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Freed young Egyptian energizes protests
Question of the Day
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.
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.
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.
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