Nightly News   |  November 23, 2011

Demands to topple military grow stronger in Egypt

Protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square continue to demand democracy from an entrenched military, which is beating them back. NBC’s Richard Engel reports from Cairo.

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SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, anchor: We move now to Egypt and the violence and chaos in Cairo . The protests continued today for the fifth day, despite the fact that the Egyptian military has now agreed to accelerate the transition to civilian rule. But with at least 38 dead, there is no sign tonight that the tens of thousands of people who have been taking to the streets are inclined to stop. Our chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel is in Cairo again for us tonight. Richard , good evening.

RICHARD ENGEL reporting: Good evening, Savannah . As you can see, there are no signs at all that these protests are letting up. Now some political parties in this country have accepted the military's compromise and have already begun negotiations to form a new government. But it's not enough for these protesters who want an immediate end to military rule . In Tahrir Square , no backing down. Peaceful protesters demanding democracy from an entrenched military which is beating them back. But is that the full picture? We left Tahrir , went down a nearby alley. It leads to the front line, where demonstrators have clashed with security forces for five days. Today protesters flipped over cars preparing defensive barricades. They showed us tear gas canisters and shotgun shells, evidence, they claim, of the brutality against them. Their anger is directed at Egypt 's military. The people want to try the field marshal, they shouted, referring to the head of the Egyptian military . As we went further, we found something unexpected. Soldiers were trying to prevent clashes. These soldiers have set up a blocking position to keep back demonstrators. But what's different this time is that the army is trying to show restraint. It's an attempt by the military to calm things down here. The army had positioned its troops and vehicles between the protesters and rows of poorly trained, often violent riot police . These men in black are especially hated by the demonstrators. The army's patience with the protesters was running short. What happens now? These people are here.

Lieutenant Colonel ISLAM GHAFER: We try to convince them to go back to Tahrir .

ENGEL: And what if they don't go? What if they don't go back?

Lt. Col. GHAFER: The army will withdraw and the police will go and fight with them.

ENGEL: Minutes later, protesters started throwing stones. Up went the riot shields , but the army held fire. Then more stones. And as dusk fell, those riot police in black fired volley after volley of tear gas right over the soldiers ' heads. We heard soldiers telling the police to stop. Everyone started to choke. Some soldiers helped the demonstrators. With a gas mask on, we jumped into an ambulance. A policeman gas gagging on the gas he fired, so was a woman, a demonstrator. The ambulances streamed into Tahrir Square with the injured. They were greeted like heroes, and the crowd's demands to topple the military only grew stronger. Later this week, Savannah , could prove to be decisive. They are planning another million person demonstration after Friday prayers.

GUTHRIE: All right, Richard . And I guess the question for Americans, anyway, is where the US comes down on all this. On the one hand, the US has been supportive of the protest movement in Egypt , but it also has these strong ties to Egypt 's military.

ENGEL: The Egyptian military is critical for the United States , and it's also one of the only functioning organizations left in this country. It's pro-American. It maintains a peace treaty with Israel . But these people want to see it toppled. And if that happens, the Muslim Brotherhood would be immensely empowered, and that could lead to a more anti- American Egypt .

GUTHRIE: Well, it's an incredibly complicated picture. Richard Engel in Cairo again for us tonight, thank you.