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Cairo Protest Largest Yet; Mixed Signals to Egypt; How Looters Hit Cairo's Treasures; Crackdown at Major Fast Food Chain; 'Strategy Session'

Aired February 8, 2011 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Brooke, thanks very much.

Happening now, the Egypt uprising re-energized by the biggest protest yet in the heart of Cairo. And a passionate speech by a Google executive freed after more than a week in custody.

Also, growing fear that the protesters are entering the most dangerous phase of the crisis right now. Experts are warning of a looming brutal crackdown.

And fired over a Facebook post -- one worker takes her free speech case to the top. Now a decision that could impact anyone who uses social media.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


It's day 15 of the uprising in Egypt and the largest crowd yet filling Cairo's Liberation Square, loudly, but peacefully, demanding an immediate end to President Hosni Mubarak's 30 year rule. Among those addressing the protesters, the Google executive detained by Egyptian authorities for more than a week.

Let's go straight to Cairo.

CNN's Ivan Watson is standing by live -- Ivan, tell us about today's massive demonstrations, because the pictures were very, very impressive.

IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this was enormous. And -- and from the heights of this 26th floor, you can really see just the crowds in there that -- that I don't think we've ever really seen before. And they were streaming in from different entrance points. We have not seen that in the past -- lining up hundreds of people deep. And a carnival scene, even at entrances -- the demonstrators singing as people came in; people selling flags, horses and buggies selling rides, as well; really, a remarkable scene.

Now there was also a keynote speaker there. And that was this Google executive, an Egyptian by the name of Wael Ghonim. He spent nine days in detention. He had been missing nine days before the Egyptian government admitted that he had actually been in their custody. Imagine the fear that his family had gone through. He got up on stage. He was the subject of an inner campaign -- an Internet campaign called Free Ghonim, to try to get him out of what was suspected to be government custody.

Listen to what he said to the crowd.


WAED GHONIM, FREED GOOGLE EXECUTIVE (through translator): This country is our country. I have said this for a long time. This country is our country. And everyone has a right to this country. You have a voice in this country. This is not the time for conflicting ideas or factions or ideologies, this is a time to say one thing only -- Egypt is above all of us.


WATSON: Wolf, that's a call for unity coming from a man who is really being viewed by some as one of the heroes of the Egyptian revolution.

BLITZER: And -- and you're getting new information, Ivan, about other human rights abuses that are still going on in Egypt right now.

Tell us about that.

WATSON: Well, that's right. You know, today, the vice president, Omar Suleiman, he came out with an announcement saying that the youth here should have freedom of speech. They should not have any fear of being detained. And, however, Human Rights Watch came up with a new report indicating that thousands of people have been detained before January 28th, when the police disappeared from the streets. And they say they've documented scores of arrests since then, at least seven cases of those arrests being people who were severely beaten. They believe that this has mostly been carried out by the military police wing of the military, plainclothes military, who we have seen confiscating video that journalists have -- have filmed and photographed; also that some 302 people have been killed across the country since the protests began on January 25th, as well.

And Human Rights Watch arguing that many of these arrests appear to have been politically motivated and that there appear to have been arbitrary and selective application of the curfew laws here. Curfews still in effect. And this, again, despite repeated statements coming from the Egyptian government saying -- alleging that they are no longer taking people into custody -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ivan Watson, our man on the scene for us.

We'll stay in close touch.

Ivan is going to have more for us in the next hour.

There's growing concern the Obama administration is sending mixed signals to Egypt, with the Defense secretary, Robert Gates, now speaking out about the crisis for the first time. And he's praising -- praising, in very strong terms -- words -- the Egyptian military.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

She's got details for us -- Barbara, what's the latest.

BARBARA STARR, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, the White House calling for immediate change. The State Department calling for a process of change. One thing seems very clear -- the protesters are not going away.


STARR: (voice-over): With crowds swelling in Cairo's Tahrir Square, a greater sense of urgency from the U.S. that the Egyptian government needs to show change is coming. In a phone call, U.S. vice president, Joe Biden, telling Egyptian vice president, Omar Suleiman, there must be a transition with, quote, "immediate, irreversible progress."

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Vice President Suleiman made some particularly unhelpful comments about Egypt not being ready for democracy, about not seeing a lift of the emergency law. And I don't -- I -- I don't think that, in any way, squares with what -- what those seeking greater opportunity and freedom think is a timetable for progress.

STARR: But a calmer approach from the Pentagon, where sources say they are ease back from the crisis atmosphere.

ROBERT GATES, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I think that the Egyptian military has conducted itself in an exemplary fashion during this entire episode. And they have acted with great restraint.

STARR: Middle East analyst, Michelle Dunne, says the U.S. government message has changed, from immediate action to a more protracted process -- a process that is unclear.

MICHELLE DUNNE, CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT: President Obama has been calling for a transition to begin now.

On the other hand, we heard Secretary Clinton, a couple of days ago, saying we support the process laid out by Vice President Suleiman, which is not a process that the opposition has agreed to at all.

STARR: There is growing concern the man the U.S. is supporting, the new Egyptian vice president, is not on the same page.

DUNNE: Up until now, the Obama administration was saying that this had to be a negotiated transition, that the Egyptian government had to deal with the opposition and that the opposition had to be a partner, so to speak, in this transition. What Suleiman is offering now is not that at all.


STARR: Now, I want to go back, Wolf, to something our colleague, Ivan Watson, just reported about alleged abuses by plainclothes military police on the streets of Cairo. I have to tell you, here at the Pentagon, they are adamant that the Egyptian Army, the Egyptian military is acting properly. They're not talking about any abuses here.

There is concern, however, certainly by many analysts, many Egypt watchers, that as this situation unfolds now, and there isn't a lot of progress forward on getting it resolved, these protesters in the street are in the ultimate danger. The secret security services know who they are. They have now seen their faces in public for days. A lot of fear that many of these young people -- many Egyptians are facing a crackdown by those security forces -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So basically what I hear you saying is that the Pentagon, they're differentiating between the military and the police -- the secret police, the other security services, who are brutalizing a lot of folks still right now. And they're saying the military isn't doing it. But they are acknowledging that brutal action is taking place by the police, the secret police, the security -- non-military security forces?

STARR: What we hear, Wolf, is mostly the forces under the control of the Ministry of Defense, those uniformed forces you see moving throughout the square, with their tanks, with their equipment. The Pentagon believes that they're acting appropriately. The Ministry of Interior forces, which are much more the so-called police forces, the secret security forces, those are the ones that Washington is worried about -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And more than a million individuals work for that ministry. But that's -- it's interesting that the vice president, in his phone call to Omar Suleiman, the vice president of Egypt, said Egypt must restrain the Ministry of Interior's conduct by immediately ending the arrests, harassment, beating and detention of journalists and political and civil society activists and by allowing freedom of assembly and expression and must immediately also rescind the emergency law," which came into effect some 30 years ago.

So they're not mincing any words. But I suspect there's still a lot of confusion and disappointment on the streets of Cairo right now that the Obama administration isn't demanding that Mubarak step down immediately, as opposed to in September.

We're going to have much more on this, Barbara, coming up -- a lot more on this huge protest in Cairo today. It's the largest one yet. We're going to talk to "The New York Times" columnist, Roger Cohen. He's right there in the middle of it all right now. He was also in Iran during the demonstrations back in 2009.

We're going to compare and contrast. We're going to also ask him what's going on right now.

And surveying the damage after the looters hit the Egyptian Museum -- we have new details of the surprising things that took place.

Stay with us.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: We're getting live pictures of Cairo right now, Tahrir Square. We're going to go back there in just a few moments.

But Jack Cafferty is here right now.

He's got more on Egypt in The Cafferty File -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Dealing with politics in the Middle East can be a little like juggling hand grenades. But some think that the Obama administration is making a mess of its response to the crisis in Egypt. The White House is sending mixed messages.

First, President Obama said Egypt's transition, quote, "must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now" -- I think that was last week, unquote. And it looked like the administration was taking steps to increase pressure on Hosni Mubarak to step aside.

Well maybe not.

Since then, Mubarak has made it clear he's not going anywhere until September. He says he needs to stick around to maintain stability.

So the administration is changing its tune. Now, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says the process in Egypt will be, quote, "bumpy and it's going to take some time to work this stuff out," unquote.

Meanwhile, the administration is undercutting its own diplomat, Frank Wisner. They sent Wisner to Egypt to negotiate with Mubarak. Upon his return, Wisner said Mubarak should stay in office, at least for now, so he can hand over authority in an orderly manner. But Gibbs says Wisner doesn't speak for the administration.

Excuse me, he's the administration's envoy. Gibbs says the Egyptians should decide the details of the transition themselves.

Potential Republican presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, calls all of this back and forth amateurish. Gingrich says he's concerned about the administration's handling of the situation and the fact that they can't get on the same page as their special envoy, Wisner.

So here's the question -- how would you rate the Obama administration's handling of the crisis in Egypt?

Go to and post a comment on my blog.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you.

We're following all the developments in Cairo and the largest anti- government protest so far in Tahrir Square. The "New York Times" columnist, Roger Cohen, is there.

He's in Cairo.

He's joining us on the phone. First of all, Roger, tell our viewers what you saw today in Tahrir Square. CNN reporting on more protesters probably there today than during the course of all of these days.

ROGER COHEN, NEW YORK TIMES COLUMNIST: As you know, this now two- week-old uprising has fluctuated in intensity, but today was really intense, and I think the main reason was an absolutely shattering interview that appeared on Egyptian TV last night of Wael Ghonim, this Google executive who has been very much behind all the Facebook and Twitter coordination of the uprising. He disappeared and was held to 12 days, reappeared, came on TV, broke down when he saw images of the dead, and said freedom is worth fighting for, and he was in the square today. And the atmosphere was really something.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: What are the protesters saying, at least to you, about President Obama?

COHEN: You know, they're disappointed. They're disappointed with the back and forth and the failure to come out emphatically and consistently and say that Mubarak has to go, but frankly, they're not focused on Obama. They're not focused on Israel. They're not focused on anything as far as I can see outside Egypt. They have one single, very clear demand, and I don't believe they're going to shift from it, and it is Hosni Mubarak, president of Egypt this last 30 years, has to go. He goes, we go home. He doesn't go, and that's the standoff we're in the midst of.

BLITZER: Is it true that there's a difference between the Egyptian military's behavior and the behavior of those under the ministry of interior, the police, for example, the secret police and others?

COHEN: Yes. It's the secret police, and remember, that Omar Suleiman, the vice president now appointed by Mubarak has been very much in charge for many years of all the secret police activities. The police are the people who disappeared, Ghonim (ph), and have killed some people and are still missing. The military have been there. They're everywhere. The tanks throughout the streets of Cairo, but they've been disciplined, and they've been, it seems, very clear on the fact they are not going to fire on their own people, and they've seen themselves as, if you like, defending Egypt rather than defending Mubarak.

BLITZER: Because a lot of people are suggesting, at least, the protesters that the vice president, Omar Suleiman, they're calling him Mubarak's poodle. The U.S., at least the Obama administration's hope, is that Suleiman could be in charge during an interim period leading up to elections, but would that be acceptable to the hundreds of thousands who are protesting right now?

COHEN: Honestly, Wolf, I think if Mubarak quit, if he went off to his villa in Sharm el-Sheikh, you would hear a roar that would reach Washington from Cairo. After that, you know, it's going to be a long slug. Egypt hasn't known Democracy since NASA seized power in 1952. We're talking about 60 years, and Suleiman, clearly, would be the number one choice or an ideal choice, but I think, as I said, the focus is very much on Mubarak going. I, you know, Suleiman is a very curious choice if we're really looking seriously at some kind of free and fair election in September. He scuffs fairly openly about Democracy. He's very much a security guy. He sees a jihadist even in these young, you know, 25-year-old Twitter generation Egyptians who are very much behind much of this. So, -- and the steps they've taken up to now have been unconvincing.

There's still, for example, an emergency law in place that's been there for 30 years, and the United States has been pressing for it to be lifted, and that law enables Mubarak or Suleiman or whoever to just pick anyone off the street and -- and arrest them and hold them for as long as they like.

BLITZER: And very quickly --

COHEN: There are a lot of problems with this process.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Roger, because I know were you in Tehran. We spoke often back in 2009 when they had the demonstrations there. They failed those demonstrations in overthrowing the regime, although, the struggle in Iran, obviously, continues at a much lower level. What's the biggest difference between Tehran and Cairo?

COHEN: I think the number one difference is just the sheer brutality, Wolf, that was shown in the streets of Tehran. There's been some of that here in -- in Tehran after the election after a few days. The Basij, these plainclothes thugs, were just everywhere. There was no army on the street to protect people, anybody, and I think in Iran, you know, the ideology was still there. I mean, the Islamic Republic still has an ideology. It's pretty frayed, but there's still this anti-west and Islamic ideology.

I'm not sure Mubarak today, you know, stands for a whole lot, so that, I think maybe gave the Islamic Republic a little more resilience than the Mubarak regime has.

BLITZER: Roger Cohen of the "New York Times," we'll stay in close touch with you. Thanks very much.

We're also monitoring other important top stories including the race for president in 2012. There's still plenty of time, but Republicans already weighing in on their top choices for the nomination.

Plus, a natural gas facility in Texas engulfed in flames. Residents advised to evacuate the area.

We'll also go back to Egypt. Much more on what's going on there, coming up.


BLITZER: It's after midnight now in Cairo, but still huge crowds at Tahrir Square in Cairo. They're protesting President Mubarak. They want him out, not in September and not next month. They want him out now. They're also frustrated that things aren't happening more quickly. They're staying put. Right now, we're going back to Cairo in a few moments, but there's other news we're following as well, including the country's newest Medal of Honor recipient leaving the U.S. army. Lisa Sylvester is here. She's monitoring that and some of the other top stories in the SITUATION ROOM. Lisa, what do you know?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. Well, Staff Sergeant Salvatore Junta plans to focus on his education beginning in June. Junta was awarded the Medal of Honor last November for a 2007 fight against the Taliban and Afghanistan. He served two tours in the region over seven years.

The Department of Transportation has announced that its ten-month investigation into causes of unintended acceleration in Toyota cars has found no fault with the company's electronic control systems. The car giant recalled nearly 8 million vehicles in 2008 and 2009 for defects related to gas pedals. Toyota has also paid almost $50 million in civil fines for not reporting or correcting the defects in a timely manner.

North and South Korea have wrapped up a day of military talks with an agreement to meet again tomorrow. The discussions come after a deadly North Korean assault on the South sharply escalated tensions this year. The South has set higher level talks will only be held if the North promises to refrain from further attacks. And this Saturday, you'll want to tune in for Wolf's special report, "Six Days in North Korea." That is at 6:00 p.m. eastern right here on CNN.

Well, 2012 is still a ways off, but Republicans are already weighing in on their choice for president. A new CNN Opinion Research Corporation Poll shows potential hopefuls, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, all within about a point of each other at the top of the list. Newt Gingrich was the only other Republican who tested who gets a double-digit support, Wolf. So --

BLITZER: It's still very early in the process.

SYLVESTER: It is. I mean, these are the names that we've been hearing time and time again. So, we'll see if anybody kind of rises up to the top of that list.

BLITZER: A year before Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses, he was down low in the polls, too, but he managed to do well in that following year. All right. Thanks very much for that.

Egypt's protest, massive but peaceful, at least for now. There are concerns, deep concerns though, of a looming crackdown and what one veteran activist is calling the most dangerous face of the uprising.


BLITZER: You're in the SITUATION ROOM. Happening now, fire engulfs a natural gas facility in Texas. One worker is unaccounted for. Residents are being advised to evacuate the area or take shelter in their homes. Plus, his message to the Egyptians, this country is our country. Just one day after being released from detention, the Google executive, Wael Ghonim, is inspiring thousands in Cairo's biggest day of protests yet.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is praising the restraint of the Egyptian military as the uprising enters its third week, but some are warning that the most dangerous phase of the crisis lies ahead with a brutal crackdown looming. CNN's Brian Todd is working this part of the story for us. So, what's behind this warning, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, behind this is a wealth of experience from experts who've seen how this regime has operated in the past, and from one man who's been on the receiving end of government crackdowns in Egypt.


TODD (voice-over): A hopeful promise from Egyptian vice president, Omar Suleiman. He assures the young protesters in Tahrir Square, don't worry about being arrested for speaking your minds.

Do you believe him?

KAMEL EL-SAWI, ALLIANCE OF EGYPTIAN AMERICANS: I don't believe him. You know, he gives us no reason to believe him and the best, and he is working on behalf of Hosni Mubarak, and because he is -- he's a personal friend and the chief of his intelligence.

TODD (voice-over): Suleiman was chief of intelligence just before becoming vice president last month. And Kamel El Sawi doesn't trust a word from him.

El Sawi, founder of the Alliance of Egyptian Americans, led his group to Cairo in December to warn the Mubarak regime that a revolt was brewing. They were rebuffed.

El Sawi knows what Egypt's leaders are capable of. As a young student activist in the '60s, he says he was rounded up and beaten for protesting against a previous regime. He and other experts have sober warnings about this period in the uprising.

PROF. FOUAD AJAMI, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY: The protesters have now entered the most dangerous phase of this conflict. They are known to the security services. They have bet it all

TODD: Experts say once things start to settle in Cairo, when protesters start to leave the square, that's when they could become targets of the feared security services, the secret police, and military operatives in civilian clothes. They say while he's seen broadly as a moderate leader of Egypt's transition away from dictatorship, Suleiman is himself an enforcer with a heavy hand behind the scenes in the intelligence services and secret police. When the global media's cameras start to turn away from these scenes, experts say, this regime will likely do what it's always done.

(on camera): How do they generally operate against these people?

EL SAWI: Well, you know, the Egyptian security has enormous organization. You know, you can see that the total number of the people who are involved within security work in Egypt, close to maybe two million you include the army and that. So they have penetrated every aspect of the Egyptian life and they have many informers.


TODD: That means, according to El Sawi and others, there will likely be secret roundups, disappearances, all while the rest of us outside Egypt see images of the country getting back to normal. It's why many protesters fear giving up these demonstrations, and many of them may stay in Tahrir Square as long as they physically can -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's going to be a long struggle. We'll see what happens out there. Thanks very much.

Deep concern for Egypt's priceless antiquities, many of them housed in the museum just yards from the protests.

CNN's Fred Pleitgen looks into that.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A heavy lock and key keep the Egyptian museum shut. Inside, signs of the recent turmoil when the area around the building was engulfed in violence and looters tried to get hold of Egypt's most valuable treasures.

Tarek El-Alwady, the museum's director, says fortunately, the damage is minimal.

TAREK EL AWADY, DIRECTOR, EGYPTIAN MUSEUM: This was disturbed, and only we had this part broken. And now they are working on it. But the rest is completely safe.

PLEITGEN: These artifacts are thousands of years old. Curators at the museum are now busy restoring them.

AWADY: And this one, it was found broken from here, and now you see it's back to normal.

PLEITGEN: The rioting and street battles in central Cairo happened right next to the Egyptian Museum. As pro-and-anti-Mubarak protesters hurled rocks and fire bombs at each other, would-be looters tried to get into the museum. By all accounts, only one got in.

AWADY: He came in from the glass window from the roof using the telephone wire, telephone and Internet wires. And he fell on a showcase. He broke the showcase and he got badly injured on his back and his hands. PLEITGEN: Museum staff say the man seemed to have no knowledge of artifacts, that he was looking for gold and simply threw ancient wooden statues on the floor thinking they were worthless. And so the museum's real treasures, like the priceless mask of King Tut, survived unscathed.

(on camera): This is one of the most prized artifacts in the entire world, and when the uprising here began, there was a lot of fear that looters could get in here or that the mask could get damaged. But luckily, that never happened, and it remained safe the whole time.

(voice-over): After a short rampage through the museum, the sole looter was caught, of all places, next to a statue of Sehmed (ph), the Egyptian goddess of protection. And the goddess also seems to have played with the minds of other would-be looters.

(on camera): One of the really bizarre things that happened is that more looters actually made it on to the premises, but they didn't go into the museum. Instead, they went into the souvenir shop and looted souvenirs thinking they were taking Egyptian artifacts.

(voice-over): The Egyptian army has taken over security for the museum. Soldiers kept an eye on us as we got our tour, and tanks are in place outside after a close call for some of the world's most famous ancient treasures that survived thanks to the courage of the museum staff and perhaps some help from the gods.

Fred Pleitgen, CNN, Cairo, Egypt.


BLITZER: The Republicans are divided on how President Obama is handling the crisis in Egypt. That's going to be coming up in our "Strategy Session."

Plus, a crackdown at a major fast-food chain. We'll explain what's going on.


BLITZER: A popular fast food chain is targeted by the government for allegedly hiring undocumented workers.

Let's bring in our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve. She's got the details -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Chipotle is getting some extra scrutiny. The federal government is cracking down on the chain's illegal employees.


MESERVE (voice-over): Hundreds of employees of Chipotle restaurants in Minnesota have been fired after a government audit revealed they were illegal workers using fraudulent documents.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You cannot sell Mexican food and Mexican culture, and at the same time sell out Mexican workers.

MESERVE: Now Chipotle has been notified the legal status of employees at its Washington, D.C., and Virginia stores will also be checked by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I eat it because it tastes good. I don't really care who they're hiring to work there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have laws in place for a reason, and so if there's cause to investigate, I hope they just do a good, honest job and treat everyone fairly.

MESERVE: A spokesman for the restaurant chain calls the audits a disruption to business and a disruption to the lives of the employees. ICE says it is enforcing the law.

The Bush administration cracked down on the illegal workforce with controversial workplace raids. The Obama administration has increasingly turned to audits of I-9 forms which verify that an individual can legally work in the U.S.

ICE did I-9 audits of more than 2,000 businesses last year, uncovering more than 25,000 suspect documents. Employers were fined almost $7 million. The agency hopes this will deter other employers from hiring illegal workers, but the numbers are daunting.

MARC ROSENBLUM, MIGRATION POLICY INSTITUTE: Overall, right now, we estimate that are about 5.1 percent of all U.S. workers are unauthorized. And in restaurant and food service, it's about 12.5 percent. So it's an industry that depends a lot on unauthorized workers.

MESERVE: ICE says it is not targeting the restaurant industry. But Chipotle is questioning the effectiveness of the government's approach. A spokesman says their fired illegal workers " -- are going to go down the street and work someplace else. It is a flawed system"


MESERVE: Some advocate the expansion of E-Verify, an electronic system which helps employers validate workers' documentation. But the system is not perfect. It doesn't always detect identify theft, for example. But Chipotle, which says it already double-checks employees' papers, is now look to expand its use of E-Verify -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Jeanne, for that.

Let's get back to what's happening in Egypt right now.

As you know, it receives a lot of U.S. assistance, financial assistance. And here's the question that a lot of people are asking. How is that $1.6 billion being used? That's the annual military aid and economic aid.

Plus, on Cairo's largest day of protests yet --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's over. There's no America. There's no Hezbollah. It's his fault.

What we are in is his fault! It's not due to the Americans. It's not due to Hezbollah! It's due to him!


BLITZER: Let's talk about the U.S. and Egypt on this, the largest day of protests yet on the streets of Cairo.

Joining us now in our "Strategy Session," two CNN political contributors, the Democratic strategist, Paul Begala, and the Republican strategist, Mary Matalin.

We're getting conflicting opinions of the president's handling of the Egypt crisis from conservatives, from Republicans. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, they are praising the president. They are saying he's doing a very good job. Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, they are blasting the president, saying he's not doing a very good job.

Here's the question to Mary Matalin.

Who do you agree with, which side of the Republican Party?

MARY MATALIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I agree with an analysis first made by Chou En-Lai about the French Revolution. When asked about it, he said, "It's too early to tell."

This is an ongoing, unfolding process. I think people who have been in the room have been in wartime White Houses and have to make these kinds of decisions, as it's unfolding, over which we don't have a lot of say, we don't have a lot of room --

BLITZER: But what grade would you give the president so far?

MATALIN: I'd say he's got a clunky start and he's trying to maneuver into a place to represent our values and our interests simultaneously. A tough balance, but something that he's learned in the last two years, which is evidenced by his keeping all of the Bush security apparatus in place.

BLITZER: So is that at an A, a B, a C, a D, or an F?

MATALIN: I'd say he's a president who is being tested.

BLITZER: You're refusing to say. Is that what you're saying?

MATALIN: I can't give him a grade. It's unfolding.

BLITZER: But is he doing a good job or a bad job?

MATALIN: I think he's doing OK under the circumstances.

BLITZER: So you're with McCain and Lindsey Graham? MATALIN: And I'm also for, let's send a good public message, something that was not always done in President Bush's time. Let's speak with one voice publicly, and then have the private conversations.

BLITZER: A lot of people are confused about the president's strategy right now. Does he want Mubarak to stay until September, or does he want him to leave now?

Do you know?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, yes, he said very clearly.

BLITZER: What did he say?

BEGALA: He wants him to leave now. "Now" being yesterday.

BLITZER: No, no, no. He didn't say that. He never said that Mubarak should leave yesterday or now.

He says he wants change now. He never said Mubarak should leave now.

Do you understand what he wants Mubarak to do?

BEGALA: Yes. I think he wants a transition to a new government.

BLITZER: But does he want him to stay like Frank Wisner said, his special envoy, he must stay until September?

BEGALA: Right. I don't think --

BLITZER: We've been hearing conflicting, muddling statements from Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, the president and the vice president. They're refusing to say what Mubarak should do.

BEGALA: Right, because it's their job to act in the American interest, not to dictate to Egypt.


BLITZER: Oh, I've not been there, of course, but I was just listening to your interview with Roger Cohen (ph).

BLITZER: You heard Roger Cohen (ph) say they're disappointed.

BEGALA: He said they're mostly focused on Egypt, not on Barack Obama.

BLITZER: Yes, but he said they're disappointed on what the president of the United States -- the muddling, the confusing statements that are coming forward.

BEGALA: This is an incredibly difficult, incredibly delicate -- and I think the president has walked this tightrope as well as anybody could. I'd definitely give him an "A," because he is trying to secure America's interest with a long-time ally, but all with someone who has been a dictator and has oppressed his people.

We're trying, I think, in the best way to make that balance. I think Mary makes a good point. The best policy here would be for both parties to lock arms and have politics stop at the water's edge.

He's not sending American troops, thank God. There's no I think policy or political gain for the Republicans carping at him the way Ms. Palin and Mr. Gingrich are.

BLITZER: Should the U.S. sever military aid to Egypt right now?

MATALIN: Absolutely not, because the only organized faction for now is the Muslim Brotherhood. And I do think this is where the president should be more clear. We do not want to be -- that country to be run by the Muslim Brotherhood.

BLITZER: Have you been moved by the reports of the abuse, the arrests? Do you think the U.S. should sever military aid to Egypt?

BEGALA: Well, the reports are remarkable, and they are horrifying. I have to tell you, I don't know that it's new. In other words, this has been going on for an awful long time.

BLITZER: Should the U.S. sever military aid to Egypt?

BEGALA: No, sir. If you ask me, no.


BEGALA: Because that is our leverage there. It's our leverage, and Egypt is still abiding by its agreements, particularly in Camp David, where, as you know, they made a heroic step for peace with Israel. And America then said we will aid you and support you if you continue to be a force for peace in the Middle East.

And it's that horrible dichotomy, as Mary said, of our values and our interests. That government clearly doesn't represent our values, but a lot of governments we deal with don't represent our values. We can't dictate to the world how every country is run, but what we can do is advance America's interests, and I think that's what our president is doing.

MATALIN: And that's what the public thinks. And there's not a very good option here. And most of public policy in this regard is the least bad option and don't make it worse. And he's done that, at least.

BLITZER: So you're giving him a good grade.

MATALIN: No. I'm giving him a C, which is not an F.


BLITZER: Oh, you are giving him a C. All right. Well, we got it out of you.

You give him an A, C. We'll see what happens, guys. Thanks very much.

How would you rate the Obama administration's handling of the crisis in Egypt? Jack is coming back with your answers.

And an unlikely figure from Google adding new energy right now to the uprising in Egypt.


BLITZER: Let's get right back to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is: How would you rate the Obama administration's handling of the crisis in Egypt?

Before I read the e-mails, my apologies. I mispronounced Ambassador Frank Wisner's last name. It's spelled Wisner, it's pronounced Wisner. I didn't check.

My bad, Ambassador.

Rose writes from Glendale, Arizona, "I believe the Obama administration should get a below average grade on the crisis in Egypt. First, it appears they were taken by surprise by the uprising. It took them too long to even make a statement. Second, sending a credible diplomat, Frank Wisner, to assess the situation, and then saying he doesn't speak for the administration, most certainly sends a mixed message. To sum it up, I don't think they know what they're doing."

Riley in Seattle, "For walking a tricky tightrope, the Obama administration gets full marks. For ceasing the moment though, zero. Like Reagan at the Berlin Wall, this transformational president had his moment in history. Coming out clear and true on the side of human rights and letting the chips fall where they may would have been his game-changer."

Dan in Virginia writes, "I give him a C plus. They haven't done anything helpful, but they haven't done any harmful either. Frankly, I'm not sure what people want him to do."

"If they back the protesters, they'll get slammed for turning their backs on an ally. If they back Mubarak, they'll get slammed by the same people for supporting an oppressive regime. Let's face it, Newt Gingrich was going to criticize the president no matter what he did."

Valerie in North Carolina, "The president hit just the right tone. He urged Mubarak to leave. He expressed support for democracy. But he didn't inject himself and America into the situation."

"Leaders of other countries did the same. This is an Egyptian problem. It should be solved by Egyptians."

And Jevon in Ledgewood, New Jersey, says, "Considering we have to work with whoever ends up at the top of the pyramid" -- I don't know if the pun was intended or not -- "I think Obama's high-wire walk has been excellent so far, especially considering the wire is barred."

If you want to read more on this, you can go to blog,

BLITZER: Clever e-mail. I think it was deliberate, the pyramid reference.

CAFFERTY: Not bad, right?

BLITZER: Yes, very good stuff. All right, Jack. Thank you.

Newcomers to the uprising. This, on the largest protest day yet in Cairo, drawing some people to Tahrir Square for the first time. We're going back to Cairo, live.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: We'll get back to Cairo in a moment, but there's other important news here in Washington.

Tomorrow, Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill will once again take up the battle to extent unemployment benefits for the so-called 99ers, those who have exhausted their 99 weeks of federal support.

Mary Snow is in New York. She has the story of one man with a very personal stake in this fight -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee is leading the effort to get 14 more weeks of benefits for 99ers, citing their situation. We've met 99ers here in recent months on the verge of homelessness because they can't find work. Tomorrow, lawmakers will be joined by one 99er who, in spite of his impressive resume, still can't find work.


SNOW (voice-over): On the outside looking in, it would seem this Philadelphia suburb would equal a comfortable life. And it's that reason why Gregg Rosen wants people to hear his story, and he's going to D.C. this week to tell it.

GREGG ROSEN, 99ER, STILL LOOKING FOR WORK: I'm the cautionary tale to America. You look at my home, sure. You look around, it looks like he lives well.

SNOW: Rosen is 43 and has been unemployed for three years. He says his six-figure salary as a marketing executive became a casualty of the recession in 2008. Making things worse, he told us his nest egg vanished. It turns out, it was part of Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme.

ROSEN: The sad reality is that unemployment is a disease that does not discriminate. It's not just a matter -- it just doesn't hit those that have not graduated high school, that don't have college educations. SNOW: Rosen has been able to recoup some of the money he's lost with Madoff, but it's not enough to avoid tough choices. For example, he's had to scale back on medicine he needs for an existing condition, hoping vitamins will help him stay healthy.

While he looks for a job, he brings people like himself together with the American 99ers Union, an umbrella group for American who is have exhausted their 99 weeks of federal and state unemployment insurance and can't find work.

ROSEN: This is a business. It truly is. It's the business of survival.

SNOW: So far, Congress has failed to extend benefits for 99ers without a way to pay for it. And some, like Douglas Holtz-Eakin, economic policy director to John McCain's presidential campaign, argue the money would be better spent on training programs.

DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN, AMERICAN ACTION FORUM: The longer they're unemployed and their skills are getting worse, the harder it is for them to find a job.

SNOW: In fact, Rosen tells us that he has been rejected by prospective employers because he's been out of work too long.

(on camera): How do you deal with that?

ROSEN: You either curl up in a ball, which I did for a period of time, or you continue to fight on and you just keep pushing and putting the resumes out there. And hope that eventually -- you hope eventually the economy is going to catch up with me and say, OK, we now need you.


SNOW: And Wolf, 99ers say that they need immediate cash to keep looking for a job for basics like keeping a phone turned on and putting gas in the tank to travel to interviews -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Mary. Thanks very much.