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JOHN KING, USA

Egyptian Army Steps In; Farewell Friday; Intelligence Breakdown

Aired February 4, 2011 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN KING, HOST: Thanks, Wolf, and good evening, everyone. It has been a fascinating and somewhat mysterious day in the Egyptian political crisis. Heavily armed riot troops circled Cairo's Liberation Square at daybreak and many feared a violent crackdown on the big farewell Friday pro-democracy rally. Instead the Army protected the demonstrators from gangs loyal to President Hosni Mubarak and the Army's top officer even mingled among the anti- government protesters.

Still top Mubarak deputies say the president is in no mood to yield power quickly. So while it was a relatively peaceful day on the streets, the political standoff continues and the demonstrators, well they say won't go until their embattled president does.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (INAUDIBLE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Here in Washington, President Obama delivered yet another nudge, warning the regime to begin a transition now and not to stall in hopes the energy on the streets fades.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Going back to the old ways is not going to work. Suppression is not going to work. Engaging in violence is not going to work. Attempting to shut down information flows is not going to work.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We'll map out the day's major developments including a mystery about the reckless driving of this white van right here. This van may have belonged to the U.S. Embassy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(SOUNDS)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We'll answer that mystery ahead. Also a leading voice of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood joins us and we'll get Fareed Zakaria's take on whether the cracks are emerging now in Egypt's government.

But first, Anderson Cooper watched up close today as the government or the Army at least made a surprising decision to ease its crackdown and protect the protesters. Anderson joins us now live from Cairo -- Anderson.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN'S ANDERSON COOPER 360: John, an extraordinary day after the last 48 hours in which we have seen brutality on just on a large scale against these anti-Mubarak protesters by pro-Mubarak forces and have watched the Egyptian military literally stand by while the violence escalated. After those 48 hours, a large number of people, tens of thousands of people came to Liberation Square in a show of defiance, not just against Hosni Mubarak but against the violence that they have witnessed along with the rest of the world.

It really was extraordinary to see so many people coming out standing shoulder to shoulder, one with the other given the blood that has been spilled in that square over the last 48 hours. It was also a dramatic development to actually see the Egyptian military attempting to protect and make sure that the day went off peacefully. That is a far cry from what they've done for the last 48 hours and it begs the question, why didn't they make an effort, for instance, to pat down or check the IDs of pro-Mubarak demonstrators who descended upon the square, you know, 48 hours ago and began this reign of terror, these battles in the streets which we've all witnessed.

They did it today. Why didn't they do it two days ago? And that's a question that the government will have to answer.

KING: It is a question the government will have to answer, Anderson, and what do the people think? When we were talking last night at the end of your program, you had to do it from an undisclosed location because of the crackdown. As you were going off the air riot police were gathering. And many thought it would be at Tiananmen Square. Instead it turned out to be a relatively peaceful day, perhaps a hopeful sign. But what do the people on the ground think? Do they think the Army is siding with them or do they the Army is just buying time until they lose their energy?

COOPER: I don't think anyone really can say for sure. I mean, predicting events here has been shown time and time again to be difficult if not that futile. There's certainly a lot of suspicion, obviously a lot of suspicion, and how can one not be suspicious if you are opposed to the regime and you've witnessed the kind of brutality that they've been subjected to, you know, for the last many days?

There's certainly a lot of suspicion. You know to see the defense minister actually going to the square today for a brief amount of time, you know, I'm not sure how much of it was to rally the morale of the soldiers on the ground there or to kind of give some signal to the anti-Mubarak protesters? But there's certainly a lot of suspicion about it -- John.

KING: A remarkable day. Anderson Cooper, remarkable reporting and remember "AC 360" ahead a little bit later tonight, about three hours from now -- Anderson thanks.

Cairo isn't the only Egyptian city reporting massive demonstrations today. An opposition spokesman tells CNN roughly 35,000 people marched in the streets of Suez. North of Cairo thousands were in the streets of Alexandria. That's where our senior international correspondent Nic Robertson is. And Nic the mood there today, do they think a tipping point or do they think stalemate and they're going to have to keep demonstrating?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They were hoping for a tipping point. And everyone went in today saying this was farewell Friday and it would all be over. But I think the message that the protesters got before they sat out on this sort of marathon march again through the streets here, many, many tens of thousands, the biggest number we've seen, perhaps, since these demonstrations have been going on.

The message was one of unity. The imam at the mosque was saying, look, you're not here because of religion. You're not here because of your political views. You're all united in this one view to get rid of President Mubarak. But he said -- President Mubarak -- but he said you must stay firm. Don't settle for any compromises. Don't settle for any part of the existing regime staying in power, you must continue for all your demands. So it's very clearly an effort here to keep everyone united.

But being out at the demonstration this evening or at least getting close to it, some of the people in the back alleys who weren't coming out with pro-Mubarak posters were definitely pro-Mubarak. Tensions are growing and it's palpable on the edge of these rallies. We were seeing (INAUDIBLE) about whether we could go and cover the rally because some people don't want the rallies to be seen. They're getting angry --

(AUDIO GAP)

ROBERTSON: -- the world to know what's going on. So that's why there's this call for unity. Divisions are opening up on the streets here -- John.

KING: Nic Robertson for us in Alexandria. Nic, thank you, appreciate all your great reporting.

So did the Obama administration see this as a glass half full or a glass half empty day? The Army's decision to protect the demonstrators was seen as a huge plus. And Defense Secretary Gates had another phone call today to Egypt's defense chief, Mohammed Tantawi. The downside from the White House view is the pushback from top Mubarak deputies to any suggestions from Washington and elsewhere that the president should leave power within days or weeks and allow a transitional government to step in.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: That transition must initiate a process that respects the universal rights of the Egyptian people and that leads to free and fair elections.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: So is U.S. diplomacy at a standstill? Former Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns is back with us tonight and Nick, let's start there. Was today the glass half full or half empty?

NICHOLAS BURNS, FORMER UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE: John, I think it was a glass half Full day. It was a fascinating day. As you said, the protesters seem to have the momentum swing back to them in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. And I thought President Obama has a very revealing press conference.

He clearly has a plan. He was very critical of the Egyptian government as he should have been for their brutal treatment of the media and protesters and human rights workers. He clearly signaled that he wants this transition to speed up in Cairo. He alluded to negotiations that have already begun. We've seen press reports that Mohamed ElBaradei is going to dive into this.

And I thought what was most interesting about President Obama's press conference was as you said the nudge to President Mubarak that the time has come for the president, he's a patriot, to think of the future of his country. And President Obama said he knew that President Mubarak would make the right decision. That is --

(CROSSTALK)

BURNS: President Mubarak --

KING: But does -- he says -- he says -- the president of the United States says he knows President Mubarak will make the right decision, but is that a hope or behind the scenes do you think they have some signs of progress? Not a deal, not a date, but some signs that the message is getting through?

BURNS: Well, that's clearly the big question today. I don't know the answer to that question, but my suspicion is that the administration understands that the Egyptian government needs a little bit of time to face the music. And to understand that President Mubarak cannot continue in office because of what happened this week, because he's lost control of his country, of his own government.

He's lost enormous credibility around the world. And so I think President Obama rightly is just trying to give him a little bit of time. Obviously the administration is working behind the scenes through all the channels, to the Egyptian military, to Mubarak's advisers and perhaps to Mubarak himself. And so it seems to me that in a drama that's had lots of twists and turns over the last 10 days, today was a slightly more hopeful day and let's just hope that this progress can continue.

KING: And I guess that is the key point. How do you continue the progress, in the sense this is -- by no means a direct parallel? But after the first Persian Gulf War there were uprisings against Saddam Hussein. Some wished the United States would intervene, but there were many, including some in the United States who thought perhaps it was a tipping point in Iraq and the people would force their dictator out and the dictator, (A), went to oppression and (B), bought enough time to stabilize the situation. You know, Nick, yes they see some hopeful signs today, but their fear is that President Mubarak will find a way to run out the clock and then we'll be having a conversation in three months and six months saying, what happened?

BURNS: Yes, you're right. This story is nowhere near being finished. But I do think that President Obama was slightly more forceful today in throwing his support to the reformers in what he said and how he described the situation. The U.S. is clearly indicating that we want to see a transition that the people in the streets have a right to be protesting peacefully. They need a better future, so the key question is what's the combination of measures the U.S. government can take?

You have the bully pulpit. You make these statements, you come out for reform, but behind the scenes we've got to use the great influence that we have that decades of relationships that we have nurtured for this moment to convince President Mubarak to leave power. Name a transitional figure; perhaps the vice president, Omar Suleiman to lead a transitional government backed by the military but with a clear focus as the president said today, not just a pretense of reform, real reform leading to perhaps a new constitution and elections down the road.

This is the best case, but there is a plan now that's materializing, I think, in the minds of the opposition in Egypt, and clearly in the minds of the U.S. government to try to follow that course. And that I think is the right course for both Egypt and the United States.

KING: And the president has clearly decided it's a price worth paying. Nick Burns, help me understand how big of a price do you think it will be in the sense that we're beginning to see a lot more private and some public resentment from other governments in the region. The foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates tonight issuing a statement, essentially saying you know what I don't like is this outside interference, people who don't understand our region telling us what to do.

That's a traditional ally of the United States, an important ally of the United States in the Gulf States. How big of a price is the president going to pay for pushing on this?

BURNS: This is a very complex situation in which the U.S. finds itself because we have decades of good relations with a lot of Arab governments and now we are taking on one of those Arab governments and the Obama administration is essentially saying that government has to leave power. There has to be a transitional period.

Other governments aren't going to like this, particularly authoritarian governments. But you know Egypt is the keystone state. It's the largest country. It's the heart of the Arab world. It's the most powerful country. The people are speaking very clearly for reform. The United States needs to be on the side of the people, on the side of reform and I think the president has got us there, but now the key, I think the key events, John, won't be visible to us. They'll be behind the scenes, all the conversations on the phone, in person, over the next couple of days to push President Mubarak to make the right decision.

KING: Nick Burns, former under secretary of state, veteran diplomat. Nick, appreciate your help throughout the week sorting through this and we'll keep in touch as we go forward.

Still to come, some American conservatives warn abandoning Mubarak will empower radical Islamists. Well a leading voice of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood joins us to take issue. And next we'll take you to the streets of Cairo and map out today's big developments.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: At daybreak in Cairo Friday one of our producers at Tahrir Square, Tommy Evans (ph), sent an e-mail describing a sudden increase in military presence. Troops in helmets, others in riot gear. Given the violence against anti-Mubarak protesters Wednesday and against journalists on Thursday it seemed if we're voting no, but then this remarkable drama took another surprise and significant twist.

Let's map it out. Here's what happened in the morning -- here's part of what Tommy did see. Very early in the morning, this is early you see more police starting to show up. They have their heavy vests on; you can see that, some helmets as well. This is very early in the day. You see no crowds in there yet.

But the worry was this would be another day of crackdown. However, what it turned out to be is a day of this; peaceful protests back like the early days. Let's listen a bit.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (INAUDIBLE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: One of the reasons it was so peaceful is because the Army that surrounded the square, many thought would be a confrontation, instead, kept out pro-Mubarak gangs, prevented any violence right in Tahrir or Liberation Square itself and what was remarkable is the chief of staff of the military, Mohammed Tantawi not only showed up to inspect the troops but spent some time as you see the images here talking to protesters, meeting out, reaching out, touching them, telling them he thought their demands were being met, perhaps they should go home, but clearly there to send a signal that the Army would not allow the pro-democracy anti-Mubarak demonstrators to be harmed, very significant because he is a longtime Mubarak ally and protege.

So that played out throughout the day there. There was off the square a little bit some violence. Away from the Army presence here, off on the streets we did see some clashes between the pro-democracy folks or the anti-Mubarak people you might call them and pro-Mubarak forces. Show you some of these images here. These are still photos obviously, not video, but you see the stones picking up here as this played out, very relatively limited from our correspondents on the team.

See and I want to show you one other thing here -- this came up today as a controversy. This goes back to January 28th, this is not from today, but this video was posted, this white van is a U.S. Embassy van. It is driving through a crowd here recklessly, plowing through people who are gathering on the street and it has been posted on YouTube.

It has caused some anti-American sentiment. The U.S. Embassy saying tonight several of its vans were stolen. And they are certain it was not U.S. Embassy people involved. But that could become part of the diplomatic fallout because this video has been posted. We'll stay on that story as well.

Here's the scene in Egypt today. The question is what to make of this day? What does it mean in the broader context of the crisis? That's a good place to begin with CNN's Fareed Zakaria.

And Fareed, it was interesting listening to President Obama today. Clearly he doesn't see enough progress in terms of getting a transitional government and getting President Mubarak to step down sooner rather than later. But the president was encouraged today that it was a relatively peaceful day. Let's listen to a bit of what we heard from the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Everybody should recognize a simple truth. The issues at stake in Egypt will not be resolved through violence or suppression. And we are encouraged by the restraint that was shown today. We hope that it continues.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That restraint, Fareed, was the Army going into the square; many thought there would be a crackdown. Instead the Army protected the pro-democracy anti-Mubarak demonstrators. Is that just a sign that they don't want anymore trouble in the news media or is it potentially a crack in the Egyptian leadership?

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN'S "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": It's a very interesting question, John. I think what's going on is that the Army, remember this is a military dictatorship. The Army has decided that it cannot play this game of trying to be both the arsonist and the fireman, at the same time, unleashing thugs, on the one hand standing back to let the chaos reign and then coming in and asserting order.

So that tells me that they have realized that the game is up. Now, the crucial question is does that mean they sacrifice Mubarak and still try to stay in power or are they ready for a real change? President Obama in that statement also said there's no going back to the old ways, and I think it's very important to understand the old ways are a military dictatorship, not just Hosni Mubarak.

Remember this is not a personalistic (ph) dictatorship you know like (INAUDIBLE) or something like this. This is the -- this was the military that took power in 1952 and has never given up since. So will we have a real civilian democracy in Egypt? That's the transition we should be talking about.

KING: And do you get the sense that perhaps the restraint on what was supposed to be departure Friday or farewell Friday out of the rally today -- it is Saturday in Egypt already. President Mubarak is still in power. Could that have been a calculated effort, keep the peace, but run out the clock, try to essentially let the steam go out of the streets?

ZAKARIA: Clearly the effort by both Mubarak and the military is to run out the clock. They feel and they're right Egypt is -- the Egyptians are up against a wall. They have got to put food on the table. They have to get back to work. These are people -- you know the economy has shut down. There's almost no cash in the economy and this is a sophisticated country.

You need cash to operate. So their hope is that at some point people will tire of all this and they'll have set up a few committees that will be charged with amending the constitution. But remember, Egypt is still under emergency marshal law; it has been for 30 years. As I said, the military is still firmly in control. And whether or not Mubarak steps down, that structure of power is what people are really protesting about.

They may like the Army on the street because it's a (INAUDIBLE) Army. The Egyptian Army is really part of the country, but it's the generals on top who are running things. And if they don't see power, nothing really changes.

KING: As you know, it has been a distinct minority, but a minority in this country saying we should have stood by President Mubarak because what you're going to get is an Islamist awakening, perhaps a spread of an Islamic caliphate. That has been a debate among some on the right here in the United States, but today Ayatollah's leading -- Iran's leading Ayatollah weighed in saying at a prayer sermon according to state TV there, "today developments in North Africa including Egypt, Tunisia and some other countries have a special meaning for the Iranian nation. This is what was always referred to as the Islamic awakening, created by the victory of the great revolution of the Iranian nation" -- propaganda or a possibility?

ZAKARIA: Well, you know, they've been waiting for this for 30 years in the sense that they've been saying for 30 years that the Iranian Revolution was going to spread. In point of fact, Iran is seen widely in the Middle East as a negative example. It is particularly seen in Egypt as a negative example. I can tell you having spoken to many Egyptians about this.

It is seen as a negative example because Iran is Shia. They are Sunni. Iran is Persian. They are Arab. And it is seen as a repressive regime. The Egyptians I think are very clearly saying we don't want a theocracy. We don't want a military dictatorship. We want a democracy. The polls on this are very clear.

I think the specter of an Iranian-style theocracy is frankly wildly overdone while of course there is some concern that you have a takeover. Egypt is full of many different kinds of political movements. There are Islamic fundamentalists. There are liberals. There are Marxists. There are Coptic Christians who have their own issues and agendas. There are trade unions. The reality of Egypt is that these forces are going to balance each other out.

There's the Army that won't allow a religious takeover in any event. So I would expect -- could Egypt end up being a messy democracy, dysfunctional like Iraq? Certainly possible, but the Iranian specter, the caliphate, this is all really nonsense. And this is said by people who know almost nothing about Egypt. I would guarantee you I know some of the people who have said this.

None of them have ever sat foot in the country. They probably couldn't have located it on a map until last week. So take this all with a grain of salt. This is the usual fear mongering and I think it would have led to a disastrous policy decision because the most important reason not to have backed Mubarak to the bitter end was, (A), it was inevitable that he was going to have to leave and (B), this would radicalized the opposition.

After all, what has radicalized opposition anti-Americanism in the Middle East is that we have supported dictatorships for the last 40 years. To support one more dictatorship to the bitter end would only create more animosity, more radicalism and yes more Islamic extremism.

KING: Fareed Zakaria, as always thanks my friend.

ZAKARIA: Pleasure, John.

KING: So will the fall of Mubarak bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt? A leading voice of the outlawed group tells us what it wants and was America and its president caught flat-footed by the unrest in Egypt because of intelligence failures? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Live pictures there of Tahrir or Liberation Square in downtown Cairo. It is early morning Saturday in Cairo. You still see a considerable crowd there. The demonstrators, many of them saying they will stay until President Mubarak goes. The crisis in Egypt is stirring policy and political debates here in the states including the question of whether U.S. intelligence agencies failed to see this coming in Egypt and across the Middle East.

So was there a breakdown? Senator Bill Nelson of Florida serves on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and is with us tonight. Was there? Was there? Did your committee get briefed weeks in advanced, days in advance saying, hey, there's a big thing happening in Egypt? SEN. BILL NELSON (D-FL), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: There was not a breakdown. We knew there were troubles in Egypt. We just did not know what was going to be the precipitating factor. And that turned out to be Tunisia.

KING: Can we or should we know more? Are you satisfied that all the intelligence was top grade, A-plus or do you say, OK, we knew there were troubles but you didn't know what the trigger would be. Should you? Is there something to go back and say that's what we need to do a better job at?

NELSON: Well you can always have more intelligence, but on this one I think we were fairly prepared. We were just not ready for when it happened and nobody really was suspecting that Tunisia would erupt as it did.

KING: Are you getting frequent briefings from the administration in the middle of this?

NELSON: Yes.

KING: And what are they telling you about their read on the military? They're pushing the Army essentially. They would like the Army to take sides. They at least want the Army to protect the demonstrators.

NELSON: Well let me give you my observation. I think what the president and the secretary of state are doing is right on. They are now pushing Mubarak. Sooner or later he's going to have to step down. It would have been a lot easier if it had been last Monday than if it will be next Monday. The transition to Vice President Suleiman, the sooner, the better, because everybody in Egypt can better accept that. Now, that would be a welcome transition in the Arab neighbors, certainly in Israel. Suleiman is fairly well respected. He's respected in the U.S. The sooner the better, but I'll tell you, John, I'm not sure that Mubarak is ready to go yet and that's a problem.

KING: It is a problem. It's a problem for the United States which says he must go. It's also a problem for many of the demonstrators on the ground. The president of the United States said this should be broad outreach including the administration is OK with outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood.

I spoke to a leading spokesman. The group is still outlawed. I spoke to a leading voice, Isham el Erian (ph). He can't go to these demonstrations, because it is illegal for him to join the pro- democracy demonstrations. He says, clearly, they will not join a dialogue as long as Mr. Mubarak is president. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think any dialogue must be started after the departure of Mubarak, because the people are protesting in the streets and square and they are insisting to continue until Mubarak steps down. KING: As you know, a lot of people in the United States are suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood. A lot of politicians in the United States say they prefer to stay with President Mubarak because of their fear that the Muslim Brotherhood would take power in Egypt, break the peace treaty with Israel, and have a hostile relationship with the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are not going to run in the general election. And you are keen to be part of the new era participating in the parliament mainly, and if there is any need for the company to have participation from us, we can discuss this later. We are not looking for power at all. We are not going to hand the power to ourselves or to negotiate about that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: A couple of questions to discuss there. Do you -- take them at their word, the Muslim Brotherhood, that they would not field the candidate for president?

NELSON: No, I don't take them at their word. I think we have to be very careful with that.

KING: They have every right to, right? If the United States' position is free and fair elections, they should be able to feel the candidate, right?

NELSON: Indeed. Your question was, do I take them at their word? The answer is no. Of course, that's our big fear, that there would be a radical Islam that would take over and, of course, that would be chaos. I mean, this is a seminal moment in the Middle East. Which way Egypt goes is going to determine an awful lot of what happens in the future.

KING: But yet you say you have the fear that the Muslim Brotherhood could come to power.

NELSON: Of course.

KING: Or at least get significant power. On the other hand, you're saying the president is doing the right thing by saying let the genie out of the bottle, have free and fair elections. Essentially let the chips fall where they may. Let's have a real democracy. I want you to listen to more of the leading voice from the Muslim Brotherhood as I was asking him about their intentions. If they get more power, is it a threat to the United States?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Answer the critic in the United States, and you know there are some who say the Muslim Brotherhood are terrorists, and if the Muslim Brotherhood have influence in Egypt they will be more friendly to Al Qaeda than they will be to the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a very, very wrong accusation. Muslim Brotherhood are well known. They are moderate, Islamic organization, asking for, seeking for a democratic system according to the Islamic principles and utilizing models of democracy all over the world, can add to a more material civilization by giving democracy some spiritual and moral ethics.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: He says we have nothing to worry about, they're moderates, will continue a relationship with the United States. In another part of the interview, he said we are not talking about Israel right now, this is about building democracy in Egypt. You're a skeptic.

NELSON: I am. Hamas used to say that as well, when they were trying to take over. And did successfully in an election with Fatah in the West Bank. Now they control the Gaza Strip. I think we have to be skeptical, but we have no choice. This is a time for representative democracy. We're going to have to take some risks there, but put it in the context that this is a 30-year friend of ours, and he needs to go. We want him to go peacefully in the transfer of the power.

KING: Let me ask you on another subject. You're here as a member of the Intelligence Committee tonight, but you also flew on a shuttle mission. Space shuttle mission back in 1986, if I have the date right. Mark Kelly, Gabby Giffords' husband, Congresswoman Giffords is recovering in Houston from the tragic shooting in Tucson. He has decided to go ahead and be the commander of his shuttle mission, the next mission. As he announced that today, he said something startling. I want you to listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CMDR. MARK KELLY, NASA ASTRONAUT: I have every intention that she'll be there for the launch. I've already talked to her doctors about it. So this should be -- there really shouldn't be any reason why she can't go to the launch.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Do you believe that?

NELSON: Wow. That is just fantastic. And Mark obviously believes that. I talked to him yesterday. He was really upbeat. He was a speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast. I think he made the right decision, because I just assumed that she was making such progress that he felt comfortable that he could really focus. And, of course, on a space mission you have to focus like a laser particularly as the commander. But if she is progressing to the point that they can bring her to the Kennedy Space Center, all I can say, hallelujah.

KING: That's a good point to end on. Amen. Senator Nelson, thanks for coming in tonight. We appreciate your insights and a little bit of a happy ending and that is a good thing to have.

Still ahead for us, though, back to the Egypt crisis. It becomes a flash point here in our domestic politics.

Next, the latest developments and our correspondents take you into the middle of today's dramatic rallies.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: If you're just joining us, breaking news right now from Cairo, where heavy gunfire has broken out in and around Tahrir Square. CNN stringer Ian Lee joins us by phone.

Ian, tell us where you are. And what you are seeing.

IAN LEE, JOURNALIST: John, I'm near the southern end of Tahrir Square and what I'm hearing is right now it's 12:30, in the morning, and for the past we've been hearing gunfire coming from just slightly to the north in Tahrir Square.

And what our sources there are telling us is that the pro-Mubarak element, pro-Mubarak supporters tried to infiltrate Tahrir Square. The army then shot in the air trying to disperse them. They've made several attempts to try to infiltrate Tahrir Square. And each time the army is shooting in the air trying to repel them.

KING: That's quite significant. Because it was the army earlier today that protected the pro-democracy or anti-Mubarak demonstrators. That is continuing now, early morning hours there. Shooting at each other, or just shooting up into the air?

LEE: John, right now they're just shooting up in the air, just to intimidate the pro-Mubarak supporters. But also when this happened you can hear and you can see the anti-Mubarak supporters kind of mobilize. And one, a couple of things they do, you'll hear shouts of Allah Akbar, and that is kind of a warning to other supporters in the square to kind of mass at the border, that there's an attack. We also hear banging on metal as another alert to kind of get people to the front to where the assault is coming from.

And you know, every, even we just recently heard them, you know, chanting, Allah Akbar, to kind of intimidating the pro-Mubarak supporters from trying to enter the square.

KING: And Ian, one more quick question. I have a map up here on the wall showing where we are. Where are they coming from? Traditionally over by the Egyptian Museum have been where the pro- Mubarak people have been coming trying to get into the square. Is this where it's playing out or a different part of the square?

LEE: This is a different part of the square, John. It's kind of on the opposite side of the square than the Egyptian Museum. Still in the more northern part of the square but just kind of on the other side near an area called Medens Falaki (ph) and Kalak Harb (ph). That's the area that borders Tahrir Square. That's the area where they're coming from. Just kind of on the upper side of Tahrir Square.

KING: Ian Lee is our stringer on the scene. Ian stay safe. We'll stay in touch as this plays out. Thanks very much.

This shooting now is a sharp contrast from earlier today. The army protected the demonstrators, as they are now allowed massive anti-government marches in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities. As this drama unfolded, CNN correspondents were in the thick of things.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The situation is odd, some people don't like cameras, don't like us here. My friends are all here. OK. Time to put down the camera.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We're right in front of one of the checkpoints leading into Tahrir Square. One of the problems that the protesters have here is getting enough food, enough water, and enough supplies in to keep all of these people going for such a long time. Because some of them have been here for over a week. And their system is one where everybody brings a little bit, and, therefore, everybody has enough to survive.

IVAN WATSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: CNN crews and other locations in this city overlooking Tahrir Square have been ordered by the Egyptian police not to provide live images of what's going on in here. We are doing it right now, but our neighbors at this location have warned us that suspected secret police are outside trying to get in to shut our -- potentially shut us down.

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KING: A few moments ago you saw CNN's Senior International Correspondent Ben Wedeman reporting amid today's crowd of anti- government protestors in Cairo. We had a chance to talk to Ben after the demonstrations ended.

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KING: Ben Wedeman, you know this country as well as anyone. Help us understand today, early morning, when the riot police were gathering, some thought there would be confrontation. Perhaps a Tiananmen Square like event, instead the army decided to present the pro-democracy demonstrators. What does that tell you?

WEDEMAN: This tells us that the Egyptian government is pretty embarrassed by what happened the other day when the so-called pro- Mubarak demonstrators really went at the people in the square. Using all the sorts of methods that we've become accustomed to, sort of gang warfare on the streets of Cairo.

KING: You say the government. It does beg the question, is it the entire government or is it the army? Is the field marshal sending a signal to the president, Mr. Mubarak, and perhaps to the vice president, that no matter what you think, I'm not letting this get ugly again?

WEDEMAN: The army realizes it's in a very sensitive position. It needs to reestablish order, but it can't do that without the cooperation of the protest movement, itself. As far as the real inner workings of the dynamics between President Mubarak and his circles, and the army, it's really not clear. I mean, I was going over the old Wikileaks cables recently. And, of course, people are describing the defense minister, Field Marshall Tantawi as, I mean those cables describe him as Mubarak's poodle. And the feeling is he's not a strong figure in dealing with President Mubarak and he's a Mubarak man.

So there are probably other figures within the army who are making the real sort of serious calculations of what they're going to do, if President Mubarak, for any reason, decides to step down.

KING: And at the moment he has made clear he does not plan to step down early. Do you see any cracks of dialogue, any cracks of negotiation that leads you to believe that actual progress can be made in negotiation, or are we despite, and we celebrate a peaceful day today, relatively peaceful day today, are we at stalemate?

WEDEMAN: Well, there are sort of beginning to be interesting developments. I don't know if we can call them cracks. Today Amr Moussa, the current secretary-general of the Arab League, but formally the Egyptian foreign minister, went into the crowd and basically said, told people, I am with you. Of course, he is a man who rose through the ranks of the foreign ministry during the time of Hosni Mubarak. And therefore he was previously associated very closely associated with the regime. Now he seems to be jumping ship and going to the other side.

So there are beginning -- we're seeing sort of defections of people who were associated with the regime now going over. And there's also this committee of so-called wise men of businessmen, politicians, journalists, who are acting as intermediaries between the protesters and the regime. And the regime realizes they have to deal directly with, or at least indirectly, with the protest movement otherwise it would get out of control. So we're seeing sort of nuances in what seemed before like a very stark division between the protesters on the one hand, and the regime on the other.

KING: Ben Wedeman, thanks for your fabulous work, my friend and your insights tonight.

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KING: This is perhaps President Obama's greatest foreign policy challenge. And it was only a matter of time before domestic politics crept in. We'll be right back.

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KING: It was inevitable, of course, that the Egypt political crisis would become a flash point in domestic politics. Some of the president's critics see his decision as potentially weakening American security. And one loud voice on the right is critical of the president but also somehow at journalists who are risking their lives covering protestors, who would like to have what we have, the right to speak freely and vote in fair elections.

Let's sort things out with Republican strategist Ed Rollins and Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher.

I want to start with three of the men who we think could possibly run for the Republican nomination, the right to challenge President Obama in the next election. They see his decision, essentially to nudge President Mubarak in Egypt to the exit, as a mistake. Let's listen.

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NEW GINGRICH, (R) FMR. SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I don't think they have a clue. I think it's frightening to watch this administration.

MIKE HUCKABEE, (R) FMR. ARKANSAS GOVERNOR: The concern is that the U.S. will so quickly turn on that friend, how quickly will it turn on its other friends?

MITT ROMNEY, (R) FMR. MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR: I don't know that I would say to the president you should call for Mubarak's resignation. I think that flies in the face of a long history of friendship between he, and our country, and our friends.

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KING: Let's start with the Republican first.

It was George W. Bush, Ed Rollins, who said for too long American presidents put oil and security ahead of democracy and human rights. Are those Republicans running a risk, essentially, saying stand by the dictator?

ED ROLLINS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: No, I think to a certain extent they can debate this in the course of the campaign, if they all become candidates. The bottom line, though, is we have one president at a time. This president has a very delicate situation here. I would hope that more of it would be done behind the scenes. There will be a change in Egypt, there is going to be new leadership. Maybe six, eight months, whoever knows, and it will be a critical ally to remake. There's going to be long-term damage to this. And I think the president knows it better than anybody.

At the end of the day we didn't start this. We just have to basically try to guide it as carefully as we can and the voices from the right need to be quiet for a period of time.

KING: There is a debate, Cornell, to Ed's point, about more of it should be done quietly. Diplomacy is usually done quietly. I'm not sure you can do that anymore. In the age of social networking, Twitter, and the Internet, and satellite television and cable.

CORNELL BELCHER, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: You have television 24/7 now.

KING: Has the president been too public in saying "Go away, Mr. Mubarak"?

BELCHER: I don't think the president can be too public. I mean, he is the president of the United States. The world looks to us for leadership and sort of freedoms, so he does have to say stuff, in a way, when you have people taking to the streets, this sort of uprising and saying, we want to change our government.

KING: Sure, sure.

BELCHER: You have to sort-the president has to be there. It's fascinating that we are seeing around the globe, now, people taking to the streets saying they want change. We see it in America, we are seeing it all over the country. I don't take the Republicans that serious. It's the pot taking the potshots because of politics, I understand. They will get into a primary so they have to take shots at the president.

KING: I want you to listen to Rush Limbaugh here. I have covered a couple of wars and I have never seen Rush. These guys are out there every day. There are guys who do it a lot more than I do, way more than I do, foreign correspondents risking their lives, getting taken into custody. Some of them getting beaten. Rush Limbaugh, apparently, isn't bothered by that. He specifically singled out two "New York Times" correspondents who were detained. Didn't think it was a big deal.

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RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: How are we supposed to feel? We are supposed to feel outrage? I don't feel any outrage over it. Are we supposed to feel anger? I don't feel any anger over this. Do we feel happy? Well -- do we feel kind of going like nyah-nyah.

I'm sure that your emotions are running the gamut when you hear two New York Times reporters have been detained along with other journalists in Egypt.

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KING: I'm sorry, Ed. I like when Rush spices up political debates, but as somebody who once watched a bullet ricochet off a tank coming behind me, I don't think he's ever been shot at in that radio studio of his.

ROLLINS: I don't believe so. But I think at the end of the day, reporters including our own Anderson Cooper and others and the other great reporters from CNN, are bringing us the biggest story in the world to us, right today. And they are putting themselves at risk. I'm an old fighter. I don't think I would come back a second day if I was beat up as Anderson was the first day. He was back out the second day. I think that is very, very important. This is a big story. It's important that they be there. Our freedom of the press is the most important thing we have as political strategists and Americans.

BELCHER: I don't think I can add anything to what Ed said. I agree. And my hat's of to the courage those guys are showing.

KING: Amen, amen, to that. Ed Rollins, Cornell, appreciate you coming in.

So, how would a spy satellite record what's happening in Egypt? Amazing images just ahead. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: The Internet age is also the spy satellite age. This is an image from space of Tahrir/Liberation Square in Cairo. This one from back in October, you see the cars coming into the square, all the busy traffic. Here it is on February 3, just the other day. All the protesters, you see them gathering here. Here is the key thing, here, as we look at it. Here is a crowd of the protesters. You see crowds and crowds around the screen. That's one of the pictures.

Make that one go away. Come over here and look at this. The tanks protecting them in the square, quite a remarkable scene. Military tanks and military tanks, a view from space of what we are seeing play out. As we go to break, and wish you a happy weekend. Let's take a look at a live picture now of Tahrir Square.

That's all for us. PARKER SPITZER starts right now.