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Unrest Boiling Over In Egypt


I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, Cuban jazz legend Arturo Sandoval joins us for a wisdom watch conversation. He'll tell us about his life in music and his special friendship with Dizzy Gillespie.

But first we return once again to Egypt. The country there is still under a state of emergency. Hundreds of people were killed in the streets last week when security forces clashed with supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi, and the violence is continuing this week. Twenty-five police officers and more than 30 Morsi supporters were killed in separate incidents. To get a better sense of the situation on the ground there, I'm joined by one of NPR's international correspondents, Peter Kenyon, in Cairo. Peter, welcome to the program.


HEADLEE: What is the sense of the mood on the ground there? Do people have any sense of safety?

KENYON: Well, there's a lot of support for the military in the neighborhoods I've been in. And except for a few predominantly Muslim Brotherhood neighborhoods, that seems to be a growing shift in opinion. The marches by the Brotherhood are becoming less populated night by night. Where I was today in a working-class neighborhood called Imbaba, there was happiness that the army was out on the streets, although quite a bit of concern about the civilian vigilantes known as popular committees who also have been out on the street and occasionally, looking for Muslim Brotherhood officials, but also sometimes robbing people and committing other malfeasance.

So people are uneasy, they're unhappy. You know, one of the worst things is, of course, this curfew. Cairo is a city that's legendary for its nightlife. People come out at night. The city, especially in the summer heat, seems to come to life after dark. But people have to get home by 7 p.m.

HEADLEE: From this side of the world, at least, Peter, it's beginning to look a little worrying how similar things look in Egypt to the way they were while Mubarak was still leading the country. It looks as though things are returning to a more authoritarian regime. And of course, there's hints and rumors that Mubarak could be released from prison. We have a curfew now, a state of emergency as we did before. Do people in Egypt feel the same thing?

KENYON: Well, there's a couple different things there. On the question of authoritarianism, yes, it's much more - we have a state of emergency, which we also had under Mubarak. Cairo has a military presence. There is a general who is considered the de facto ruler, although there is an interim government in place. The question is, is this temporary or is it permanent?

Under Hosni Mubarak, the state of emergency, which was put in following the assassination of Anwar Sadat went on to last for about 30 years. This is promised to last a matter of months until a new constitution can be written and new elections can be held. That is the promise. The question is, will it be fulfilled.

HEADLEE: I wanted to play a clip for you from Dr. Nardine Awad. She mentioned she's a Coptic Christian. She says she supports the military crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood members, as many Egyptians do. But she told us a story about her colleague who was killed by pro-Morsi supporters. Take a listen.


NARDINE AWAD: They came in two nights ago. We were understaffed in the hospital and pro-Morsi supporters, they came into the hospital. They demanded care and they were aggressive and they thought that he was some sort of surgeon. So when he told them, I can't help you, I'll refer you to someone else - he took a stab to the heart and he was pronounced dead like a few hours later. That just shows you how aggressive their nature is and their - I just can't describe it.

HEADLEE: Does this seem like a realistic story? Is this the kind of thing you hear from others?

KENYON: It's not the kind of thing I have heard here in Cairo. I have not been to Alexandria. Certainly, these field hospitals are very frenetic and chaotic. And there have certainly - in other countries that I've lived in there have been cases of patients being extremely upset when the care isn't what they expect and attacking doctors. So it's certainly not impossible.

I should say that those scenes of blood soaked mosques and other emergency field hospitals have faded away in the last couple of days. We have not seen those kinds of clashes. There's been the violence against the soldiers and the deaths of 36 Muslim Brotherhood prisoners in custody. But we haven't seen those civilian scenes lately.

HEADLEE: Has everyone in Egypt, at least as far as you have seen, taken a side here? Is everyone either pro-military or pro-Morsi?

KENYON: It sometimes seems that way. I would be willing to bet - and I've talked to a few people who fall into another category who are unhappy with Mohamed Morsi and his sometimes autocratic behavior and his short-lived presidency. But also not happy with the military ouster and especially the way things have gone since then.

The very heavy-handed crackdown, over 900 dead in just a matter of days. International human rights groups have been calling this a wildly excessive use of lethal force. And there are people in Egypt who share that view. Unfortunately, things are so polarized and passions are running so high right now that they tend not to come forward.

HEADLEE: What do you imagine would be the response - and there are legal scholars who say that the chances of Mubarak being released at least within the next week or two are not high. But he could be released. What would you imagine the response to be in Egypt?

KENYON: That would be a potentially destabilizing event. Legally, Mr. Mubarak has been detained for over two years. He was charged with complicity in the deaths of hundreds of protesters in 2011. Those two years have elapsed and that's the legal limit that he can be detained. So judges have been examining that and it would seem that there are no legal grounds to hold him on that case. There's another case, a smaller one involving gifts and corruption where he is still mandated into custody.

His lawyer is going to court to try and get that overturned or to get that case settled. It's conceivable that Mr. Mubarak could be released. If that did happen, that would certainly excite more passions and cause greater fears among the revolutionaries of 2011 that the military was trying to return to the bad old days of Mubarak.

HEADLEE: Do you feel safe there, Peter? I mean, you've been in some pretty dangerous places and we've had reports coming out of Egypt of journalists being injured and even killed.

KENYON: It's a dangerous place at times. The journalists are exempt from the curfew technically, but it does make it a bit dangerous. You come up to checkpoints and you're not sure if it's police or soldiers or civilians and if so, what their intentions are. And doing interviews just today, we were accosted by a angry man - a middle-aged man who wanted to stop us from doing the interview.

He wanted to know who we are, wanted to see papers. After we talked to him for a while, it turned out he was just concerned. He's been hearing a lot of stories about the Western media misrepresenting the situation. And it all calmed down fairly quickly. But you never know when these agitated scenarios are going to turn violent.

HEADLEE: Peter Kenyon is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined us from Cairo in Egypt. Thanks so much, Peter.

KENYON: You're welcome, Celeste. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.