CAIRO - A young Google executive who helped ignite Egypt's uprising energized a cheering crowd of hundreds of thousands Tuesday with his first appearance in their midst after being released from 12 days in secret detention. "We won't give up," he promised at one of the biggest protests yet in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
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Once a behind-the-scenes Internet activist, 30-year-old Wael Ghonim has emerged as an inspiring voice for a movement that has taken pride in being a leaderless "people's revolution." Now, the various activists behind it including Ghonim are working to coalesce into representatives to push their demands for President Hosni Mubarak's ouster.
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With protests invigorated, Vice President Omar Suleiman issued a sharply worded warning, saying of the protests in Tahrir, "We can't bear this for a long time, and there must be an end to this crisis as soon as possible," in a sign of growing impatience with 16 days of mass demonstrations.
Later Tuesday, Ghonim Tweeted to Egyptians in English that "failure is not an option."
For the first time, protesters made a foray to Parliament, several blocks away from their camp in the square. Several hundred marched to the legislature and chanted for it to be dissolved.
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In Tahrir, the massive, shoulder-to-shoulder crowd's ranks swelled with new blood, including thousands of university professors and lawyers who marched in together as organizers worked to draw in professional unions. The crowd rivaled the biggest demonstration so far, a week ago, that drew a quarter-million people.
Some said they were inspired to turn out by an emotional television interview Ghonim gave Monday night just after his release from detention. He sobbed over those who have been killed in two weeks of clashes and insisted, "We love Egypt ... and we have rights."
Some 137,000 people have signed a Facebook page (in Arabic) calling for Ghonim to be their leader.
"I cried," a 33-year-old upper-class housewife, Fifi Shawqi, said of the interview with Ghonim, who she'd never heard of before the TV appearance. She came to the Tahrir protest for the first time, bringing her three daughters and her sister. "I felt like he is my son and all the youth here are my sons."
Tuesday's huge turnout gave a resounding answer to the question of whether the protesters still have momentum even though two weeks of steadfast pressure have not achieved their goal of ousting 82-year-old Mubarak, Egypt's authoritarian leader for nearly three decades.
Suleiman rejected any departure for Mubarak or "end to the regime. He told a gathering of newspaper editors that the regime prefers to deal with the crisis using dialogue, adding, "We don't want to deal with Egyptian society with police tools." He warned that the alternative to dialogue was "a coup" a possible hint of an imposition of military rule. However, editors present at the meeting said he then explained he didn't mean a military coup but that "a force that is unprepared for rule" could overturn state institutions.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke by phone with Suleiman, saying Washington wants Egypt to immediately rescind emergency laws that give broad powers to security forces a key demand of the protesters.
Ghonim's reappearance gave a clearer picture of the stunning trajectory of the protests, which swelled from the online organizing of small Internet activist groups into the first and greatest mass challenge ever to Mubarak's rule.
Ghonim is an Egyptian who oversees Google Inc.'s marketing in the Middle East and Africa from Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates. He vanished two days after the protests began on Jan. 25, snatched off the street by security forces and hustled to a secret location.
Earlier this year, Ghonim anonymously launched a Facebook page commemorating Khaled Said, a 28-year-old businessman in Alexandria who was beaten to death by two policemen in June. The page became a rallying point for a campaign against police brutality, with hundreds of thousands joining. For many Egyptians, it was the first time to learn details of the extent of widespread torture in their own country.
Small-scale protests over Said's death took place for months.
The Khaled Said group worked online with other activists, including the April 6 movement named after the date of 2008 labor protests and the campaign of Nobel Peace laureate and democracy advocate Mohamed ElBaradei. Ghonim's page was "the information channel," said Ziad al-Oleimi, a pro-ElBaradei organizer.
Together they decided to hold a larger gathering on Jan. 25, announced on Ghonim's page, to coincide with Police Day a state holiday honoring security forces. By phone and Internet, they got out the word to supporters in Cairo and other cities, but didn't expect much.
"We really thought that on Jan. 25, we will be arrested in five minutes. I am not kidding," said al-Oleimi.
They were surprised to find thousands turning out at several locations in Cairo, many inspired by mass protests in Tunisia. On the fly, organizers made a change in plans, said al-Oleimi: All protesters were to march on Tahrir Square. There, they were met by security forces that unleashed a powerful crackdown, firing water cannons and rubber bullets in battles that lasted until the evening.
Even after Ghonim's arrest, his Facebook page was an organizing point. Activists weighed in with postings on strategies and tactics.
"When we say let's organize a protest, let's think, five people sit together and plan. Imagine now 50,000 heads are put together through the Internet. Lots of creativity and greatness," said Abdel-Galil el-Sharnoubi, website manager for the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which balked at joining the first protest but two days later threw its weight behind the movement.
Ghonim's page called a Jan. 28 protest labeled "the day of rage" which brought out greater numbers. Despite a new police crackdown that day, the movement had legs. Even when the government shut down the Internet for an unprecedented five days trying to snuff out the protests, organizers now could bring out mass numbers by telephone or word of mouth.
Throughout the days that followed, Ghonim had no idea what was happening in the streets. He was in detention, often blindfolded and questioned repeatedly, he said in a Monday night television interview.
The interview, on the privately owned satellite channel Dream TV, was for most Egyptians the first time they had seen or even heard of the goateed young man. It was not even widely known that Ghonim was the administrator for the Khaled Said Facebook page.
He struck a modest tone and even said he gained respect for some of those who interrogated him in detention. But he was passionate in declaring Egyptians wanted their rights and an end to humiliation.
He repeated over and over, "We are not traitors."
When the hostess of the show showed pictures of young men killed in the protests, Ghonim slumped in sobs, saying, "It is the fault of everyone who held on tight to authority and didn't want to let go," before cutting short the interview.
Over the next 20 hours, about 130,000 people joined a Facebook page titled, "I delegate Wael Ghonim to speak in the name of Egypt's revolutionaries."
Ghonim appeared to strike a chord among the broader public, where some have absorbed a state-fueled image of the protesters as disrupting life for no reason and being directed by foreign hands.
A retired army general, Essam Salem, said the interview "showed a face of the truth which the state media tried to cover up for so long. ... Many people are coming because they saw the truth."
On Tuesday afternoon, Ghonim arrived in Tahrir, greeted by cheers and hustled up to a stage. He spoke softly and briefly to the huge crowd, offering his condolences to the families of those killed.
"We are not giving up until our demands are met," he proclaimed before shaking his fist in the air, chanting, "Mubarak, leave, leave." The crowd erupted in cheering, whistling and deafening applause.
Despite the excitement Ghonim injected into an already feverish gathering, organizers and the crowds themselves refused the idea of a single leader for their movement. Many contend its strength lies in its lack of leaders and in its nature as a mass popular uprising perhaps wary in part of personal splits that have sabotaged past opposition movements.
Ghonim and three others were added to a now 10-member committee that represents the various activist groups to coordinate protest activities and push through the groups' demands, said al-Oleimi.
"No one can say they lead the revolution. There are leaders and units that organized inside the revolution, and they get their legitimacy from the demands of the revolution," he said. "We don't represent the people in the square. We represent the organized groups."
Some activists were seen collecting names and phone numbers of some in the crowds, talking of holding some sort of poll over who they support to represent them.
"Ghonim cannot be a leader by himself, unless he is elected by a committee elected and composed of different groups that represent all these people," said Shayma Ahmed, a 20-year-old student among the Tahrir crowds.
Ghonim as well appeared to be dismissing talk of himself as a leader.
"I'm not a hero. I was writing on a keyboard on the Internet and I wasn't exposing my life to danger," he said in the interview. "The heroes are the one who are in the street."
Wael Ghonim: I'm No Hero
The protesters say they will not begin negotiations with the government over future democratic reforms until Mubarak steps down. Vice President Suleiman has tried to draw them into talks, promising extensive but still unclear change. Many protesters fear he aims to fragment the movement with partial concessions and gestures.
Even after nightfall, thousands remained in Tahrir, with larger numbers camping out than previously, including significant numbers of women and children. Popular singers entertained them with concerts.
In its latest effort to defuse public anger and the protests, Mubarak's regime to relax presidential eligibility rules and impose term limits - seeking to meet longtime popular demands as the standoff with protesters enters its third week.
Mubarak's decrees were announced on state television by Vice President Omar Suleiman, who also said that Mubarak will set up a separate committee to monitor the implementation of all proposed reforms. The two committees will start working immediately, he said.
The government has promised several since the uprising began on Jan. 25 but has refused the protesters' main demand that Mubarak step down immediately instead of staying on through September elections. Tuesday's decision was the first concrete step taken by the longtime authoritarian ruler to implement promised reforms.
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Mubarak's efforts to stay in office got a boost from the Obama administration, which conceded that it will not endorse calls for the president's immediate departure, saying a precipitous exit could set back the country's democratic transition.
(At left, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak looks on during his meeting with the United Arab Emirates foreign minister, not pictured, at the presidential palace in Cairo Feb. 8, 2011.)
"A question that that would pose is whether Egypt today is prepared to have a competitive, open election," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "Given the recent past, where, quite honestly, elections were less than free and fair there's a lot of work that has to be done to get to a point where you can have free and fair elections."
"I think that would be a challenging undertaking," he said.
Mubarak also ordered a probe into last week's clashes between the protesters and government supporters as well as mass detentions of human rights activists and journalists. The committee will refer its findings to the attorney-general, Suleiman said.
"The youth of Egypt deserve national appreciation," he quoted the president as saying. "They should not be detained, harassed or denied their freedom of expression."
Tuesday's announcements came two days after Suleiman met for the first time with representatives of opposition groups, including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood - the country's largest and best organized opposition group - to debate a way out of the ongoing political crisis.
The fundamentalist Islamic group issued a statement before Suleiman's announcement Tuesday calling the reforms proposed so far as "partial" and insisting that Mubarak must go to ease what it called the anger felt by Egyptians who face widespread poverty and government repression.
The Brotherhood also accused pro-Mubarak thugs of detaining protesters, including Brotherhood supporters, and handing them over to the army's military police who torture them.
Protesters have lacked a clear, representative voice and many worry the traditional parties are trying to hijack the uprising, which began when activists used the Internet's social networks to mobilize the hundreds of thousands who first took to the streets.
The demonstrators have said they would not enter negotiations with the regime before Mubarak's departure. Mubarak insists that he intends to serve the remainder of his current, six-year term, which expires in September, and that he would die in Egypt, thus rejecting any suggestion that he should leave the country.
Protesters appear to have settled in for a long standoff, turning Tahrir Square into a makeshift village. Tens of thousands come every day, with some sleeping in tents made of blankets and plastic sheeting.
At mid-morning Tuesday, volunteers swept the dusty grounds, as several thousand milled in the plaza. Impromptu security details, including young girls in headscarves, screened visitors for weapons at the square's entrances. At a field hospital in a small mosque bordering the square, nurses sorted donated medicines. The mother of a young man wounded in the clashes stood near one of the entrances, silently holding up his bloodied shirt.
Graphic designer Walid Abdullah, 41, sporting a stubble and a black-and-white checkered scarf wrapped around his head, said he's been in the square from the start. Like many of the protesters, he said he will not leave until Mubarak steps down.
"There's no such thing as a half-revolution," said father of three Abdullah, who lives on $335 a month.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has told The Associated Press that two weeks of clashes have claimed at least 297 lives, by far the highest and most detailed toll released so far. It was based on visits to seven hospitals in three cities and the group said it was likely to rise.