The view from the ground.

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.

A tea vendor sits among Egyptian anti government protestors lined up before a prayer on Tahrir Square, on February 7, 2011, on the 14th days of protests calling for an end to President Hosni Mubarak's regime. AFP PHOTO/MARCO LONGARI (Photo credit should read MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

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.”

Blake Hounshell is a former managing editor of Foreign Policy.

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