Crowds swell as protest seeks a leader
Wael Ghonim stood on a tiny stage in a corner of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, a spindly figure in a sea of tens of thousands of anti-government protesters, his shouts of “Long live Egypt!” rippling out before evaporating in the noisy squall.
As the head of Google marketing operations in the Middle East, the gaunt 30-year-old seemed an unlikely figure to command special attention Tuesday, a day when the movement to topple President Hosni Mubarak drew one of its biggest crowds yet.
But his role in organizing online opposition to Mubarak, and his highly publicized release after 12 days in the custody of Egypt’s security services, had turned Ghonim, temporarily at least, into an icon of Egyptian resistance.
“We will not abandon our demand, and that is the departure of the regime,” Ghonim told the crowd.
The huge turnout showed that the anti-government protests retain enough oxygen to continue the fight. But it remains a disparate collection of forces that has not yet found a leader who fully personifies the struggle.
Be it former international nuclear regulatory chief Mohamed ElBaradei or the religious Muslim Brotherhood, no individual or group with a high public profile has come to be seen as the leader of the opposition.
For his part, Ghonim has become a symbol, however reluctant, for a generation of middle-class Egyptians seeking broader freedoms who are among those involved in the protests: computer geeks, market researchers, corporate executives and urban professionals.
The demonstrations he helped launch through a Facebook posting have yanked him from the anonymity of his keyboard to imprisonment by Egypt’s security apparatus and back to the square, speaking before tens of thousands.
On Tuesday, he served as the center of attention.
“Wael,” someone in a crowd of reporters blurted, “100,000 Egyptians on Facebook have asked you to be their spokesman. Will you do it?”
He shook his head, his eyes tearing. “I don’t know,” he said.
Ghonim seemed both elated and overwhelmed by the attention and by the upheaval the protests unleashed since he was locked away. But he seemed most moved by the deaths of about 300 demonstrators who human rights activists say have been killed since the demonstrations began late last month.
When he learned of the deaths after he was freed Monday, he abruptly ended an Egyptian television interview in tears, looking at pictures of the fallen.
Surrounded Tuesday by his family members and friends, Ghonim was rushed into a cramped travel agency behind the stage that has become a meeting place for political parties and organizers. He had begun the day huddled in his family’s home with friends and fellow activists. Then came a round of meetings at another location to talk about how they should proceed against Mubarak’s government
“People who are sitting here are dreamers; we are all dreamers,” Ghonim told a small group of reporters in the travel agency.
On Jan. 27, the third day of the protests, Ghonim was picked up by plainclothes security men on a street as he was making his way home. He said he was blindfolded and taken to the state security offices.
When he emerged Monday night, the protests he had advertised on a Facebook page more than two weeks before had turned into a popular uprising . The scenes at Tahrir Square of Egyptian flags and shouts for democracy were sparked by his anti-Mubarak page, called “We are all Khaled Said,” in memory of an Egyptian man beaten to death by police in June.
As he sat incommunicado, Ghonim told reporters, he remained convinced of the power of Egypt’s youths. During his captivity, his interrogators kept accusing him of being part of a plot by the Muslim Brotherhood, the long-outlawed Islamist opposition group.
But what authorities didn’t understand, he said, is that the current rebellion has been fueled by a technological revolution that has encouraged savvy young men to speak out.
“They could not believe the young guys were capable of doing this. They were telling me the Muslim Brotherhood was doing this and I told them this is a joke,” he said.
But for every word about his hopes for his country, the violence that ensued during his detention still jarred him.
"[Our] dream needs to come true especially after 300 people died,” he said, jabbing with his hand for emphasis. “These people deserve to be heroes today and if we stop right now we are all traitors.”
Reporters kept shouting questions.
He buried his face in his hand. For a second, his eyes watered and he frowned.
In the square, people seemed inspired by Ghonim.
“Wael is a symbol of Egypt’s youth. He is self-made financially independent but wants a better country,” said Dr. Yasser Hadari, a friend of Ghonim’s brother. Many at the square said they had come Tuesday because they had been moved by Ghonim’s television appearance.
The Internet has shaped Ghonim’s life. In his 20s, he designed websites for financial markets in the Middle East and an Islamic education website. He even met his American wife through an online chat site 10 years ago. He joined Google in Egypt in 2008 and moved a year ago to Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
One person who knows Ghonim through the tech world described him as probably the most “technologically advanced kid in Egypt.”
Ghonim’s cousin Mohammed, who grew up in the same apartment building, described his relative as a quiet person, with huge ambitions.
“He told us one year ago that the Internet will change the political face of Egypt, " Mohammed said.
Mohammed said with a laugh that the Jan. 25 protests were probably the first ones Ghonim ever attended and that even then his cousin had no idea of how far-reaching the consequences would be. Mohammed remembers the last post on Ghonim’s private Facebook page Jan. 25: “This is the time to leave the keyboards and go to the real battle.”
That night, Ghonim had gone home and seen his mother, Iman, a modest and conservative woman. She said her son, always shy, had been nervous at the time. He had not told her about his involvement in the day’s demonstration in Tahrir Square.
Iman remembered: “He kissed me and said Egypt was in danger and I want you to pray for us.”
Times staff writer Jessica Guynn in San Francisco contributed to this report.