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Longtime activist welcomes thousands of Egyptians to his cause

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011; A08

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.

"We've seen many glimpses of what's happening today before, but this is like an accumulated explosion," he exclaimed, his handsome face creasing with a wide smile.

"On Friday, we fought street battles with the police when we walked here," he said, recalling how security forces fired teargas and shot at some protesters before retreating from the streets. "We took control at 6:35 p.m. I checked my watch."

He walked through the crowds Tuesday kissing and congratulating friends and strangers.

"So finally we lived the day, we will see it," a friend told him.

"Indeed, indeed," Hamalawy replied. "Today is like a wedding."

He snapped pictures of banners and protesters sharing water and food to sustain each other. On the first days of these demonstrations, he used Twitter to transmit minute-by-minute accounts of the growing popular movement.

"I would love to think I was a drip in this big ocean," he sighed as he walked through the unprecedented crowds. "We feel so close now, so close. Mubarak is stubborn, though, and he won't go in silence."

Army tanks surrounded the demonstrations as helicopters buzzed above. Many people trust the military as their protectors, but Hamalawy does not.

"The leadership is loyal to the Mubarak regime," he said. Mubarak will fight to stay, he added. "You can expect anything from him."

He asked a friend to take his picture.

"I need a picture of myself in the revolution," Hamalawy said. He is unmarried and has no children but says someday he will, and he will show them this day, this moment.

On Tuesday night, Hamalawy watched in fury as Mubarak addressed the nation, announcing that he would not seek re-election.

"It's too late to make these concessions," Hamalawy said. "He needs to step down, and not only to step down. His entire regime has to go."

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