Protesters surge into Tahrir Square as Google executive energizes movement

By Craig Whitlock and Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 3:13 PM

CAIRO - Protesters thronged Cairo's Tahrir Square on Tuesday in one of Egypt's largest anti-government demonstrations to date as their movement was energized by a television interview given by a Google executive who for two weeks had been detained by Egyptian security officials.

Wael Ghonim, 30, has emerged as a rallying point for the protesters, particularly for those who reject the talks now underway between President Hosni Mubarak and some opposition groups. In an emotional interview on Monday, hours after his release, Ghonim described his detention and spoke of the promise of the protest movement and his hopes for the nation.

"I am not a hero," he said. "The real heroes are the ones on the ground, those I can't name."

Appearing briefly in Tahrir Square on Tuesday, he said, "We will not abandon our demand, and that is the departure of the regime."

Ghonim, a key organizer of an Internet campaign that led to the street protests beginning Jan. 25, was the star attraction at the rally. He spoke from a stage set up in the center of the square that has now become a tent city of protesters.

With no indication that Mubarak plans to leave before his presidential term ends in September, Egypt's would-be revolutionaries sought to break a stalemate with the government in their bid to topple the autocratic former air force commander who has held power for nearly 30 years.

Hundreds of thousands gathered in what witnesses estimated was the largest crowd in the downtown Tahrir Square since protests began two weeks ago. It was a sign that the anti-government movement was by no means fizzling.

Inside the square, photos of people killed in the demonstrations were displayed. A memorial of "martyrs' clothes" was set up at one entrance to the square. Rocks spelled out the words in English, "GO TO HELL MUBARAK."

Even as banks and restaurants reopened and many Egyptians returned to work, traffic around the square was gridlocked, with tens of thousands of protesters pouring in through army checkpoints. The demonstrators were heeding a call for a general strike, part of a bid to retake momentum in what has shaped up as a test of wills with Mubarak's strongman government.

At stake is Egypt's political future.

Mubarak's new vice president, Omar Suleiman announced the creation of two committees to oversee constitutional changes and other reforms, though he offered no details of who would be tapped to serve on the committees or how much authority they would have.

Suleiman also pledged that the government would not seek retribution against protesters.

"The youth of Egypt deserve national appreciation," Suleiman said in an address on state television, citing what he described as an edict from Mubarak. "They should not be detained, harassed or denied their freedom of expression."

But the government efforts to soothe the rebellion were mocked by the crowds in Tahrir Square, where memories were still fresh of a vicious crackdown by Mubarak's security forces last week that resulted in the roundup of an estimated 1,500 activists.

Ghonim, who has emerged as a key figure in the popular revolt, began his brief speech by offering his condolences to the families of people who have been killed in the protests.

"I am not a hero, but those who were martyred are the heroes," he said. He then broke into a chant of "Mubarak leave, leave," drawing loud cheers and applause from the crowd.

Ghonim, head of Google's marketing for the Middle East and North Africa, was arrested Jan. 27 and held blindfolded for 11 days before he was released Monday. Many Egyptian protesters have said they were inspired by him.

In the interview Monday night, he told Dream TV, an independent Egyptian network, that he was "not a symbol" but that "what happened to me is a crime." The interview, in which Ghonim wept over the deaths of protesters, spurred many people to head to Tahrir Square on Tuesday for the first time.

On Monday, responding to frustration with an inequitable economy that has left most of Egypt's 80 million people impoverished, Mubarak's government announced a 15 percent pay raise for public employees and pensioners, about 6 million people. It also pledged a judicial investigation into allegedly corrupt dealings by three former ministers and a senior ruling-party official.

Egypt's feared security police also released more of the estimated 1,500 activists seized during two weeks of protests in Cairo and other cities.

Hafez Abou Seada, director of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, said about 500 people who were arrested after the protests began Jan. 25 remain unaccounted for. "It is very illogical to call for dialogue with the youth opposition when the government is still detaining some of their members and leaders," he said.

Reports of arrests and clashes with security forces, meanwhile, appeared to ebb, and protesters said Mubarak seemed to be trying to split the opposition by compromising on all but their core demand - that he leave office.

The concessions are "an attempt to bribe us and to make people leave the square," said Wael Moawad, a 30-year-old information technology specialist who ignored a curfew Monday evening to join the crowd.

Organizers pledged larger-scale protests for Tuesday and Friday.

There was no extension of talks held Sunday between representatives from most of the opposition factions and Suleiman. Although the government is portraying the negotiations as a promising breakthrough that could lead to extensive constitutional reforms, others involved said the opposition was unlikely to accept the concessions.

"We have yet to hear a package that is agreeable," said Amr Hamzawy, one of a group of about 50 Egyptian "wise men" - intellectuals and business leaders - who have tried to mediate talks between the government and the mostly youthful demonstrators.

Hamzawy, the research director for the Carnegie Middle East Center, said his group would insist that Mubarak agree to dissolve parliament and restructure the ruling party, as well as lift the state of emergency he imposed upon taking power in 1981. Still, he said it was vital to keep talking.

"They have made a conscious attempt to divide us and separate the different groups," he said. "But this is not the end of the dialogue. The negotiations need to continue."

Many opposition groups have insisted that they will not call off the protests until Mubarak steps down. But they appeared to lose much of their leverage on that count Sunday by agreeing to hold talks anyway with Suleiman, Mubarak's longtime intelligence chief.

Mubarak has agreed to leave office when his current term ends in September. But he has resisted demands to quit immediately, saying that Egypt would plunge into chaos as a result.

The anti-Mubarak crowds have been notable for their diversity: poor people who can scarcely afford food; young, educated elites who demand freedom and democracy; religious fundamentalists repressed by the secular government.

On Monday, they were joined by a soccer hero, Nader as-Sayed, a former goalkeeper for the Egyptian national team. He grabbed a microphone to tell the crowd that their push for democracy was even more important than another cherished patriotic event, the 1973 war with Israel.

"With all respect to those who died in that war, they died for the liberation of land," he said. "The people here have died for the liberation of our people."

Another key figure calling for change is billionaire Naguib Sawiris, a telecommunications tycoon. Although his family has prospered under Mubarak's rule, he has become more vocal in pushing for democracy and has been an influential arbiter between the government and the protesters.

Major reforms are needed to "ensure that the young people of Egypt will find jobs and will not have to go back to the streets to request the minimum human right of a decent job," Sawiris told Bloomberg News in an interview Monday. "Investors should understand that a really democratic regime is the best insurance for their investment."

Sawiris, a member of Egypt's Coptic Christian Church, has acknowledged that his primary business, Orascom Telecom, has suffered financially as a result of the political unrest. The firm is a major international player in the cellphone industry, with networks in 11 countries.

Although Sawiris has visited protesters in Tahrir Square and sympathized with their cause, he has endorsed Mubarak's desire to remain in office until September. If the president is forced out sooner, Sawiris has warned, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood movement or Islamist radicals might fill the void.

"For the sake of the safety of the homeland, there is a need for a transitional period," he told al-Arabiya television.

It is a view echoed by the White House and Mubarak's allies in the region.

Staff writer Howard Schneider in Washington and special correspondents Sherine Bayoumi and Samuel Sockol in Cairo contributed to this report.

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