A New Leader for Egypt's Protesters?

An emotional figurehead emerges after nearly two weeks in darkness, but the masses in Tahrir are moving further apart as the days progress.

CAIRO — Twelve days ago, Wael Ghonim posted a chilling message on his Twitter account. "Pray for #Egypt," he wrote. "Very worried as it seems that government is planning a war crime tomorrow against people. We are all ready to die."

And then he disappeared.

One day later, a huge, angry crowd -- choking on tear gas and braving fire hoses, rubber bullets, and live ammunition -- overwhelmed thousands of black-helmeted riot police and surged into Cairo's central Tahrir Square, setting the stage for a standoff between protesters and President Hosni Mubarak that is entering its third week.

Ghonim, a Dubai-based Google executive who hadn't been seen or heard from since Jan. 27, was freed on Monday, Feb. 7, after an international campaign for his release. "Freedom is a bless that deserves fighting for it," he tweeted shortly after 8 p.m., Cairo time.

Ghonim appeared Monday evening on Dream 2, a private channel owned by businessman Ahmed Bahgat, and gave a devastating, emotional interview that cut deeply into the image the Mubarak regime has been trying to paint of the protesters.

Looking deeply shaken, his eyes haunted and voice breaking, Ghonim insisted, "This was a revolution of the youth of all of Egypt. I'm not a hero."

Gaining strength throughout the interview, Ghonim said he wasn't tortured, but was kidnapped by four armed men, blindfolded, and questioned relentlessly about how the protesters pulled off the uprising (they "had no idea," he said). But later, when the host showed photographs of young Egyptians who have lost their lives over the last few weeks, Ghonim wept openly and then walked away, saying they died "because of those who cling to power."

Many people here had speculated that Ghonim was the administrator of the "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook page, set up to commemorate a 28-year-old youth who was brutally beaten to death on June 6, 2010, by police at an Internet cafe in Alexandria. It was the page's call for nationwide demonstrations across Egypt -- along with the spark provided by nearby Tunisia -- that lit the flame of revolution, activists say. What was so effective about the Jan. 25 protest was that "it was a clear call to action," said Nasser Weddady, civil rights outreach director for the American Islamic Congress in Boston. "Everybody wants to stop torture."

In the interview, Ghonim admitted for the first time that he was indeed one of the voices behind the page -- though he said repeatedly that it was others "on the ground" who made it all happen. "I have been away for 12 days."

Ironically, by kidnapping, detaining, and then releasing Ghonim -- instantly turning him into a nationwide celebrity -- the regime may have just created an undisputed leader for a movement that in recent days has struggled to find its footing, seemingly outfoxed by a government skilled in the dark arts of quashing and marginalizing dissent. Within minutes of his interview, his personal Facebook page had surged in popularity, and the tweets were coming so fast that #Ghonim briefly became a trending topic on Twitter.

Ghonim's reappearance comes at a critical time for the protesters. Now that the galvanizing moment has passed, it's not clear where their movement goes from here. It's one thing to build a coalition against police brutality, something Egyptians of all classes have suffered from for decades; it's quite another to rally people around more complex demands, such as constitutional reform or media oversight. And after a week of nonstop propaganda on state television against the protesters -- painted simultaneously as dangerous Islamists and Israeli agents -- it's not even clear that an overwhelming majority of Egyptians want Mubarak out immediately, as the folks in Tahrir insist.

For the protest movement, decentralization is at once the source of its power and its potential Achilles' heel.

The organization that administers the square itself, it's important to understand, is a completely separate entity from the various other Facebook groups, political parties, and other movements that often get (or take) credit for the uprising. Ahmed Naguib, 33, a member of the 1,000-plus strong Tahrir organizing committee, told me that few of the volunteers who man the barricades, seek to root out regime infiltrators, staff the increasingly well-stocked field hospitals and pharmacies, and bring in supplies are "political" types -- as is the case with the roughly 100-member steering committee that more or less makes key logistical decisions. Many if not most of these people didn't even know each other before last week -- and they aren't necessarily activists. The ad hoc organizers have resisted efforts by some groups to secure representational seating in the inner circle of the steering committee, Naguib told me.

It's true that some of the youth groups are in communication with the "Wise Men" -- the self-appointed council of elders that has offered itself up as a go-between with the regime -- but others complain that they have little visibility on those discussions and distrust an initiative that smacks of selling out those who gave their lives taking and defending the square. But the youth groups don't necessarily represent the unaffiliated masses in the square, either. Nobody I've spoken with, moreover, recognized the handful of "January 25 youth" who met briefly with Vice President Omar Suleiman on Saturday, nor the "Coalition of Angry Youth" who gave a news conference on Sunday, to give their view of the negotiations.

Meanwhile, splits are emerging even within groups. Over the weekend, when the Army began moving its tanks further into the square in a bid to push the protesters south of the Egyptian Museum, dozens of young members of the Muslim Brotherhood rushed to lie in front of the tracks -- over the objections of a senior Brotherhood official. At a news conference on Sunday, senior leaders of the Islamist movement stressed repeatedly that they had "no special agenda," a clear attempt to head off criticism of their decision to negotiate with the regime.

Inside Tahrir, different groups are gradually staking out separate geographic areas, with the Muslim Brotherhood dominating the megaphone at the southern end of the square, while the socialists have assembled an entire speaker system a few dozen yards west, and various smaller groups are sprinkled elsewhere.

"Everybody here is organizing," said political analyst Hisham Kassem, "but there's nobody to negotiate with. We have no control over the square, and they don't either."


Out of Country

A reporter's disturbing expulsion from Russia.

MOSCOW — Luke Harding touched down at Moscow's recently bombed Domodedovo airport this past Saturday, Feb. 5, at 4:10 p.m. The Guardian's Russia correspondent had been in London for the last two months, working on the paper's coverage of WikiLeaks and writing a quickie book about the subject (it came out at the end of January). When he got to passport control, the young woman in the booth did a double take when she scanned his passport; Harding knew something was wrong. In fact, things were about to spin very badly out of control.

The young customs officer called over her supervisor, who looked at the screen and also did a double take. "The Russian Federation is closed to you," Harding recalls the man saying as he punched a blue "annulled" stamp on his perfectly valid Russian visa. "Just because you have a Russian visa doesn't mean you can enter the country," the supervisor said.

Within minutes, Harding's passport was confiscated and he was locked in a deportation cell. Being a journalist, he counted everyone in there. "There were four Tajiks, a Kyrgyz guy, and a woman from the Congo," Harding told me on the phone from London. "She had been there for seven days and was half-asleep on a metal bench." In another half-hour, Harding was on a plane, bound for London on the first flight home, his passport returned to him with a slip of paper marking him as a deportee. His wife and two teenage kids remained stuck in Moscow.

I don't know Harding very well, but we are friends with the same people and spin in the same brotherly circle of Moscow foreign correspondents. It was well known that, of all of us, Harding had the tensest relationship with the Kremlin and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (the people who control our passage into the country).

"I'd say they had a tense relationship with me!" he is quick to counter. Since his arrival in Russia four years ago, he and his family have been harassed by what everyone assumed was the Federal Security Service (FSB). The Hardings would come home to find the windows of the children's bedrooms open, their toys rearranged. Alarm clocks went off at strange hours. But nothing is ever quite clear in Moscow. The harassment, an open secret among us hacks, was itself a slippery thing, nearly impossible to prove. It was the kind of subtle thing that could have been Harding's imagination -- which tends to run amok here for everyone -- or a very real threat from the security services. (Whatever it was, the British ambassador eventually had to get involved, and the pestering stopped as mysteriously as it had started.)

And then there was the fact that Harding had a reputation for playing with fire -- perhaps foolishly -- by going after the strictly taboo stories, like talking to the relatives of Dagestani terrorists or investigating Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's personal fortune. Even Harding will admit that that last one, which put the figure at $40 billion, was a gauntlet of sorts. "That was maybe the bravest -- and the stupidest -- story I did," he said. He quickly surfaced on the official radar as a renegade, a species not much liked in the Kremlin.

And this was all before he was all over the WikiLeaks Russia documents, in a way that most foreign correspondents in Moscow weren't. (Harding, in one instance, described the Russia portrayed in the documents as a "corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy.")

Harding's choice of tactics has been the subject of significant debate. Some have even cringed at his decision to make a public fuss about his expulsion. "It's not the right thing to do," said one veteran Moscow correspondent. "Once it's official, once it's public, they start playing tough guy and the decision becomes much harder to reverse."

It's a hard line to walk, this talk of rules and journalistic provocation. Ostensibly, there should be no such thing, but in Russia, unfortunately there is. And, even more unfortunately, any journalist -- especially our Russian colleagues -- working in today's Russia has to ask themselves whether this one story or the next will make you a martyr, and whether it's worth it. When I first arrived in Moscow, a year and a half ago, I balked at suggestions of what one could and couldn't write. I found it to be bizarre, galling even. It upbraided my grandiose journalistic values and my American sense of invincibility. Only Russian reporters, I figured, have to filter and fear; we serve only truth, and we do so fearlessly. And then I got my first (very veiled) threat from a Russian businessman I was doing a story on, and things suddenly snapped into perspective.

There are very different rules for Russian journalists. We foreigners are much more likely, as Harding's case shows, to get kicked out (highly unpleasant and stressful to anyone who has built a life here) rather than beaten or killed, but there are rules -- simultaneously strict and unpredictable -- for us, too. We too have learned, for better or worse, to tread carefully.

In 2005, after ABC aired an interview with Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basaev (Russia's Osama bin Laden at the time), the bureau chief had his visa revoked, and the bureau was effectively shuttered for two years. (He is still not allowed back in the country.) A similar thing happened to Thomas de Waal, a British journalist denied a visa in 2006, probably because of his coverage of violence in the Caucasus. And to Moldovan national Natalia Morar, denied a visa for her coverage despite her marriage to a Russian. And so on and so on.

Although we can never be exactly sure whom we offend with which article (it's not just Putin who calls the shots on this), the ultimate message is always the same: You are guests, you play by our rules, and you play at our pleasure.

Harding chose to fight the system and now sits in London, fielding phone calls two or three at a time from his Moscow colleagues who, awkwardly, are now reporting on his predicament, peppering their questions with words of empathy.

That said, Harding admits the expulsion was not exactly a surprise. In November, he was called into the Foreign Ministry and told his visa and accreditation were not being renewed. "They made it quite clear they didn't like me," he recalled. Then, a day before the visa expired, after his house had been packed and his children had said their goodbyes at school, the Foreign Ministry granted the Hardings a six-month visa to finish the school year. It was that visa with which Harding tried to re-enter the country.

The scariest thing about Harding's story is that it validates the fear we all have upon returning to Moscow after a trip out of the country. It's a fear, a cardiac boom-boom, that doesn't abate until you're through passport control and watching the baggage carousel do its soothing laps. Harding, it turns out, had this same fear, too. "I always had a habit of looking at the name tag of the passport control officer, thinking, is this going to be the time?" he told me. "And it was Lilia who did it. Lilia. It was a very nice name."