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Is Egypt Better Or Worse Off Now?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'd like to thank my colleague Celeste Headlee sitting in for me on short notice yesterday while I was out dealing with a family emergency. And we're going to start the program today by taking a look at what's going on in Egypt. It's been more than two years since anti-government protests started there.

Since then, the government's been replaced, a new president has been sworn in, but protests - some violent - have started again.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

MARTIN: That was sound from demonstrations this weekend in Port Said. Those were said to be in response to death sentences handed out after a soccer riot. In a few minutes, we're going to hear more about the relationship between sports and political unrest in Egypt. That's coming up. But first, NPR's Cairo bureau chief, Leila Fadel, joins us from her base in Cairo to tell us more. Leila, thank you so much for joining us.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: What is at the root of the demonstrations that we are seeing now? And they're not just in Port Said. They're in Cairo too.

FADEL: Well, I think it's - you know, there's been just two years of broken promises, a lot of people feel. And so what we're seeing is sort of a groundswell of frustration. It certainly isn't all of the country, but in the middle of Cairo, in Suez, in Port Said and Ismailia people are saying where is the change that you promised us? Where is the employment? Where is the money? Where are those changes? And really, nothing has happened.

Where are those reforms? And so a lot of it comes from that. But it's certainly not 86 million people on the streets.

MARTIN: And, you know, to your point we have a clip here, from a man named Midhet Sad(ph). He worked for 27 years as a tour guide, which was one of Egypt's biggest industries, right? Prior to the revolution.

FADEL: Yes. Yeah.

MARTIN: And this is what he had to say.

MIDHET SAD: Life is not easy anymore. I mean, on the contrary, actually, I would say it's worse. It's much worse now. Huge anger in the streets because of the disappointment, you know. And that created a sort of chaotic atmosphere all over the country. Which, in accordance, of course, affected my business I'm in. I don't know who to blame: The regime, the opposition, whatever. I don't see them caring about Egypt. People are caring about Egypt.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit more about that? What is he saying, is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. That people feel that the government is not providing any results at all?

FADEL: Well, I think the main point, and I think the most important thing - and sometimes we forget this - is that people don't know who to blame here. It's been two years but is it the president, Mohamed Morsi, who's currently in power? Is it the bureaucratic system that really, in many ways, is still loyal to the old regime, to the former president, Hosni Mubarak? Is it this opposition who keeps saying this is not acceptable but really offers no alternative to the people?

And so really, when you talk to people there is the same disappointment among everybody but everybody blames different people about why it's happened. You know, there's been no real progress, if you think about it. They went to parliamentary elections. They voted for the first time. They were so excited. That parliament got dissolved by the courts.

This constitutional referendum passed by 64 percent but a lot of the country also not satisfied with it. Mubarak was convicted to a life sentence. That was appealed. There's been - really, there's only two police officers currently in jail over the killing of protestors during those 18 days, some 900 people and many more since. So people are saying where is the justice? Where is the reform? And most of all, how do we eat? How we do feed ourselves and our families?

MARTIN: I was also interested in what he said about the huge anger in the streets because of the chaotic atmosphere. So could you talk a little bit about that? I mean, Cairo, for example, is a place that many people who like to travel will have visited over the years. What's the atmosphere there now?

FADEL: Well, when these protests happen, they're happening right in the center of the city, the heart of the city. And so it slows down traffic. You know, it's not a war across Cairo. They're very isolated places, but it really kills traffic. There are many major hotels like the Four Seasons, like the Sheraton, the Hilton, the Intercon that are right on that path because it's on the Nile.

And so recently two days in a row the Intercontinental, the Semiramis here, was raided by armed thugs and they had to shut down for a day. And when you're a tour guide operator and that's what's on the news about Cairo, how can you expect people to come?

MARTIN: This is NPR's Cairo bureau chief Leila Fadel. We're talking about the ongoing protests in Egypt. You talked about the fact that the economy just seems stalled. Has President Mohamed Morsi taken any steps to try to get the economy moving again? And what have they been? And what obstacles has he faced?

FADEL: Well, yeah. I mean, he has. He's out there on this sort of campaign to get foreign investment. You know, he was on this trip to Germany which wasn't particularly successful on that front. Money coming from Qatar, but the foreign reserves are dwindling. He's also negotiating for an IMF loan, but in order to get that IMF loan he'll have to lift some of these subsidies on major things like bread, like fuel.

And that won't make people happy. You know, and a lot of people look at these loans, the IMF loan, as part of the corrupt system of the old regime, the cronyism of the old regime. And so he's really been unable to pick it up so far. I mean, and I don't think - you know, he's only been in power for about seven months but it doesn't really matter to people who are saying how do we eat?

You know, the currency here keeps going up. The pound is devaluing. But the salaries are staying the same. So really, people can't afford anything.

MARTIN: I think we have another perspective that you got from the senior advisor to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the ruling party at the moment. Why don't you tell us about that?

FADEL: Well, I mean, I think that there's been a struggle. The Muslim Brotherhood for so long had been a oppressed group and now they're in power. So Gehad el-Haddad, this senior advisor to the Muslim Brotherhood, talks about the challenges of now being in power.

GEHAD EL-HADDAD: We are in a situation where the heads of the state and even the heads of ministries are giving executive orders to their branches and these orders are not being executed. It's a unique situation to be in, not entirely unexpected in a post-revolution country, and thus you cannot really apply the same rules of logic on mature democracies like the U.K., or the U.S. or Europe that have come through civil wars 200, 300, 500, 800 years of instilling democracy in its culture and the people.

MARTIN: So what is he saying? Is he saying that the infrastructure of government doesn't respect the authority of the people who are now in power? They're just, what, doing their own thing?

FADEL: Yeah. Basically, he's saying that there is a bureaucracy in place - seven million strong, according to him - that works in the way that it always has: infested with corruption, taking bribes. And it's not something that the president has been able to clean up in just seven months. And he's also saying that these ministries kind of function on their own.

And so even though they've appointed new heads, they really haven't been able to get at the heart of the bureaucracy. The other thing is that the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization existed for so long as opposition, were repressed, were put in jail. The president himself was in jail under Mubarak. And so now he's the president and suddenly these same people who were told that the Muslim Brotherhood are the boogeyman, they're going to bring down the state, they're going to turn this into, you know, Afghanistan, this kind of thing.

Now he's the president and they're told respect his authority. So I think it's a really difficult position for him to be in, especially when it comes to the security sector who were really instructed to go after these people and are now taking orders from them. So there's really been no security reform. If you look at human rights reports, there's been nothing to change the security institutions, the riot police, this kind of thing.

And it's unclear because of an unwillingness or an inability.

MARTIN: Hmm. And to that end, I'm not sure that everybody knows it - how many people have died since these conflicts began recently? It's something like, you know, more than 50 people. Why is that? Is it just general chaos in the street? Is there warfare between the security forces and the people in the street? Why is the death toll so high? Do we know?

FADEL: The main part of that death toll and the numbers, depending on who you're speaking to, do vary. So some people say more than 60, some people say more than 50. Most of that comes from the canal city of Port Said where, as you mentioned earlier, 21 soccer fans were sentenced to death over a brawl, basically, that happened after a soccer game last year and 74 people were killed.

That city was enraged by this ruling and they were enraged that the president told them, respect the judiciary, when only a couple of months ago, he put himself above judicial oversight briefly to try to force the constitution through because he said that those were corrupt courts. The top courts were corrupt courts. So they're saying, why do we have to respect the judiciary and why are you sentencing 21 of our sons to death and no police have been held accountable for the killing of protestors - or very few?

So that ended up in just, like, two, three hours on the first day. When that sentence came down, 30 people were killed and, from what I understood in reporting in the town, people described it as really indiscriminate fire, but also, the protestors themselves - some of them had guns and were firing back, laying siege to buildings belonging to the police or to the army due to the anger, but we didn't hear of very many police dying. Still, the state has many more weapons and so we heard, in Port Said alone, on the day that I visited on Monday, already 43 people had been killed and, after I left, another four were reportedly killed.

MARTIN: And, finally, Leila, before we let you go, is there any path forward that seems promising here? Is there anybody who has the credibility to bring the sides together? Does there seem to be any kind of path forward here to stopping the violence? Also, I'm kind of wondering, in particular, tomorrow being Friday, the day of prayer, whether that might offer some respite and give people a chance to catch their breath and take stock of the situation.

FADEL: Actually, the day of prayer is the day of protest now, so every Friday brings more protests than usually an escalation in our experience here because people will go pray in the mosque as a gathering point and then march. But I think that is the main problem, what you just touched on.

Who has the credibility? And, really, the answer is nobody because, despite the political elites' debates amongst themselves, nobody really seems to speak for the street, so the opposition has also lost a lot of credibility. The main group, the National Salvation Front, painted this as a battle about Islamists trying to take over and make the constitution a totally Islamist constitution and yet, yesterday, they were meeting with an even more conservative group, the Nour party, which is a Salafi group, much more conservative than the Muslim Brotherhood and much more fierce about Islamic law, against the Brotherhood.

And so people are starting to say, they're not speaking for us. They're just worried about their chairs, their seats, who's going to be the president. They're not worried about our bread. So that's the thing - is there's no real leader coming forward that seems to represent Egyptians as a whole or has answers to the problems that people really want to discuss, which are issues of social justice and economic equality, something that's really being addressed in these debates.

Again, it's about things like the nature of the constitution which, of course, is important for the future of Egypt, but most Egyptians are just like, what about our bread? What about that?

MARTIN: That was NPR Cairo bureau chief Leila Fadel joining us from her home base in Cairo. Leila Fadel, thank you so much for speaking with us.

FADEL: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.