- Associated Press - Monday, February 7, 2011

CAIRO — Egypt on Monday released a Google Inc. executive who became a hero of anti-government protesters after he vanished nearly two weeks ago while taking part in demonstrations calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

Protesters in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square say Wael Ghonim, a marketing manager for the Internet company, was one of the main youthful organizers of the online campaign that sparked the mass protests on Jan. 25. He went missing Jan. 27, and his whereabouts were not known until Sunday, when a prominent Egyptian political figure confirmed he was under arrest but soon would be released.

Mr. Ghonim has been held up as one of the heroes of the protest movement that already has extracted the most sweeping concessions toward reform that Mr. Mubarak’s regime has ever made.

The gestures have not persuaded the tens of thousands occupying central Cairo’s Tahrir Square to end their two-week-long protest, leaving the two sides in an uneasy stalemate. The protesters have vowed to stay put until Mr. Mubarak steps down, while the regime wants him to stay in office until elections in September.

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch on Monday said at least 297 people have been killed since the uprising began two weeks ago. The revolt against Mr. Mubarak brought days of fierce clashes with police and intense battles with violent pro-Mubarak gangs. The violence spread to other parts of Egypt, and the toll includes a significant number of deaths outside Cairo.

Human Rights Watch told the Associated Press its count is based on visits to seven hospitals in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez.

Egypt’s Health Ministry has not given any comprehensive figures on the death toll, but Cairo researcher Heba Morayef said the toll is expected to rise.

President Obama said Egypt is “making progress” toward a solution to the political crisis. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said later in the day that what the Egyptian people want most to see is the government taking concrete steps to bring about demanded changes, including the end of Mr. Mubarak’s government, and free and fair elections.

He said “monumental change” already has taken place, with Mr. Mubarak pledging not to seek re-election in September, ruling out his son as a candidate to succeed him and appointing his first vice president.

The embattled regime announced a 15 percent raise for government employees Monday in an attempt to shore up its base.

Newly appointed Finance Minister Samir Radwan said some 6.5 billion Egyptian pounds ($960 million) will be allocated to cover the salary and pension increases, which will take effect in April for the 6 million people on public payrolls.

“We don’t trust him, and he’s a liar. He’s made many promises in the past,” said Salih Abdel-Aziz, an engineer with a public sector company, referring to the president. “He could raise it 65 percent, and we wouldn’t believe him. As long as Mubarak is in charge, then all of these are brittle decisions that can break at any moment.”

Public-sector employees have been a pillar of support for the regime, but their salaries have stagnated in value in recent years as prices have soared, forcing the government periodically to announce raises to quell dissatisfaction.

Following widespread labor unrest in public-sector factories in 2008, Mr. Mubarak announced a 30 percent increase in public-sector salaries that appeared to blunt public anger temporarily.

The regime appears confident in its ability for the moment to ride out the unprecedented storm of unrest and maintain its grip on power, at least until the September elections, but it has made a number of moves in response to protesters’ demands.

Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman met several major opposition groups, including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, for the first time Sunday and offered new concessions, including freedom of the press, release of those detained during the protests and the eventual lifting of the country’s hated emergency laws.

Egypt’s state-run news agency reported Monday that Mr. Mubarak had ordered the country’s parliament and its highest appellate court to re-examine lower-court rulings disqualifying hundreds of ruling-party lawmakers for campaign and ballot irregularities, that were ignored by electoral officials — possibly paving the way for new elections.

The ruling National Democratic Party won more than 83 percent of the 518 seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections, which were widely condemned as being rigged.

Judicial officials also promised to start the questioning on Tuesday of three former ministers and a senior ruling party official accused of corruption charges after they were dismissed by Mr. Mubarak last week. The Cabinet reshuffle was intended to placate protesters by removing some of the most hated officials in the government.

The official Middle East News Agency said former Tourism Minister Zohair Garanah would be questioned Tuesday along with the former ministers of housing and trade.

MENA also reported that the country’s top prosecutor had imposed a travel ban on former Interior Minister Habib al-Adli and froze his bank account.

Life in Cairo was returning to a more normal routine after the weeks of upheaval. Banks were open for limited hours along with many shops. The stock market announced it would reopen Sunday, though schools still were shut for the midyear holiday. Traffic was returning to ordinary levels in many places, and the start of the nighttime curfew was relaxed to 8 p.m.

Associated Press writer Karin Laub contributed to this article.



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