Freed Google exec Wael Ghonim reenergizes Egyptian protesters

Wael Ghonim, an Internet activist who helped organize the Jan. 25 protests, was held in secret detention until yesterday. Protesters hold him up as a symbol of why the regime can't be trusted.

Ahmed Ali/AP
Egyptian Wael Ghonim, a Google Inc. marketing manager, talks at his home in Cairo on Feb.7. Ghonim who was detained for nearly two weeks over antigovernment protests was freed Monday.

Tens of thousands of Egyptian protesters packed into Tahrir Square today with renewed purpose after Wael Ghonim, a young Google executive who helped organize the Jan. 25 protest that started the uprising, created one of the most dramatic hours of television in Egyptian history.

Mr. Ghonim headed straight to Egypt’s Dream TV studio last night after being secretly detained for nearly two weeks, unaware of the full extent of the revolutionary forces he helped unleash. Watching a slide show of the youths who died at the hands of pro-government thugs while he was detained, one smiling young man after another, Ghonim broke down, wracked with sobs.

“I want to tell every mother and every father of the people who died, I am so sorry, I swear to God it’s not our mistake," he said. "It’s the mistake of the people who are in charge of the country and don’t want to leave their positions.” Unable to go on, he got up and left the set.

The interview with Mona Shazli, full of calls to patriotism, a rejection of political factionalism, and demands for democracy, struck the perfect political note and put steel back into a movement for democracy that was in danger in recent days of petering out due to government concessions and public protest fatigue.

“He inspired people,” says Ahmed Naguib, the head of the organizing committee for the democracy protests at Tahrir Square, gesturing to the vast, flag-waving crowd. “He’s a young man, he’s a professional, and he was taken and abused at a time we were promised our rights would be protected. He’s perfect evidence that the regime can’t be trusted.”

Two doctors from Mansoura, a city about 100 miles from Cairo, say the interview inspired them to join the protests.

“I’ve been following since it started, but after last night I realized I couldn’t stay away any more,” says Ahmed Osman, sitting on the small tarp that will be his bed tonight. “Our demands are simple, and they haven’t been met.”

Regime offers concessions

President Hosni Mubarak has promised to leave office in September. Yesterday, the government increased civil servant salaries and pensions by 15 percent, and today, new Vice President Omar Suleiman said committees to enact democratic reforms are being set up.

Those government efforts have convinced many Egyptians that change has been secured. But the committed core of protesters at Tahrir say the regime is simply playing for time, and that it may shed Mubarak but won’t give up on one-party rule or arbitrary detention and torture of opponents if they don’t keep the pressure on.

Today, a famous pop star and a leading TV host jumped on the Tahrir bandwagon. Hundreds of professors marched from Cairo University to make their voices heard, and civil servants from the Health and Justice ministries came in ranks to join the protest.

The sense was of a movement broadening its base, having once more struck a powerful chord with the Egyptian public.

Ghonim held in secret detention

The events appeared to have drowned out the message of Mr. Suleiman, who went on state television today to announced that by Mubarak’s decree, a committee has been created to examine constitutional changes that would set presidential term limits and allow for competitive presidential elections and a second committee created to ensure that their eventual recommendations are followed through on.

While Suleiman quoted Mubarak as saying “the youth of Egypt deserve national appreciation,” he struck a flat note with protesters when he cited Mubarak as urging “they should not be detained, harassed, or denied their freedom of expression."

Mr. Ghonim said he spent 12 days in detention, almost all of it blindfolded, though the state refused until yesterday to acknowledge that he was being held. His family and friends have combed city morgues and hospitals, worried he was a victim of the street thugs who have attacked protesters in recent days.

When they didn’t find him, they correctly guessed he was in secret detention, but were left with almost two weeks of worry over what was happening to him, well aware that torture is common in Egypt’s prisons and interrogation centers.

Wanted: Tangible change, not just promises of it

In recent days, a group of reform-minded politicians and businessmen, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Coptic Egyptian tycoon Naquib Sawiris, and secular Egyptian reformers, have put themselves forward as interlocutors with Suleiman, who is taking the public lead in addressing the government’s current crisis of legitimacy.

RELATED: Muslim Brotherhood's concessions prompt anger

The government appears to have hoped that the talks could end the protests. But the democracy activists at Tahrir insist they won’t withdraw until there is tangible change, rather than the promises of reform they’ve been hearing for most of their lives.

“Whoever wants to talk, let them talk,” says Mr. Naquib, a protest organizer. “We’re establishing a real Egyptian democracy right here and we’re not going to let it go.”

Naquib says their minimum demands at this point, beyond the removal of Mubarak, are for the government to dissolve parliament (95 percent controlled by the ruling National Democratic Party after tightly controlled elections in November), end the emergency law, and start making constitutional changes that would allow for democracy here.

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