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.
“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.