Freed young Egyptian energizes protests

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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.

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