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Ghonim and Suleiman: The Two Sides of Egypt

Wael Ghonim and Omar Suleiman
Egyptian cyberactivist and Google manager Wael Ghonim, left, and Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman. Getty Images

One man is an emotional 30-year-old protest leader and regional manager for the world's largest Internet company who has become the reluctant face of a revolutionary movement.

The other man is a reserved 74-year-old former longtime head of the feared Egyptian General Intelligence Services who was appointed as a dictator's first vice president in the midst of a national crisis.

Together, Wael Ghonim and Omar Suleiman have come to represent the two sides of the revolutionary unrest in Egypt. Each personify the struggle not just in their current statements and behavior, but also in their backgrounds and the manner in which were thrust from the shadows into the limelight as the protest movement took shape.

Suleiman could be described as not just a member of the establishment in Egypt - it's also probably fair to give him a good bit of credit for having helped prop up Mubarak's regime for nearly two decades. Often described as suave and collected, Suleiman has used his fluency in English and powerful position in the intelligence services to become an important go-between for Washington and Cairo.

After spending nearly two decades in the Army, Suleiman was appointed head of the intelligence services in 1993, and was instrumental in breaking up the Islamic uprising against the state in the 1990s. He is seen as a stabilizing force in the region by the U.S. and Israel. A recent WikiLeaks cable even revealed he was the Jewish state's preferred successor to Mubarak. He has also been accused of being instrumental in some secret CIA renditions against suspected Al-Qaeda agents.

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Mubarak appointed Suleiman as his first-ever vice president about four days after demonstrations began in earnest. For years, he had worked as a strong but silent force in Egypt's intelligence community. Since Suleiman's appointment, Mubarak has largely stayed silent, while Suleiman has negotiated on behalf of the government, as well as repeatedly taken to the airwaves to defend the regime and demand an end to protests.

Ghonim, by contrast, was born around the same time Mubarak took power. He was Google's head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa when he was secretly taken by police and held in detention just after protests began.

While no official reason for his 12-day detention was given, Ghonim has admitted to being the administrator of the Facebook page "We Are All Khaled Said," dedicated to the memory of a 28-year-old Egyptian man beaten to death by the police in Alexandria on June 6, 2010, which helped spark the protests. Leading up to the first day of demonstrations, Ghonim also repeatedly took to Twitter to help organize and energize protesters.

After his release, Ghonim said, "Please don't try to make a hero out of me for I am not one. The real heroes are the ones who went down in the streets." However, in that same interview, he also gave a teary, emotional plea in support of demonstrations, and many have credited him directly with giving them a new energy nation-wide.

"I want to tell every mother and every father who lost their sons: I am truly sorry. This was not our mistake. I swear to God it wasn't our fault. It's the fault of everyone who was clinging on to power and doesn't want to let go[,]" Ghonim said. "We are a people that deserves a lot better than what's happening to us."

As newly invigorated protests continue in Egypt, Suleiman's response as the voice of an entrenched regime has not been surprising. Essentially, he has said that enough is enough and it is time for the protesters to go home and negotiate changes through proper channels. Tuesday, however, his rhetoric turned threatening, some claim.

Suleiman said there will be "no ending of the regime" and no immediate departure for President Hosni Mubarak, according to the state news agency MENA, reporting on a meeting between the vice president and the heads of state-run and independent newspapers.

"We can't bear this for a long time," he said of the Tahrir protests. "There must be an end to this crisis as soon as possible." Suleiman added that the regime wants to resolve the crisis through dialogue, adding, "We don't want to deal with Egyptian society with police tools."

If dialogue is not successful, he said, the alternative is "that a coup happens, which would mean uncalculated and hasty steps, including lots of irrationalities." Some opposition figures have taken the comment to be a possible hint at imposing military law -- which would be a dramatic escalation.

Osama Saraya, the editor-in-chief of the pro-government newspaper Al-Ahram who attended the meeting, said Suleiman didn't only mean a military coup but a takeover by another powerful state apparatus or Islamist groups.

In spite of his repeated claims that this is a leaderless revolution, Ghonim's response to Suleiman's alleged threats have now firmly cast him as the voice of resistance.

"This is not the time to 'negotiate', this is the time to 'accept' and 'enforce' the demands of the Egyptian Youth movement," Wael Ghonim tweeted Wednesday.

Later speaking to an Egyptian newspaper Wednesday, Ghonim backed down a bit and stressed the need for opposition groups to unify their demands and speak with one voice to the Egyptian power structure, reports CBS News' Khaled Wassef.

"What's upsetting me now is that I feel that Egypt is in danger and we need to unify our 'Egyptianity.' Egypt in the past 30 years has been on a constant down curve. Now, we could either start moving the curve upwards, or we could crash it completely," Ghonim said. "This is what we should do now: Unify our demands first, and then sit down and talk with the political leaders."

While it is uncertain whether Ghonim will step up and become a legitimate political leader that can sit across the negotiating table from Suleiman and other establishment figures, it is clear that his voice is now speaking loudly for the masses trying to affect their nation's future.

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