CAIRO — A young leader of Egypt's anti-government protesters, newly released from detention, joined a massive crowd in Cairo's Tahrir Square for the first time Tuesday and was greeted with cheers, whistling and thunderous applause when he declared: "We will not abandon our demand and that is the departure of the regime."
Many in the crowd said they were inspired by Wael Ghonim, the 30-year-old Google Inc. marketing manager who was a key organizer of the online campaign that sparked the first protest on Jan. 25 to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Straight from his release from 12 days of detention, Ghonim gave an emotionally charged television interview Monday night where he sobbed over those who have been killed in two weeks of clashes and insisted, "We love Egypt ... and we have rights."
Ghonim arrived in the square when it was packed shoulder-to-shoulder, a crowd comparable in size to the biggest demonstration so far that drew a quarter-million people. He spoke softly and briefly to the huge crowd from a stage and began by offering his condolences to the families of those killed.
"I'm not a hero but those who were martyred are the heroes," he said and then broke into a chant of "Mubarak, leave, leave." When he finished, the crowd erupted in cheering, whistling and deafening applause.
Ghonim has emerged as a rallying point for protesters, who reject a group of traditional Egyptian opposition groups that have met with the government amid the most sweeping concessions the regime has made in its three decades in power. Vice President Omar Suleiman on Tuesday made a new gesture, declaring a panel of judges and scholars to recommend constitutional changes within a month.
The mostly youthful protesters insist that no concessions will do unless Mubarak steps down. But the protests, which began when Ghonim and other activists used the Internet to mobilize people to the streets, have lacked a representative voice. That has raised worries the regime could try to fragment the movement or traditional parties try to hijack it.
In his first television interview Monday night on Egypt's private Dream satellite station, Ghonim said the protests turned from "the revolution of the Internet youth ... to the revolution of all Egypt."
He struck a modest and emotional tone, even saying he gained respect for some of those who interrogated him in detention, but was passionate in declaring Egyptians wanted their rights. 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 20 hours that followed, about 130,000 people joined a Facebook page titled, "I delegate Wael Ghonim to speak in the name of Egypt's revolutionaries."
Tuesday's huge turnout in Tahrir 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 Mubarak. Even government employees joined the crowd, including about 5,000 university professors and teachers who were blocked days ago by security forces.
A group of over 1,000 protesters broke away from the square and marched on Parliament, several blocks away, chanting, "Illegitimate, illegitimate," and demanding it be dissolved. Several hundred of them prepared to stay through the night, beating drums and lying on the pavement in front of the building — a first, small expansion of the protest out of Tahrir in days.
Some in the massive crowd said they were turning out for the first time, moved by Ghonim's interview or the photos of those killed in police crackdowns on the protests, which have been little seen on TV in Egypt.
"The (Wael) interview showed a face of the truth which the state media tried to cover up for so long," said a retired army general, Essam Salem. "Many people are coming because they saw the truth."
Fifi Shawqi, a 33-year-old upper-class housewife, said she came to the Tahrir protest for the first time, bringing her three daughters and her sister.
"I saw Wael yesterday (in the interview) and I cried. I felt like he is my son and all the youth here are my sons," she said. "I think Wael brought many, many more" to join.
Ghonim provided a relatable, passionate face for a movement that has been tarred in government media as fueled by foreigners. Some in the broader public have grumbled that the protesters were causing turmoil for nothing now that Mubarak has promised not to run again in September elections.
But the protest movement has resisted elevating a sole leader. In fact, many organizers contend its strength lies in its lack of leaders and in its nature as a mass, popular movement. With his release, Ghonim was added to a 10-member coalition of representatives from the various youth organizers to coordinate the protests and push through their demands, said Ziad al-Oleimi, another activist on the committee.
"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.
There were demonstrations calling for the president's ouster around the country as well with 18,000 people cramming into the main square of Egypt's second largest city in Alexandria.
Some 3,000 service workers for the Suez Canal also demonstrated in Suez city, while 8,000 people chanted anti Mubarak slogans in the southern city of Assiut.
Meanwhile, Mubarak's regime offered more concessions to the protesters in hopes of appeasing them while keeping as firm a grip on power as it possibly can.
Vice President Suleiman, who is managing the crisis, announced the creation of committees to propose long-sought constitutional amendments and monitor the implementation of all proposed reforms. The amendments will include presidential term limits and relaxing eligibility rules for who can run. The two committees will start working immediately, he said.
The committee will be led by the head of Egypt's highest appellate court and composed of six senior judges and four constitutional experts, according to a statement issued later by the official news agency MENA. It will make its recommendations to Suleiman by the end of this month.
Suleiman said that Mubarak welcomed "this national dialogue, emphasizing that it puts our feet on the right path out of this ongoing crisis" and underlining the need for a "clear roadmap with a specific timetable that will take Egypt to the root of an orderly and peaceful transfer of power with respect for the constitutional legitimacy."
Mubarak has refused the protesters' central demand that he step down, insisting on serving out his term until elections in September.
The Obama administration is not calling for Mubarak's immediate departure, saying a precipitous exit could set back the country's democratic transition. Under Egypt's constitution, Mubarak's resignation would trigger an election in 60 days. U.S. officials said that is not enough time to prepare.
Mubarak also promised there would be no reprisals against the protesters, 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."
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 latest government announcement 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 earlier 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.
"We call on the military, which we love and respect, to refrain from these malicious acts," said the statement.
The Brotherhood's criticism of the military is an ominous development.
The military is Egypt's most powerful and secretive organization, but it had never before been accused of practicing torture against civilians, a charge that has consistently been directed at the hated security agencies.
The military is also known to be an enemy of the Brotherhood and is opposed to giving it a prominent role in Egyptian politics. The military, which gave Egypt its four presidents since the toppling of the monarchy in 1952, is tightening its grip on power with the country's three top jobs now in their hands — Mubarak and his prime minister Ahmed Shafiq are former air force officers, while Suleiman is a retired army general and intelligence chief.
The army also has thousands of troops deployed across Cairo and other major cities, backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers.
The president tried to project business-as-usual Tuesday, receiving the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.Comment on this story
The protests also appear to have emboldened Egyptians elsewhere to seek to settle long-running local disputes.
More than 70 people were wounded Monday night when hundreds of angry residents tried to storm the main police station in the town of Khargah in southern Egypt to demand the ouster of a top police officer who has long had a reputation for heavy-handedness. Police opened fire on the protesters. A security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information, said 13 suffered from gunshot wounds and the rest from tear gas.