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Egypt in Crisis

Aired January 29, 2011 - 20:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, a CNN special report:

The protesters, the looting, the soldiers, the celebrations -- who is in charge? What's at stake? And what will happen next?

We're on the ground with every angle. It's Egypt's crisis. But the world is watching.

I'd like to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

ISHA SESAY, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Isha Sesay in CNN world headquarters.

You are looking at live pictures from Cairo where it is now 3:00 in the morning.

Well, we begin with this breaking news that we want to bring you. Egypt's state television channel, Nile TV, is just now reporting several people have been killed in a prison escape in an Egyptian town of Fayoum -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The report says a number of prisoners overcame prison security and fired live ammunition at them. An earlier report from Nile TV said approximately 1,000 prisoners escaped onto the highway connecting Fayoum and Cairo, creating a state of fear for families.

SESAY: Well, in other news from Egypt, Sunday is expected to see a sixth day of protests against the government of Hosni Mubarak.

Right now this is what we know: On CNN early tonight, former U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen warned that Egypt will face a, quote, "leadership vacuum" if the Mubarak government falls.

While the powerful police have all but abandoned the streets, the army has largely stood by and done nothing. The result, looting. People turned out with sticks and knifes to protect their homes and possessions.

Now, in a very unusual joint statement, the leaders of Britain, France and Germany expressed grave concern about the turmoil and caused for the Egyptian government to allow free and fair elections.

While in Washington, Secretary of State Clinton will appear on tomorrow's Sunday morning talk shows, including CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION," to discuss the future of U.S./Egyptian relations.

Back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Isha.

The cry for freedom and demand for President Mubarak to go rang loud and clear today as tens of thousands of protesters swarmed into the streets of Cairo and other major Egyptian cities adding to a rising death toll. "Reuters" now reporting police today shot and killed 17 people trying to attack police stations just south of Cairo. Dozens of people were wounded.

CNN's Ivan Watson has been on the streets of Cairo. He's joining us now with the latest.

Ivan, what is going on?

IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right now, the center of Cairo is quite calm and sleepy, Wolf. We're pushing 3:00 in the morning here. And the only noise I've really heard in the last few hours are the tanks of the army that have been conducting patrols around town.

Now, earlier in the day, there were dramatic scenes here, scenes of jubilation from the thousands of people out in the streets cheering. Many of these people could not have done that the previous day because on Friday, there were serious clashes with police in these very streets. But the police force seemed to have evaporated overnight Friday to Saturday and ceded the streets to the demonstrators.

Take a listen to what one woman had to say to us.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What's happened to our president? He said, "I will change everything." We don't want him. He's the one -- he should go out. We don't want him here because he's not responsible about all of this here. The people are poor.

One year, I live here. I'm fed up. I feel everything. It's difficult for me.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Forty-three years in Saudi Arabia. I feel it's easy life. Here, it's very difficult for us.

WATSON: Are you happy today?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I am happy because everybody (INAUDIBLE) in here. Before, I thought there is no many (INAUDIBLE) in Egypt. Now, when I saw all this, I feel, yes, we can change. We don't want Hosni Mubarak. We don't want him.


WATSON: And, Wolf, here you have this fascinating contradiction where you have real hatred and loathing for the government of President Hosni Mubarak, who's been in power for nearly 30 years. And, at the same time, elation and joy, pride even, coming from the fact Egyptians finally are able to express that hatred, have that freedom to really lash out and speak their minds perhaps for the first time for many of them in their lifetime -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What do we know, Ivan, about the breaking news that 1,000, at least several hundred, maybe as many as 1,000 prisoners escaped from that Fayoum prison outside of Cairo and are out on the streets right now?

WATSON: At this predawn stage, we pretty much only have what Nile TV itself has reported, Wolf. As you said about 1,000 people. And that's going to be very disturbing news for Egyptians who are worried.

Not all of the demonstrators -- not all of the Egyptians are demonstrators. I've spoken to some Egyptians who were quite worried as what they see as a threat of breakdown of law and order. One of the chief fears coming is that, yes, many people do not like the police force here but now that they're gone, they're hearing about armed groups or robbers moving around invading houses, looting shops.

I've seen a number of burned and looted shops just within the past 24 hours and some Egyptians who are unable to go back to their homes because of a "dusk until dawn" curfew, very worried they cannot protect their families at home from any possible thieves, robbers and criminals that may be out there. And a prison break is only going to make that worse.

BLITZER: Yes, it's a dangerous situation all around.

Ivan, we'll stay in close touch. Be careful over there.


SESAY: Well, Wolf, in the port city of Alexandria, what started as relatively calm protests grew much more intense.

CNN's senior international correspondent Nic Robertson has been in the thick of things on the ground.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's almost getting to be nightfall here in Alexandria now. The people are very clear in what they're saying. They want President Mubarak to go. They said, if he got any honor and dignity, then leave. And they're also saying, if you want to leave, then go to Saudi Arabia. It's waiting for you.

This is the message the people are saying.

I'm making a report right now.


ROBERTSON: Yes. We're making a video report right now. What do you want to say? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I want to say that in his speech, he said, I will stay.



ROBERTSON: So, you think he's going to stay?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's challenging us and we're challenging him. He cannot have a curfew. We are staying here.

ROBERTSON: So, you're hearing it --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's not the president anymore.

ROBERTSON: Thank you.

So, you're hearing it from the streets right here. He's challenged the people by saying he'll stay --


ROBERTSON: This man is telling me --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He wants to calm us down.

ROBERTSON: He wants to calm you down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: By saying that he will stay.

ROBERTSON: By saying that he will stay.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's not calming us down.

ROBERTSON: That's not calming you down.

And that's what we're seeing here. People angry and they're saying right now that he must go.


BLITZER: Dramatic stuff indeed.

Our national security analyst Peter Bergen is here once again with his take on five straight days of violent protests across Egypt.

Why do you think the police, for all practical purposes, have abandoned their post? The military is still involved. But he police which these protesters despise, they simply disappeared.

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think the word "despise" is the important one. I think that they understand that they're held in great disdain by their own population for very good reason. Wolf, you may recall that there was a widely circulated videotape of a group of police officers sodomizing somebody who just was involved in a traffic accident. This circulated on the Internet.

This kind of material has obviously turned the population even more against the security forces for whom they've long had a disdain for. They know that the security forces have tortured literally thousands of people almost on every given year. The State Department releases a report excoriating the Egyptian security (INAUDIBLE), this treatment of their own people, who are tortured for almost any reason.

If you go into -- there is no forensic techniques other than beating people up in these police stations.

BLITZER: Can the Mubarak government survive right now? We know a new vice president was named today; a new prime minister was named today. Both with heavy military backgrounds.

Can this government of President Mubarak -- can he survive?

BERGEN: Personally, I don't think so. But history has a way of surprising us and revolutions are inherently unpredictable. You know, he might be able to manage his departure in such a way that it isn't, you know, on a plane to exile very quickly. Obviously, he retains -- seems to retain some kind of hold over the military.

But, you know, frankly, wolf, I have no idea. And no one else really does.

BLITZER: Yes. It's a very fluid situation as the State Department likes to say right now. But there's this weird picture that we see, these demonstrators out there, and they're almost celebrating together with soldiers on tanks, armored vehicles. It's as if they are one. At least some of those pictures.

BERGEN: There's a good reason that the Egyptian military is held in pretty high esteem. I mean --

BLITZER: As opposed to the police.

BERGEN: As opposed to the police. I mean, this is, you know, the army has done relatively well on occasion against Egypt's enemies. Of course, Mubarak himself comes out of a military background. This -- you know, the officer class enjoys a certain privilege, a place in Egyptian society, and isn't seen to be part of cracking down on the population.

BLITZER: There you see pictures of some of the demonstrators on a tank, on an Egyptian military tank.

All right, stand by. We're going to get back to you, Peter Bergen.

Isha, back to you.

SESAY: Well, Wolf, the big question many are considering now is could Egyptians be near their breaking point? An Egyptian student living here in the United States gives me his reaction to what he's seeing in his homeland.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We want Mubarak to get out. Get out, Mubarak. Get out of Egypt. We don't -- we don't need you. We don't -- we don't want you in Egypt. Get out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No Mubarak! No Mubarak! No Mubarak!



BLITZER: The protests are spreading beyond the streets of Egypt. We watched rallies all over the world today.

First, New York City, hundreds demonstrated outside the United Nations in support of the uprising. Emotions ran high but the protests remained peaceful.

Here in Washington protesters, many Egyptian-American filled the streets in front of the Egyptian embassy. Demonstrators also criticized President Obama's response.

In Atlanta, across from the CNN global headquarters, more than 100 demonstrators chanted and waved signs saying stop supporting the dictator.

And in London hundreds outside Egypt's embassy. Actually, there were two protests, Islamists on one demonstration, and around the corner, a secular protest.

SESAY: Well, you've seen the images, the protesters, their faces, but who are they? We're taking a closer look.

They are the young. The median age in Egypt is just 24. Many are highly educated with advanced degrees. Well, despite that, though, they are unemployed or underemployed.

According to the U.N., Egypt's per capita income is $1,800 a year. The official unemployment rate last year was 7.9 percent. But experts are saying the real jobless rate is significantly higher.

All of those factors created a volatile situation. Many different Egyptian students right here in the U.S. are keeping a very close eye on the protests, knowing that their friends are among those on the streets.

Sherif Morad is a PhD student at Georgia Tech and I'm pleased to say he joins us now.

Thanks so much for joining us this evening.

I want to start with a very basic question of how you are feeling seeing these scenes play out in Egypt, your home? SHERIF MORAD, GEORGIA TECH GRADUATE STUDENT: Well, basically, of course, the situation today is very chaotic. Of course, as you know in the whole country. The problem is the people who are let out of the prisons are doing a lot of looting, of course, across the nation.

The issue here, of course, we feel a lot of anger. We feel there's a lot of chaos going on. We're still proud, though, of the Egyptian people and what they have accomplished to get their freedom, trying to get real democracy.

SESAY: You touched on this issue of the fear, the anxiety and the looting. Have you been able to make contact with family and friends? What are they telling you about the situation?

MORAD: Yes, actually my parents, they live in the district in Cairo. Stories from there are that people are trying to do a lot of vandalism and theft across the district and people who are trying to -- the neighbors and the whole -- in their district where the men were down the streets carrying basic, you know, stones or whatever they could get just to protect those homes from getting stolen. After that the army came and took over.

SESAY: I spoke to someone early on today who said to me the issue with the young people in Egypt is that they have no dreams. No dreams that can be achieved.

Explain for our viewers here in the U.S. and around the world what the heart of the matter is here that is driving these people out on the streets, creating these scenes that we're seeing.

MORAD: Well, basically, of course, you hear about poverty, unemployment and other issues, but the real thing at stake here is basic human rights, freedom, democracy. That's the thing that is at stake.

And the people when they want change right now, they need the change that is not only change of cabinet. It's not a change of another ministry. It's not getting your vice president. It's not getting a vice president from the same regime.

SESAY: So, you don't think this move of appointing Omar Suleiman is something significant?

MORAD: Not to the people. They are not convinced that a vice president from the same regime can do any good. The prime minister cannot do any good. He's from the same regime. They want a change of the whole regime, and they want to express their free will basically.

SESAY: What is your sense about where the Mubarak regime stands now in light of these protests? Is this the beginning of the end or is that really wishful thinking?

MORAD: Well, in a way, it is wishful thinking because now that he has -- that Mubarak has tightened the security, providing a government that is very security oriented, a vice president that is not so lovable in the country, being part of the regime. So, personally, I think it's the beginning of the end.

SESAY: If you were in Egypt right now, would you be on the streets?

MORAD: Of course.

SESAY: You would be joining these people in these scenes?

MORAD: Yes. And I want to mention here that a lot of people have been talking about who are these protesters, what category -- what social category are they coming from? Is this Muslim Brotherhood? Is this -- whatever movement? No, it's just basically Egyptian people just wanting their free will, wanting democracy and getting out there to express it.

SESAY: Is there a discussion among people like yourself who are here and hopefully being able to communicate with people back in Egypt as to what a post-Mubarak regime would look like? Because there are fears in the U.S. as to what could fill that vacuum. Do you share those fears?

MORAD: In a way, yes. But, of course, change in itself is the goal right now. Getting a regime that really responds to people, getting a parliament that is really representative of the people. That's really missing right now.

So, we need fair elections. We need basic human rights. We need to get rid of the emergency law.

We need a lot of things that -- plus, we have sort of achieved and we are reaching out. The Egyptian people are urging the international community to feel that this country is, as any other country, there's a people that has to express its needs. Of course, looking at the future seems -- now it seems very chaotic, it seems very dark. But there is light at the end of the tunnel.

SESAY: Sharif Morad joining us here at CNN headquarters, we really appreciate your time and your insight.

Wolf, you hear Sharif saying that there is light at the end of the tunnel. That is the hope of many people that they will see change there in Egypt, Wolf.

BLITZER: He makes excellent points there. Thank you very much, Isha.

By day,\ tens of thousands are turning out to protest. By night, they're mourning the dead, treating their wounds and gathering strength.

What started this whole uprising? That's coming up next.


SESAY: I want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and right around the world.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is facing the greatest threat ever to his 30-year regime and is struggling to maintain his hold on the government and regain control of the country.

Here's the status right now of this extremely fast-moving, highly volatile situation. Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters again swarmed into the streets of Cairo and other cities demanding that Mubarak step down. "Reuters" news agency is reporting that police today shot and killed 17 protesters trying to attack two police stations south of Cairo. Dozens of people were wounded.

The army, well, they have taken up positions in the streets acting on orders from Mubarak. But so far, the military hasn't cracked down on protesters. Also, we should tell you that Nile Television is reporting that several people were killed today when some 1,000 inmates escaped from a prison southwest of Cairo.

Eyewitnesses of some Cairo neighborhoods report residents armed with sticks, kitchen knifes, other weapons they've been able to get their hands on are trying to protect homes and businesses from looters.

Back to you, wolf.


BLITZER: Thanks, Isha. Take a look at this raging protest filled the streets of Egypt's second largest in Alexandria, demanding that the president, Hosni Mubarak, give up his 30-year reign of power. Many among the tens of thousands say they were inspired by demonstrators in Tunisia who forced their longtime president out of the country.

But is that the only driving force in Egypt?

Let's assess what's going on with Shibley Telhami. He's a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Mideast Policy, the Brookings Institute. He's the author of the important book, "The Stakes: America in the Middle East," and he's the Anwar Sadat professor at the University of Maryland.

Shibley, thanks very much for coming in.

If Mubarak goes and a lot of experts say eventually he will. It could be days, weeks, months. What's next?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI, SABEN CENTER FOR MIDEAST POLICY: Well, obviously, it will be uncertain. No one knows. But if you look in the past and we have never had an uprising of this scale in Egypt in any recorded history. I mean, if you look at 20th century, even the major anarchy in 1952 was relatively orderly led by the military.

So, this is really extraordinary. And we all should be very modest in what we can predict, and let's face that.

BLITZER: So, a lot of us were stunned to see the speed with which all of this has developed.

TELHAMI: We were stunned and it's a leaderless movement. We are not talking about this being led by a political party or having even -- BLITZER: So, this motion that Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is really one of the pillars of this. That's false.

TELHAMI: He's definitely not one of the pillars of this. He has certain popularity, his credibility. He's been out there for a while.

He's also not necessarily the type of person that most people want. He might emerge. But this is not led by him or led by anyone else. This is spontaneous.

And, by the way, a lot of the parties have made a decision not to really lead it, in part because they don't want the backlash against them and they don't want finger-pointing and let the public -- but it doesn't mean that someone isn't going to exploit it at some point. So, at some point when there's a transition, it's all going to depend to a large extent where the military will be.

And let's face it, right now, including with the appointments today of the Vice President Omar Suleiman, who is obviously out of the military and the president himself is out of the military, the prime minister is out of the military, the military institution is asserting itself.

BLITZER: And that's key right now.

You know, it's fascinating, those of us who have studied Egypt over the years and I know you have a lot more than I, that when Nassir went down, the vice president, Anwar Sadat, took over. When Sadat was killed, the vice president, Hosni Mubarak, took over. Mubarak, for 30 years, never wanted to have a vice president because he was afraid the vice president would take over.

Today, he names Omar Suleiman vice president. What does that say to you?

TELHAMI: Number one, it really excludes his own, Gamal Mubarak already.

BLITZER: So, he's gone? Gamal Mubarak is not going to be the leader of Egypt?

TELHAMI: I mean, no one knows in the future. But in any immediate scenario, he's gone.

BLITZER: Because that's who Mubarak wanted. He wanted Gamal to take over.

TELHAMI: No question. Number two, Mubarak is already preparing for his transition with Omar Suleiman. This is someone he can trust.

BLITZER: So, he wants Suleiman to take over?

TELHAMI: He -- this is someone he can trust and this is someone who's got credibility.

BLITZER: But I suspect a lot of those protesters despise Omar Suleiman as much as they might despise Hosni Mubarak.

TELHAMI: Not as much. He does have some following. But this kind of appointment would have made a lot of sense a month ago and it might have been able to appease a lot of people. With all that happened in the last week, it's too little too late.

So, I don't think it's going to appease people but it does tell me one thing, though, that is the military is asserting itself. And, clearly, how they behave on the streets is going to matter a lot.

And, by the way, the military isn't just going to be interested in the particular person who's going to lead Egypt. They have to protect their reputation. They have been the anchor of political institution in Egypt really since 1952 overthrow of the monarchy, and they don't want to sully their name with the public which still sees them as an anchor of the government themselves, and they need them for, you know, order no matter how the transition takes place.

They don't want to put themselves against the people and that's going to be the dilemma. Can they maintain the order without, you know, antagonizing the public that they need because they have to look post- Mubarak era to make sure that they're going to play an essential role in the future and that's going to be really critical.

BLITZER: I was fascinated by some of the reaction unfolding throughout the Middle East. The Saudis, for example, they issued a statement in the name of the king, infiltrators, Saudi Arabia calling the protests of the work of infiltrators pledging solidarity with Egypt right now.

Iran, on the other hand, their foreign ministry issuing a diametrically opposed statement, saying Iran expects Egyptian officials to listen to the voice of their Muslim people, respond to their rightful demands and refrain from exerting violence by security forces and police against an Islamic wave of awareness that has spread through the country in the form of a popular movement.

All right. Assess what we're just hearing. The Saudis support Mubarak. The Iranians support the demonstrators.

TELHAMI: Well, look, there's going to be a war of narrative. Let's face it. It's going to be -- it's already begun. I see it today, who's behind this finger-pointing. There's even stories in some of the Arab press maybe even the U.S. was behind the uprising in Egypt.

BLITZER: Because there's always conspiratorial theories.

TELHAMI: There's always conspiratorial. So there's going to be two things that are going to be contested. Number one is who's behind it. There's already reinventing what happened in Tunisia saying it was a failed coup by the security services only to be preempted by the military. This really wasn't about the popular old revolution.

You're going to have reinvention in Saudi because the stakes are so high for everyone involved. And you're going to have also a war of narratives about what the consequence will be. You can see people scaring people saying there's going to be anarchy. There's going to be looting. There's going to be prisoners escaping.

BLITZER: We're seeing a lot of that. We're seeing a lot of that. And the conspirators -- the conspiratorial theories say the government is behind this. They want to see this chaos develop so that the people will come back to the regime and say, please, quiet things down.

TELHAMI: And, in part, because they've been used to governments scaring them by saying there's --

BLITZER: Is there an element of truth to that?

TELHAMI: You never know and that's why the public can't be sure. But they know when they saw the anarchy in Iraq after the overthrow of the dictator Saddam Hussein, they didn't like it at all and the governments were able to say, do you want Cairo or do you want Baghdad? And they wanted Cairo at that time. And they wanted Ahman (ph) at that time.

So I think that kind of scaring tactic worked in the past. They think it will work in the current situation. I don't think so. It's too late for it.

BLITZER: Shibley's going to stay with us. Don't go too far away, Shibley Telhami. Thanks very, very much.

Isha, there's a lot of questions that have to be answered. We're going to try to do the best we can but, no doubt, many of these questions will remain unanswered. It will depend on what happens on the street.

SESAY: Absolutely. And one of the big questions is, of course, Egypt's army. It is a major factor in events unfolding rapidly in Cairo and the rest of the country.

As we've told you, the army is in the streets of Cairo but so far hasn't turned against the protesters. The police, well, they seemed to have vanished. Ivan Watson joins us live to bring us up to speed of what he's been seeing and hearing in Cairo at this point in time -- Ivan.

IVAN WATSON: Well, Isha, it's 3:30 in the morning right now and the streets are quite quiet. We have tanks -- army tanks parked at intersection and, in fact, right behind the balcony where I'm standing right now. But for the most part the streets have been quiet for the last few hours.

I'm going to show you a report that gives you a sense of some of the scenes we saw -- dramatic scenes in the streets of the Egyptian capital during the afternoon just a few hours ago. Take a look at this.


WATSON: Crowds have gathered here. They're still chanting. There's still a lot of elation. But the curfew is coming fast. Also, we're trying to ask people, what are they going to do when they're told to go indoors? Madam, are you going to go inside when the curfew starts?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, I will not go inside. (INAUDIBLE) on my dead body. They will kill me no problem.

WATSON: You're going to stay out protesting?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All of us, we will stay here.

WATSON: It's hard to put into words the scenes of elation that we're seeing here with people hanging on the military's tanks riding through town. One man said, as a result of today I feel proud to be an Egyptian for the very first time, chanting, down with the regime.

But there has been violence amid this carnival atmosphere. We've seen a number of people wounded, being treated by doctors on the dirty floor outside a mosque.

What happened?


WATSON: You were there?


WATSON: People are very excited right now and pretty upset because there has been some shooting going on. The doctor telling us five dead people have been brought into the entrance of this mosque and there's one being treated right now with a bullet wound.

This has been a day of liberation for some but it's also been a day of violence and the doctors here at this rescue center say they've been treating people coming in with wounds throughout the afternoon. We've heard about a number of gunshots. You can see this young man being treated right here with some kind of wounds to his chest and arm.

The name of this square where this sea of chanting humanity has come to is called Tahrir Square. That means liberation. And the people here are celebrating a kind of freedom that many of them say they've never felt before.


Isha, many of the Egyptians I've spoken with today they said that they no longer feel fear for their government or the security forces which is part of why we see these scenes of amazing defiance.

Another point I wanted to bring out, many of them also said that much of the momentum behind this movement and these protests really came from the example of Tunisia just a few weeks ago this very month when Tunisians rose up -- another Arab country, another north African country, rose up and overthrew a dictator that had ruled them for more than two decades -- Isha.

SESAY: Ivan Watson, bringing us up to speed with what's happening in Cairo, Egypt. Ivan, we appreciate it. Thank you. -- Wolf. BLITZER: All right, Isha. We're going to stay in touch with all our correspondents on the scene. Also, circus performers, musicians, magicians, tourists. Tonight, they're all stuck at the huge international airport in Cairo. We're going there live right after this quick break.


SESAY: Welcome back, everyone. The Cairo airport is a sea of humanity and confusion as people struggle to get out of the country. CNN's Arwa Damon is there. Arwa, describe what's happening right now.

ARWA DAMON, CNN BEIRUT CORRESPONDENT: Well, Isha, both at the arrival and departure lounges you have people who have basically been bracing themselves for the night ahead. Trying to sleep on the floor. A few with sleeping bags curling up inside. Very difficult situation especially because things like food and water at the airport itself are really running down to very, very low stocks if any at all.

We were struggling to find some ourselves. We spoke with a number of people who are stuck there, an elderly couple from the United States who were saying they had been on a weeklong vacation in Egypt. Clearly had a lovely time.

They were then at the airport trying to catch a connecting flight to their next destination only to be stuck there for two days in a row. Bearing in mind, though, that the majority of these passengers stuck at the airport not necessarily because of a delay in flights, although that is taking place, but also because of the fact that there is this curfew going on.

We saw large tour operators, groups that were there, many of them saying that their tour guides were telling them that it just simply was not safe to leave the airport and go outside.

We also spoke with a group of British artists. They had come over to be part of a high-profile VIP celebrity. They were coming over with a party organizer. They were a group of musicians, artists. They was a magician amongst them. They were saying that the magician was putting on tricks at the airport trying to entertain others. But they also not knowing what they were doing, where they were going next. A lot of confusion, Isha, at this stage.

SESAY: Arwa, we've been telling our viewers about the state of anxiety there in Cairo, in many neighborhoods. Tell me, is there a feeling of safety at least at the airport?

DAMON: There is to a certain degree. You know, the conflict and the violence itself has not yet reached the airport. But there is fear of really just stepping outside beyond the doors of the airport.

Transportation, for example, very tricky especially because of the curfew that is taking place overnight. To give you an idea, we were trying to leave the airport. We managed to find a young man who was willing to drive us to a nearby hotel. He was so frightened and so anxious, he took a wrong turn. We ended up at an army checkpoint where the troops that were there made us get out of the vehicle. They searched everything. They went through our belongings, our IDs. They're also very tense.

We just received reports that they had -- that other forces had managed to detain two Egyptian individuals who had a vehicle filled with weapons appearing to be preparing some sort of ambush.

When we finally arrived at the hotel, a fairly steady stream of people who had somehow managed to make it outside of the airport at least to find a more comfortable place to sleep. But it really gives you an idea of just how tense this city is. People don't know what is going to be happening in the morning. They don't know what is going to be happening next -- Isha.

SESAY: Arwa Damon, joining us there from Cairo's airport. And, Wolf, Arwa very clearly breaking it down for us there at the airport. There's a lot of tension and food and water stocks running down and people just don't know what's going to happen next.

BLITZER: Yes, I know. So many tourists including a lot of American tourists, European tourists, they are anxious to get out of Egypt for understandable reasons. Right now, it's not that easy. A lot of them are stuck at the airport. We're going to have more on this part of the story, Isha. Thank you.

But let's turn to our national security analyst Peter Bergen once again. Peter, it started in Tunisia, I think it's fair to say. What happened there created this spark and it's spreading. It's spreading not only to Egypt but to Yemen, maybe even to other countries like Jordan. Is that what's going on?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, that is what's going on. It will be interesting to see which countries are not affected. I mean, I think the Saudi regime is obviously -- they have a very effective police state. They do deliver something to their people, the cost of, you know, an autocratic regime.

BLITZER: And they issued a strong statement today condemning the uprising in Egypt.

BERGEN: Indeed. And the Saudi royal family has been on the throne at one time or another since the 18th century. They're also -- they're officially the defenders of the faith of Islam, a title they awarded themselves in 1986, the defenders of the two holy places.

So, you know, I think where we're least likely to see this is in Saudi Arabia and, of course, there's not much freedom of the press.

BLITZER: What about Jordan?

BERGEN: Well, Jordan we're already beginning to see some of that. But again, you know, the Hashemite monarchy has also been around for some period of time. This is not something that just sprang up, you know, 20, 30 years ago as a result of a military coup. This is something that has been around for most of the 20th century. So, again, King Abdullah may not have quite the stature of his father and he is not necessarily particularly popular, but I think there's more legitimacy in these long-term monarchies than, let's say, somebody like Mubarak who, after all, came to power essentially because he just -- he was the guy who wasn't shot on the reviewing stand in 1981.

BLITZER: Two countries where the U.S would like to see a Democratic uprising develop would be Iran and Syria. How likely is that -- how likely is this to spread to those two countries?

BERGEN: Well, I'm not holding my breath on Syria for obvious reasons. A very effective police state. In Iran we did see, you know, something --

BLITZER: Fifteen months ago it looked like things were happening.

BERGEN: Yes. You know, the difference between Iran and Egypt, Iran is not one man. You know, Ahmadinejad is also part of a larger system. So, you know, dictatorships are, you know -- when the dictator is unpopular, he is the only person who can be blamed because he has not apportioned power to anybody else.

You know, Iran has a larger system and does have, you know, some form of Democratic elections. Obviously, they're not perfect but, you know, there is more legitimacy strangely for the Iranian regime than there is for the Egyptian regime. We're seeing that very clearly, I think, here.

BLITZER: Peter, thanks very much. Isha, there's a lot of dominos potentially out there that could yet fall. We're watching it every step of the way.

SESAY: We certainly are. We're watching the entire region.

Well, dancing with leaders who rule with iron fists. For years, the U.S. has supported Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. Has President Obama now decided to cut ties with him? Some answers coming up next.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The people of Egypt have rights that are universal. That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association. The right to free speech and the ability to determine their own destiny. These are human rights and the United States will stand up for them everywhere.



BLITZER: The crisis in Egypt is triggering protests around the globe. Starting in the upper left and moving like the hands of a clock you see people supporting the pro-democracy effort from Istanbul, Turkey, to Geneva, Switzerland, to New York and London. In New York, protesters outside the United Nations Building carried signs saying, the Mubarak regime must go. The U.S. government has a long history of supporting directly or indirectly iron fisted rulers or outright dictators. But now President Obama finds himself facing a very, very tough dilemma, offering moral support to the protesters in Egypt while struggling what to do about Hosni Mubarak, the president.

Joining us now with their thoughts, two guests, Fran Townsend, a CNN national security contributor, and Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-born commentator and journalist. Thanks to both of you for coming in.

There are no easy answers, Mona, for President Obama right now. What do you do? What should the U.S. be doing right now?

MONA ELTAHAWY, COLUMNIST, ASHARQ AL-AWSAT: Well, I would remind President Obama of his inauguration speech in which he promised that he would stand with those who unclenched their fists -- tyrants who unclenched their fists. And he told those tyrants that they were on the wrong side of history.

So my message to President Obama tonight is choose the right side of history because the right side of history is Egypt's future, who are the young people who have filled the streets of my country and made me very proud to be an Egyptian. This is the most exciting time of my life. Choose the future of Egypt and choose the people of Egypt over the dictator of Egypt. That's my message.

BLITZER: So if you were in Cairo right now, Mona, you would be marching with those demonstrators. Is that right?

ELTAHAWY: Oh, you bet I would. I was in Cairo in 2005 and it was a huge -- it was one of the proudest moments of my life when I was marching in some of those street protests, those very courageous young people organized. And it's the same courageous young people who took me to those marches in 2005 who have been confronting Mubarak's brutal security forces every day.

I salute them and I bow down to their courage and I urge the international community to side with the future of Egypt and choose freedom and dignity for the Egyptian people as we are choosing today.

BLITZER: I've studied the pictures of the demonstrators, Mona. I see women, although obviously not as many women there as men. What's your assessment? Are women as involved in these demonstrations as the men are?

ELTAHAWY: They absolutely are. Somebody asked me on Twitter because I spend my entire life on Twitter these days. Someone asked me, where are the women in the uprising of Egypt? And so I sent out a question. I have something like 10,000 people who follow me. So I thought someone has to tell me. I'm not there. And I got lots of pictures. There are pages that have been set up on Facebook called the Women of Egypt. Women who look like me. Women wearing head scarves. Women who cover their face. Women of every background. Because we in Egypt -- I say, we, because I'm Egyptian but it's their courage. They in Egypt today and every day for the past five days have been fighting to take back our country and this involves women and men. I'm very proud of what they're doing in Egypt.

BLITZER: Mona, hold on for a minute. Fran Townsend, our homeland security contributor is here. You used to be the homeland security adviser to President Bush and you worked with Omar Suleiman, who's the new vice president of Egypt. Tell us about this man.

FRAN TOWNSEND, HOMELAND SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: That's right. I mean, this is a guy who has an illustrious military career which is how he came to Mubarak's attention, of course. He then becomes the chief military -- chief intelligence officer. This is at the absolute top of the security apparatus throughout Egypt. And so when he becomes the vice president today, what message does that send to the world and to the people of Egypt?

BLITZER: What is the message?

TOWNSEND: Well, I think this is more of the same. This is part of that tight circle around Mubarak that he's only promoting those who he trusts and that are already around him. I will tell you, this is really disheartening and President Obama called for a number of things including not seeing violence against protesters.

Today we see more than 17 dead. He's talked -- the president called on Hosni Mubarak to open up the Internet and the social networking sites. None of that's happened. And the pressure is going to continue to increase on Mubarak and on President Obama to make a clearer statement.

BLITZER: So what I hear you saying is when President Mubarak reshuffles his government, his cabinet and names Omar Suleiman to be the vice president, the first time he's ever had a vice president, former head of the intelligence organizations in Egypt, name is Ahmad Shafiq, the prime minister, a retired air force general. What you're saying is, this isn't change you can believe in.

TOWNSEND: No, this is -- not only is this not change you can believe in, but this is the kind of change, the sort of moves that will absolutely infuriate and further inspire the protesters.

BLITZER: Let me ask Mona to weigh in. Do you agree with Fran on that, Mona?

ELTAHAWY: Absolutely. When Hosni Mubarak addressed the nation yesterday and said, I'm going to fire my government. He got it all wrong. He got it back to front. They want him to fire himself. The protesters in Tahrir Square, Liberation Square in downtown Cairo, are chanting now against Mubarak and Omar Suleiman.

You know, Egypt is the number one destination for (INAUDIBLE). Omar Suleiman has been responsible for torturing terrorism suspects for the U.S. administration. Everybody in Egypt knows this and they associate Omar Suleiman and Hosni Mubarak with torture and with filling up Egyptian jails and human rights violations. Egyptians want the entire Mubarak regime gone in the way that Tunisians want the entire (INAUDIBLE) regime gone and they're doing it. And we are learning from the Tunisians. And I'm optimistic that they'll do it in Egypt.

BLITZER: During the Bush administration, were there renditions to Egypt and to Omar Suleiman who is in charge of the intelligence community? Is she right, in other words?

TOWNSEND: Well, the one that's best known is the one where the individual was taken to Canada. Canada then returned him and there was much litigation about it and there was litigation about his treatment.

BLITZER: That was in Syria, wasn't it?

TOWNSEND: You know, you're right, Wolf. I'm sorry. That one was to Syria. Look, there's a long history of renditions, you are quite correct, between the United States and Egypt. I'm sorry. And, look, we -- because of the State Department Human Rights Report, there were procedures put in place to try to protect anyone who has returned from Egypt from suffering from the kinds of human rights abuses.

BLITZER: Mona, one final question before I let you go, how much time do you think there is for President Mubarak right now before he steps down?

ELTAHAWY: Hosni Mubarak is finished and he is going to step down in a matter of days. And just to put that into perspective for you. It took the Tunisians 29 days to overthrow the 23-year dictatorship of Ben Ali. Egyptians took to the streets five days ago and in four days Hosni Mubarak called in the army. In four days, a regime, a tyrant of 30 years has crumbled before tens of thousands of his people in just four days.

Hosni Mubarak is finished and I am confident that the people of Egypt will find an interim government and will move on. And I'm confident that this uprising will turn into a revolution that will inspire the entire Arab world.

BLIZTER: Mona and Fran, both of you stand by. You're going to be joining us in the next hour as well. Isha, you can see there's a lot of passion when it comes to this subject.

SESAY: Yes, there certainly is. And, Wolf, these protests are obviously taking a significant toll on the people of Egypt. They're also taking an emotional toll on one of our reporter's family. That story's coming up next.