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Wael Ghonim, Freed Activist, Energizes Egyptian Protests

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WAEL GHONIM
AP

CAIRO — 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.

With protests invigorated, Vice President Omar Suleiman issued a sharply worded warning, saying of the protests in Tahrir, "We can't bear this for a long time, and there must be an end to this crisis as soon as possible," in a sign of growing impatience with 16 days of mass demonstrations.

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. 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.

Suleiman rejected any departure for Mubarak or "end to the regime. He told a gathering of newspaper editors that the regime prefers to deal with the crisis using dialogue, adding, "We don't want to deal with Egyptian society with police tools." He warned that the alternative to dialogue was "a coup" – a possible hint of an imposition of military rule. However, editors present at the meeting said he then explained he didn't mean a military coup but that "a force that is unprepared for rule" could overturn state institutions.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke by phone with Suleiman, saying Washington wants Egypt to immediately rescind emergency laws that give broad powers to security forces – a key demand of the protesters.

Ghonim's reappearance 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.

Ghonim is an Egyptian who oversees Google Inc.'s marketing in the Middle East and Africa from Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates. He vanished two days after the protests began on Jan. 25, snatched off the street by security forces and hustled to a secret location.

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 online with other activists, including the April 6 movement named after the date of 2008 labor protests and the campaign of Nobel Peace laureate and 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 Police Day – a state holiday 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.

"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 fundamentalist 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 or word of mouth.

Throughout the days that followed, Ghonim had no idea what was happening in the streets. He was 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."

Ghonim 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."

On Tuesday afternoon, Ghonim arrived in Tahrir, greeted by cheers and hustled up to a stage. He spoke softly and briefly to the huge crowd, 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 a 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. 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 Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city. Some 3,000 service workers for the Suez Canal 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 than previously, including significant numbers of women and children. Popular singers entertained them with concerts.

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AP correspondents Lee Keath and Hamza Hendawi contributed to this report.

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