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.
With protests invigorated, Vice President Omar Suleiman issued a sharply worded warning, saying of the protests in Tahrir, “We can’t bear this for a long time, and there must be an end to this crisis as soon as possible,” in a sign of growing impatience with 16 days of mass demonstrations.
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. 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.
Suleiman rejected any departure for Mubarak or “end to the regime. He told a gathering of newspaper editors that the regime prefers to deal with the crisis using dialogue, adding, “We don’t want to deal with Egyptian society with police tools.” He warned that the alternative to dialogue was “a coup” — a possible hint of an imposition of military rule. However, editors present at the meeting said he then explained he didn’t mean a military coup but that “a force that is unprepared for rule” could overturn state institutions.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke by phone with Suleiman, saying Washington wants Egypt to immediately rescind emergency laws that give broad powers to security forces — a key demand of the protesters.
Ghonim’s reappearance 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.
Ghonim is an Egyptian who oversees Google Inc.’s marketing in the Middle East and Africa from Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates. He vanished two days after the protests began on Jan. 25, snatched off the street by security forces and hustled to a secret location.
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 online with other activists, including the April 6 movement named after the date of 2008 labor protests and the campaign of Nobel Peace laureate and democracy advocate Mohamed ElBaradei.
Together they decided to hold a larger gathering on Jan. 25, announced on Ghonim’s page, to coincide with Police Day, a state holiday honoring security forces.