Longtime activist welcomes thousands of Egyptians to his cause

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011

CAIRO - From the center of Tahrir Square, Hossam elHamalawy surveyed the sea of people around him.

He could feel it, he said. Victory was close.

"I've dreamed of this for a very long time, and it's finally happening," the well-known blogger and activist said. He stood completely still in the center of the hundreds of thousands of people who flooded into this downtown square from every direction. "No words can describe it."

For so many, this fight had started just eight days ago. But Hamalawy, 33, has been fighting against a feared ruler for 13 years.

Hamalawy, a socialist, began his political activism in the late 1990s. No one dared to speak out when the Egyptian regime was brutally cracking down on Islamists, arresting men with long beards and often torturing them in prison, Hamalawy said. Sometimes at small demonstrations, Hamalawy would chant against the iron-fisted rule of President Hosni Mubarak - and behind him people would scatter in fear.

"The people were not courageous enough," he said, dressed in a pinstripe blazer and jeans. "They were not confident enough to chant against the government, and they would never open their mouth against Mubarak."

But that didn't stop him. On Oct. 8, 2000, he was detained after pulling down a U.S. flag from the top of a building at the American University of Cairo, where he was a student.

It was a protest against what he calls the hypocritical policies of the United States, which has supported Mubarak despite his autocratic rule.

Hamalawy was stripped naked, his hands were tied behind his back, and he was beaten for days, he said. State security interrogated him and threatened him with rape. After four days, he was released.

The flag was not replaced.

"I'm still proud of that," he said.

In the past decade, Hamalawy has participated in demonstrations that sometimes drew thousands and sometimes hundreds. Mubarak was denounced and, in some cases, his picture was burned. All of those actions raised the ceiling and created the space to maneuver, he said.

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