Dispatch

The Revolution Is Not Over

As the protests in Cairo enter their third week, the movement is picking up steam once again.

CAIRO — The revolution is not over.

Waving flags and chanting, "We're not leaving; he's the one who's leaving," huge crowds surged into Cairo's Tahrir Square on Tuesday, Feb. 8, calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and demanding fundamental political change.

It was clear that new faces, including a much larger proportion of women and children, had decided to venture into the square for the first time -- perhaps inspired by the gripping television interview of Wael Ghonim, the Google executive and activist who was released from prison on Monday after being detained for 12 days.

"Egyptians are very emotional people," said Dalia Ziada, a local civil rights activist. "After seeing Wael, now they believe it's about young people loving their country."

By early evening, a Facebook page set up to nominate Ghonim as the spokesman of the "Egyptian revolution" had garnered nearly 140,000 supporters. Meanwhile, a new "revolutionary committee" met to try to hash out a unified front and a set of consensus demands to rally around, according to two people briefed on the discussions.

In another sign that momentum may be swinging back toward the protesters' side, several hundred professors from Cairo University marched into the square, chanting, "Down with Mubarak." Earlier in the day, the university's law faculty issued a statement announcing its "complete support for the January 25 revolution" and calling on Mubarak to "comply with the will of the nation" and name qualified experts to devise a new, more democratic constitution.

Meanwhile, Mubarak appointed a commission of legal scholars to recommend changes to the existing constitution, though critics noted immediately that it was headed by a staunch supporter of the president.

"The debate on the constitution is already mature," said Hassan Nafaa, head of the political science department at Cairo University. "You don't need any time. Everybody knows exactly what has to be done." 

A few kilometers away from Tahrir, at Pottery Café, a high-end coffee shop overlooking the Nile in the wealthy island neighborhood of Zamalek, Gucci-wearing young people smoked shisha and spoke with new interest of a protest movement that, for many of them, had thus far been something to fear, rather than welcome.

Zeina, 23, a graduate of the American University in Cairo who works at her family's charity hospital in Aswan, in Upper Egypt, said she had been to the square once just to see it but still wasn't sure which side to support. "I'm worried we're going to be pressured to choose someone we don't want."

"Everyone here is in the middle," Zeina said, gesturing at the young crowd sitting at the café. "They are all on the fence."

Others disagreed. "I think Wael Ghonim spoke on behalf of everyone," said her friend Sara, 23, who hadn't been to any demonstrations but said she was "contributing to the revolution in other ways."

Maher, 30, who owns a sporting goods store in the upper-class Mohandiseen neighborhood and wore tinted sunglasses and a white sweater, said he hadn't gone to any protests yet; he had been protecting his home every night "with machine guns" and was afraid to leave. But after watching Ghonim on television -- and now that the police are beginning to return to the streets -- he and his friends plan to go to Tahrir Square later this week to show their support.

"Everyone" watched Ghonim's interview and empathized with him, said Maher's friend Ahmed, 29, laughing as he pointed to a well-coiffed Chihuahua sitting in a woman's lap several tables away. "Even the girl over there with the little dog."

"I had never heard of him before, but it really made us feel bad about what happened to Egypt," added Ahmed, an engineering-firm executive whose father is a communications engineer for the military.

At Tabasco, another coffee shop in Zamalek, Karim, a well-spoken 25-year-old activist, said that he and several friends were planning to hold an open forum at a local cultural center on Saturday to help young people begin to get accustomed to their new freedoms. "But we don't know really how to do this," he said. "Do you know how to organize a town-hall meeting?"

PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

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."