Freed young leader energizes Egyptian protests

Thousands of Egyptian anti-Mubarak protesters take part in a demonstration Tuesday in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt.

Thousands of Egyptian anti-Mubarak protesters take part in a demonstration Tuesday in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt. Photo by The Associated Press.

CAIRO (AP) — A young leader of Egypt’s anti-government protesters, newly released from detention, joined a massive crowd in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for the first time Tuesday and was greeted with cheers, whistling and thunderous applause when he declared: “We will not abandon our demand and that is the departure of the regime.”

Many in the crowd said they were inspired by Wael Ghonim, the 30-year-old Google Inc. marketing manager who was a key organizer of the online campaign that sparked the first protest on Jan. 25 to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Straight from his release from 12 days of detention, Ghonim gave an emotionally charged television interview Monday night where he sobbed over those who have been killed in two weeks of clashes and insisted, “We love Egypt ... and we have rights.”

Ghonim arrived in the square when it was packed shoulder-to-shoulder, a crowd comparable in size to the biggest demonstration so far that drew a quarter-million people. He spoke softly and briefly to the huge crowd from a stage and began by offering his condolences to the families of those killed.

“I’m not a hero but those who were martyred are the heroes,” he said and then broke into a chant of “Mubarak, leave, leave.” When he finished, the crowd erupted in cheering, whistling and deafening applause.

Ghonim has emerged as a rallying point for protesters, who reject a group of traditional Egyptian opposition groups that have met with the government amid the most sweeping concessions the regime has made in its three decades in power. Vice President Omar Suleiman on Tuesday made a new gesture, declaring a panel of judges and scholars to recommend constitutional changes within a month.

The mostly youthful protesters insist that no concessions will do unless Mubarak steps down. But the protests, which began when Ghonim and other activists used the Internet to mobilize people to the streets, have lacked a representative voice. That has raised worries the regime could try to fragment the movement or traditional parties try to hijack it.

In his first television interview Monday night on Egypt’s private Dream satellite station, Ghonim said the protests turned from “the revolution of the Internet youth ... to the revolution of all Egypt.”

He struck a modest and emotional tone, even saying he gained respect for some of those who interrogated him in detention, but was passionate in declaring Egyptians wanted their rights. 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 20 hours that followed, about 130,000 people joined a Facebook page titled, “I delegate Wael Ghonim to speak in the name of Egypt’s revolutionaries.”

Tuesday’s huge turnout in Tahrir 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 Mubarak. Even government employees joined the crowd, including about 5,000 university professors and teachers who were blocked days ago by security forces.

A group of over 1,000 protesters broke away from the square and marched on Parliament, several blocks away, chanting, “Illegitimate, illegitimate,” and demanding it be dissolved. Several hundred of them prepared to stay through the night, beating drums and lying on the pavement in front of the building — a first, small expansion of the protest out of Tahrir in days.

Some in the massive crowd said they were turning out for the first time, moved by Ghonim’s interview or the photos of those killed in police crackdowns on the protests, which have been little seen on TV in Egypt.

Meanwhile, Mubarak’s regime offered more concessions to the protesters in hopes of appeasing them while keeping as firm a grip on power as it possibly can.

Vice President Suleiman, who is managing the crisis, announced the creation of committees to propose long-sought constitutional amendments and monitor the implementation of all proposed reforms. The amendments will include presidential term limits and relaxing eligibility rules for who can run. The two committees will start working immediately, he said.

The committee will be led by the head of Egypt’s highest appellate court and composed of six senior judges and four constitutional experts, according to a statement issued later by the official news agency MENA. It will make its recommendations to Suleiman by the end of this month.

Suleiman said that Mubarak welcomed “this national dialogue, emphasizing that it puts our feet on the right path out of this ongoing crisis” and underlining the need for a “clear roadmap with a specific timetable that will take Egypt to the root of an orderly and peaceful transfer of power with respect for the constitutional legitimacy.”

Mubarak has refused the protesters’ central demand that he step down, insisting on serving out his term until elections in September.

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