Wael Ghonim energizes Egyptian protests

Egyptian Wael Ghonim, a Google Inc. marketing manager, who has become a hero of the demonstrators since he went missing on Jan. 27, two days after the protests began, hugs the mother of Khaled Said, a young 28-year-old businessman who died in June, 2010, at the hands of undercover police, setting off months of protests against the hated police, at Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Feb.8, 2011. (AP Photo/Ahmed Ali)
February 8, 2011 3:27:38 PM PST
A young Google executive who helped ignite Egypt's uprising energized a cheering crowd of hundreds of thousands Tuesday with his first appearance in their midst after being released from 12 days in secret detention. "We won't give up," he promised at one of the biggest protests yet in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Once a behind-the-scenes Internet activist, 30-year-old Wael Ghonim has emerged as an inspiring voice for a movement that has taken pride in being a leaderless "people's revolution." Now, the various activists behind it -- including Ghonim -- are working to coalesce into representatives to push their demands for President Hosni Mubarak's ouster.

For the first time, protesters made a foray to Parliament, several blocks away from their camp in the square. Several hundred marched to the legislature and chanted for it to be dissolved.

In Tahrir, the massive, shoulder-to-shoulder crowd's ranks swelled with new blood, including thousands of university professors and lawyers who marched in together as organizers worked to draw in professional unions. The crowd rivaled the biggest demonstration so far, a week ago, that drew a quarter-million people.

Some said they were inspired to turn out by an emotional television interview Ghonim gave Monday night just after his release from detention where he sobbed over those who have been killed in two weeks of clashes and insisted, "We love Egypt ... and we have rights."

"I cried," a 33-year-old upper-class housewife Fifi Shawqi said of the interview with Ghonim, who she'd never heard of before the TV appearance. She came to the Tahrir protest for the first time, bringing her three daughters and her sister. "I felt like he is my son and all the youth here are my sons."

Tuesday's huge turnout gave a resounding answer to the question of whether the protesters still have momentum even though two weeks of steadfast pressure have not achieved their goal of ousting 82-year-old Mubarak, Egypt's authoritarian leader for nearly three decades. Vice President Omar Suleiman on Tuesday made a new gesture, declaring a panel of judges and scholars to recommend constitutional changes within a month.

Ghonim, a marketing manager for Google Inc, vanished two days after the protests began on Jan. 25, snatched off the street by security forces and hustled to a secret location.

His reappearance Tuesday also gave a clearer picture of the stunning trajectory of the protests, which swelled from the online organizing of small Internet activist groups into the first and greatest mass challenge ever to Mubarak's rule.

Earlier this year, Ghonim -- anonymously -- launched a Facebook page commemorating Khaled Said, a 28-year-old businessman in Alexandria who was beaten to death by two policemen in June. The page became a rallying point for a campaign against police brutality, with hundreds of thousands joining. For many Egyptians, it was the first time to learn details of the extent of widespread torture in their own country.

Small-scale protests over Said's death took place for months. The Khaled Said group worked on-line with other activist movements to organize them, including the April 6 movement named after the date of 2008 labor protests and the campaign of Nobel Peace laureate and leading democracy advocate Mohamed ElBaradei.

Ghonim's page was "the information channel," said Ziad al-Oleimi, a pro-ElBaradei organizer.

Together they decided to hold a larger gathering on Jan. 25, announced on Ghonim's page, to coincide with the state holiday Police Day honoring security forces. By phone and Internet, they got out the word to supporters in Cairo and other cities, but didn't expect much.

"We really thought that on Jan. 25, we will be arrested in five minutes. I am not kidding," said al-Oleimi.

They were surprised to find thousands turning out at several locations in Cairo, many inspired by mass protests in Tunisia. On the fly, organizers made a change in plans, said al-Oleimi: All protesters were to march on Tahrir Square. There, they were met by security forces that unleashed a powerful crackdown, firing water cannons and rubber bullets in battles that lasted until the evening. Even after Ghonim's arrest, his Facebook page was an organizing point. Activists weighed in with postings on strategies and tactics, accepting some, shooting down others. "When we say let's organize a protest, let's think, five people sit together and plan. Imagine now 50,000 heads are put together through the Internet. Lots of creativity and greatness," said Abdel-Galil el-Sharnoubi, website manager for the Muslim Brotherhood, which balked at joining the first protest but two days later threw its weight behind the movement.

Ghonim's page called a Jan. 28 protest labeled "the day of rage" which brought out greater numbers. Despite a new police crackdown that day, the movement had legs. Even when the government shut down the Internet for an unprecedented five days trying to snuff out the protests, organizers now could bring out mass numbers by telephone -- including land lines as mobiles were shut down as well.

Throughout the days that followed, Ghonim had no idea what was happening in the streets, held in detention, often blindfolded and questioned repeatedly, he said in a Monday night television interview.

The interview, on the privately owned satellite channel Dream TV, was for most Egyptians the first time they had seen or even heard of the goateed young man. It was not even widely known that Ghonim was the administrator for the Khaled Said Facebook page. He struck a modest tone and even said he gained respect for some of those who interrogated him in detention. But he was passionate in declaring Egyptians wanted their rights and an end to humiliation. He repeated over and over, "We are not traitors."

When the hostess of the show showed pictures of young men killed in the protests, Ghonim slumped in sobs, saying "It is the fault of everyone who held on tight to authority and didn't want to let go," before cutting short the interview.

Over the next 20 hours, about 130,000 people joined a Facebook page titled, "I delegate Wael Ghonim to speak in the name of Egypt's revolutionaries."

He appeared to strike a chord among the broader public, where some have absorbed a state-fueled image of the protesters as disrupting life for no reason and being directed by foreign hands.

A retired army general, Essam Salem, said the interview "showed a face of the truth which the state media tried to cover up for so long ... Many people are coming because they saw the truth."

In the afternoon, Ghonim arrived in Tahrir, greeted by cheers and hustled up to a stage. He softly and briefly to the huge crowd from a stage, offering his condolences to the families of those killed.

"We are not giving up until our demands are met," he proclaimed before shaking his fist in the air, chanting, "Mubarak, leave, leave." The crowd erupted in cheering, whistling and deafening applause.

Despite the excitement Ghonim injected into an already feverish gathering, organizers and the crowds themselves refused the idea of a single leader for their movement. Many contend its strength lies in its lack of leaders and in its nature as a mass, popular uprising -- perhaps wary in part of personal splits that have sabotaged past opposition movements.

Ghonim and three others were added to an already existing, now 10-member committee that represents the various activist groups to coordinate protest activities and push through the groups' demands, said al-Oleimi.

"No one can say they lead the revolution. There are leaders and units that organized inside the revolution, and they get their legitimacy from the demands of the revolution," he said. "We don't represent the people in the square. We represent the organized groups."

Some activists were seen collecting names and phone numbers of some in the crowds, talking of holding some sort of poll over who they support to represent them. "Ghonim cannot be a leader by himself, unless he is elected by a committee elected and composed of different groups that represent all these people," said Shayma Ahmed, a 20-year-old student among the Tahrir crowds.

Ghonim as well appeared to be dismissing talk of himself as a leader.

"I'm not a hero. I was writing on a keyboard on the Internet and I wasn't exposing my life to danger," he said in the interview. "The heroes are the one who are in the street."

The protesters say they will not begin negotiations with the government over future democratic reforms until Mubarak steps down.

Vice President Suleiman has tried to draw them into talks, promising extensive -- but still unclear change -- and many protesters fear he aims to fragment the movement with partial concessions and gestures.

There were demonstrations calling for the president's ouster around the country as well with 18,000 people cramming into the main square of Egypt's second largest city in Alexandria. Some 3,000 service workers for the Suez Canal also demonstrated in Suez city, while 8,000 people chanted anti Mubarak slogans in the southern city of Assiut.

Even after nightfall, thousands remained in Tahrir, with larger numbers camping out the night than previously -- including significant numbers of women and children -- entertained by popular singers giving concerts.


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