Tahrir square and the future of Egypt. His book, A Privilege to Die, has just come out in paperback. Thanassis, thank you so much.

Cambanis: A pleasure to be with you.