Al Jazeera reporter: Revolution is inspiring but divide is growing

I had the pleasure yesterday to interview an Al Jazeera reporter stationed in Cairo, for the Hebrew foreign affairs blog I co-manage, Kav Hutz. Some of the questions were submitted by our readers. Was the reporter taken off guard by the events? Inspired? Is the opposition losing the masses? Is the military splitting? Are women playing a major role? And are the protesters resolved to continue? The reporter’s name is withheld for security considerations.


How surprised were you by what is going on?

I don’t think you can find many people who can tell you honestly that they expected anything like this to happen. Even in the hallways of the hotels, when you go there and you see reporters, everyone looks like they’re in shock. And it isn’t even over yet – every day we say things like this the events are unprecedented, that this is the turning point, that this is a historic day, and every day something else happens. It’s incredible to see the will of the people out there. Unfortunately, in the last 24 hours it’s gotten very very ugly, but on the day of the Million March, on Tuesday, when I was in that square – I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything more inspiring. It’s like this burst of freedom on Liberation Square. I haven’t seen anyone ever, for years, being able to talk about Mubarak or to talk about politics, in the open air, without fear, and they were doing it on the square. They were singing, they were talking about personalities in the government, and just that ability to talk freely, was in itself, a victory.

And after these 24 hours, which, indeed, have gotten very, very ugly – how are people feeling there tonight? Are they dispirited, do they feel like giving up?

I think that when we’re talking about the protesters, that core group of protesters in Liberation square, they are more adamant.  The more blood is shed the more they grow in their belief that there is no going back.  And it doesn’t look like the recent concessions from the government are going to be enough, they’re just getting more empowered to keep going until he leaves. As for the rest of Egypt – as you know, it’s a big country of over 80 million people – I think this terrifies them. It terrifies them that the change that may be coming may not be positive, that things are getting out of control, spinning in all directions. And that’s being played on very heavily by the government and by President Mubarak. They’re using the fear of the majority of the people that the events will send them to chaos to say to them, listen, we’re going in eight months, and then you’ll get what you want, but be patient. We’re seeing the beginning of a schism, to my mind, between the people in Liberation Square, who want Mubarak to go, and the people outside the square, who, I think, are becoming slightly more keen every day to go back to normal, saying to protesters that he’s given you what you want. I think this feeling is gonna grow.

So the time is not working for the protesters.

It depends on the turn of events. Time was working on the side of these protesters until Wednesday night.  The march went exactly according to plan – it was a very festive environment, and the next morning I was there, and there were all sorts of people coming for the first time, exactly like the organisers wanted. But because of last night, the tide-  it’s not turning against the protesters, because everybody here want Mubarak out; but the fear factor. We talked earlier about the breaking of the fear factor, and I think we’re seeing the fear factor slowly creeping in.

In terms of the role of the army – have you seen protesters trying to persuade the soldiers to actively join them, rather than merely maintaing that neutrality?

No, I don’t think so. I think the people respect the fact of the role of the army being peacekeeping on a bigger scale than crowd control, and they know that the army is not the police. But certainly last night, when we saw people dying, people shot with live munitions, killed, and still the army did nothing – I think even for  Egyptians who love the army it was painful to watch. Some felt these people were being offered as sacrificial lambs for the military,  and thought, if this wasn’t enough bodies for the soldiers to intervene, how many bodies will it be enough for them to intervene?

I have to say that I wasn’t there during the clashes – I got out to cover the Mubarak supporters, and then there was a stampede. I had to run for shelter and ended up spending the night on the balcony of some family. And it was very interesting to see the army operate – they would move into an area to try and stop the clashes, make itself a barrier between the Mubarak people and the protesters, and within five minutes would pull out again, only to come back an hour later and repeat it all. It didn’t seem like they had a strategy, but instead like they didn’t know what to do. And this is increasingly going to be a problem, because – at what point does the army intervene? It’s not intervening of the sake of the people, but at some point, it will have to intervene, for the sake of the people.

Have you seen any signs of a split in the military – whether vertical or horizontal, between soldiers and officers or all along the lines, between units and individual?

I’m not seeing any splits within the military per se, in fact I think the military here is very well disciplined. They respect the fact that their commanders said, don’t fire on them. It’s not tear gas or rubber-coated steel bullets; if an army tank fires at these people, we’re talking about a bloodbath in the square. So they understand the risks and repercussions of going inside, and although people were killed, the soldiers respect and understand the fact them going in would make it so much worse. On top of that, I think that they’re slightly afraid as well, because they’re really not trained for that kind of thing. They’re trained for much more serious stuff, and I think it scares them, because the numbers of the protesters simply outweigh them. The soldiers look scary with their big tanks, but  there’s only three or four people within each tank, and there are over a million people in front of the tanks, on the streets. So although they had this sort of big presence here, their numbers are by no means a match, and I think we are seeing a fear factor there.

Where there is a split, though –  where there’s a rumoured split, although I heard it from several different sources – is on the way forward, and it’s between the Prime minister, the Vice president and the President. I think that’s what I’m hearing is correct – they have different strategies  on what should be done next, and they’re not really in line with each other.

And is the opposition any more united? Many commentators made the observation Mubarak is trying to split the opposition – did he succeed?

People are talking about the opposition as if there’s this huge variety of parties, and you do have a lot of parties, but there are the main ones, and at the end of the day the most important one is the Muslim Brotherhood. This is why Suleiman was asked straight-on in his press conference – are you speaking to the Muslim Brotherhood? They are the big thing that everyone’s waiting for, and they still haven’t actually talked to them. They “issued an invitation,” was, I think, the term Suleiman used, and the Brotherhood is still considering that invitation. So we can talk about how split the opposition is, but the main and real question is when and how far will the Muslim Brotherhood be willing to go. Will they enter a dialogue with the government at the point, or will they find it’s better to stay out of it and be on the side of the people and then get in at a later point.

Many reports coming out of Egypt stressed the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t play a great role in organising the protests, or at least weren’t particularly visible there.

Well it’s two things – we’re talking about the Muslim Brotherhood as a political organisation and as a grassroots movement. As a grassroots movement they were told very expressly on the first day of the protests not to weigh in or join in any kind of visible way. They’ve become a little more visible in the last couple of days, at time being a bit of a separate group on Tahrir square. But I think they’re very much aware of the fact that state media is playing to this. Anyone who watches state media will think that the Muslim Brotherhood is paying people to be in Tahrir Square, that they hijacked this revolution, that they are only waiting for Mubarak to go and then they’ll take over and forget all these protesters. According to state media that is what’s going on in this country. So in reaction to that the Muslim Brotherhood has had to keep a low profile. This kind of publicity is not considered [inaudible 12:00], unfortunately a lot of the population here do rely on state media for their information. On the grassroot level they played a clever game, being there in the opposition but not being very visible. Now politically it’s a different question, and they will have to make some decisions now: Are they going to enter into this big dialogue like the other opposition groups to the government, or are they going to stand back and wait for the government to fall, or parliament to dissolve, and then try to make sure that during the next elections they get their two seats, and then be politically strong?

Currently the demonstrations are a huge grassroots movement, and people are saying it’s a revolution with no leaders. Who would you say the protesters trust most to represent them adequately in negotiations, and speak for them when the time comes?

It’s not any one person really, and I really tried to get to the bottom of this in the last few days while I was with them. But this is not a revolution that is captured around one ray of light that they’re aiming for, it’s a revolution about getting rid of what they have. So it’s very much like the Tunisian uprising in that way, because people don’t have much of structured understanding of what they want later, they just know that they deserve more now. Elbaradei, for one, is not that popular honestly, not as a leader. Omar Suleiman is increasing less popular because he’s seen as Mubarak’s man, even in the interim. He’s well respected but that’s it, people don’t really hear very much about him. And then there is Ayman Nour and those types of figures, who have really not done very much to capitalize on what’s going on. So there hasn’t been anyone, and that has strengthened the government’s hands, because they’ve been able to say, like today, when Omar Suleiman said that they need time to find nominees and to inspect them, so it’s played into their hands. I think if there was a leader in this revolution it would have been a whole different scenario. You would have had people galvanized behind one person, and there would have been an alternative that the protesters are suggesting. Right now they aren’t suggesting an alternative, they are just saying we dont want what we have, and that is something that the government is playing on, because they can say that the protesters’ demands are going to lead to chaos because they don’t have a plan.

On the other hand, it’s also very powerful, because there’s a very simple idea that Mubarak has to go, period. The people have decided that is what they want, and won’t be persuaded even by their own leadership to compromise for anything else.

I think for the outside world it’s really a beautiful picture. And that’s really what it is, men, women and children, Muslims and Christians. Really you haven’t seen unity like in this place. From the inside though, it creates a lot of feelings of instability, and that’s what is being felt around, not neessarily inside the protests but for the people just outside the protests, they have to deal with the consequences of this revolution on a day by day basis. Those people do need a leader. It’s not enough that there’s this beautiful, spontaneous, volcanic-like eruption of discontent and wanting change. Increasingly, they will need some kind of strategy and right now the only strategy being provided is one by Oman Suleiman, like a roadmap. He’s really trying to push ahead a message that ‘they are disorganized and going to push this country down the drain, and we are organized and doing what you want.’

People here are very curious to know how active women are in these protests and what role they play.

They are very active, and active on all different levels. I can tell you – young, old, veiled or wearing tight jeans – they are all there. And they are all very much holding hands. It’s not as if they are in sections or segregated. A lot of the time those who are most vocal and expressive are actually the women, the young women especially. It’s really indicative of the way in which the Mubarak regime has suffocated so many different types of people that all of those types of people are now speaking up. Women have played a huge role, and right now in the Square they still play a vital role in the logistics of the protests. You can see a lot of the planning is done by women who are saying, water comes from here, the food comes from here, there’s a real sense of community. I was surprised also that the women were spending the night, I thought it would probably be just the younger guys who are spending the night but it wasn’t. They were mostly men, but also there were a lot of women spending nights in tents in the square.

How are you feeling today as a journalist – in terms of personal safety and freedom to report?

It’s a disaster. We don’t have any personal safety, I can’t tell you where I am, I can’t leave the location where I’m at. My colleagues have been detained, beaten, harassed. You feel like you can’t move around, we had our cameras confiscated. Every day has been a challenge to do the very basics of our job, like communicating with each other and with the outside world. It’s just so incredibly frustrating. It’s always been frustrating to work in Egypt, especially for Al Jazeera, but today our lives are in danger, it’s not even a joke.I got so many calls from colleagues saying, my fixer just got beaten up, my driver is missing. The Washington Post bureau chief got arrested. So many journalists and their assistants have gone missing just in the last twenty-four hours. It’s just unacceptable. The White House had come out and made a statement, Ban Ki Moon had come out and made a statement, but this really isn’t what matters: Me, personally, I need to be in that square, right now, I do not need to be on a balcony, hiding in a corner, which is what I’m doing now as I’m speaking to you. I need to do my job, you know? And I can’t do my job!..

How does it compare to other conflicts that you’ve covered?

It’s very different from, say, Gaza, because here while the violence is disturbing, the revolution is inspiring to me. And personally speaking, you can’t help but feel pride at the resolve of the people who stood up and said “enough.” They’re my age, thirty, which means thy’ve never known  anything else than Mubarak’s regime, and still they know they deserve something better. It doesn’t compare to anything else I’ve covered – maybe in parts; when the clashes began I felt as if I was in Beirut again. But the overall experience doesn’t compare to anything I know, also because of the consequences. We’re living through a tremendous earthquake in the Arab world. Today it’s Egypt, which country will be next?

And finally – what can caring Israelis do to help?

I know a lot of people are asking what they can do – not just writing letters to government, but actually affecting things on the ground. I think the power of social networking, Facebook and Twitter, is huge. Sending messages of support via social media, retweeting stuff, has a tremendous effect on people. Because they sit there in the freezing cold, sometimes thinking, you know, maybe I’ll just go home. And then they get a text message or a tweet or whatever on their phone, and they know that the world is watching, and they become inspired to go on. There’s so much people can do just by sending messages of support and solidarity.

[Much thanks to +972 co-editor Shir Harel, who helped with the transcript]