The young Google Inc. executive detained by Egyptian authorities for 12 days said on Monday he was behind the Facebook page that helped spark what he called "the revolution of the youth of the Internet." A US-based human rights group said nearly 300 people have died in two weeks of clashes.
Wael Ghonim, a marketing manager for the Internet company, wept throughout an emotional television interview just hours after he was freed. He described how he spent his entire time in detention blindfolded while his worried parents didn't know where he was. He insisted he had not been tortured and said his interrogators treated him with respect.
"This is the revolution of the youth of the Internet and now the revolution of all Egyptians," he said, adding that he was taken aback when the security forces holding him branded him a traitor.
"Anyone with good intentions is the traitor because being evil is the norm," he said. "If I was a traitor, I would have stayed in my villa in the Emirates and made good money and said like others, 'Let this country go to hell.' But we are not traitors," added Ghonim, an Egyptian who oversees Google's marketing in the Middle East and Africa from Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates.
The protesters have already brought the most sweeping changes since President Hosni Mubarak took power 30 years ago, but they are keeping up the pressure in hopes of achieving their ultimate goal of ousting Mubarak.
Ghonim has become a hero of the demonstrators since he went missing on Jan. 27, two days after the protests began. He confirmed reports by protesters that he was the administrator of the Facebook page "We are all Khaled Said" that was one of the main tools for organizing the demonstration that started the movement on Jan. 25.
Khaled Said was a 28-year-old businessman who died in June at the hands of undercover police, setting off months of protests against the hated police. The police have also been blamed for enflaming violence by trying to suppress these anti-government demonstrations by force.
Ghonim's whereabouts were not known until Sunday, when a prominent Egyptian businessman confirmed he was under arrest and would soon be released.
Time and again during the two weeks of demonstrations, protesters have pointed proudly to the fact that they have no single leader, as if to say that it is everyone's uprising. Still, there seems at times to be a longing among the crowds at Cairo's Tahrir Square, the main demonstration site, for someone to rally around.
The unmasking of Ghonim as the previously unknown administrator of the Facebook page that started the protests could give the crowds someone to look to for inspiration to press on.
Whether Ghonim forcefully takes up that mantle remains to be seen, but he said repeatedly in Monday night's interview that he did not feel he was a hero. "I didn't want anyone to know that I am the administrator," he said. "There are no heroes; we are all heroes on the street. And no one is on their horse and fighting with the sword."
The show commemorated some of those killed in the protests and showed their pictures during the interview, sending Ghonim into sobs just before he got up and walked out of the studio.
"I want to tell every mother and father: I am sorry. I swear it is not our fault. It is the fault of everyone who held on tight to authority and didn't want to let go," he said before cutting short the interview.
Ghonim looked exhausted and said he had been unable to sleep for 48 hours, but not because he was being mistreated. He said he was snatched off the streets two days after the protests first erupted on Jan. 25. After he left a friend's house, four men surrounded him, pushed him to the ground and took him blindfolded to state security. He said he spent much of the following days blindfolded, with no news of the events on the street, being questioned.
In contrast, he said, in his release he was treated with respect. Just before he was freed, he said, he was brought before Interior Minister Mahmoud Wagdy - installed only days earlier in a government reshuffle - in his office. The minister "talked to me like an adult, not like someone of strength talking to someone weak" and then the new head of the National Democratic Party escorted him home.
"This is because of what the youth did in the street," he said in the interview on private station Dream 2 TV. He said his interrogators were convinced that foreigners were backing the movement, but Ghonim asserted it was just young Egyptians "who love this country." He also sought to debunk the government's accusations that the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak's most bitter rival, was involved in planning the protests.
He referred to his arrest as a "kidnapping" and a "crime" but also sounded conciliatory, saying "this is not a time for settling accounts or cutting up the pie; this is Egypt's time."
He did forcefully place blame for the country's ills on Mubarak's National Democratic Party and said the good among them should abandon it and start something new to earn the people's respect.
"I don't want to see the logo of the NDP anywhere in the country," he said. "This party is what destroyed this country. The cadre in this party are filthy." U.S.-based Human Rights Watch told The Associated Press on Monday that two weeks of clashes have claimed at least 297 lives, by far the highest and most detailed toll released so far. It was based on visits to seven hospitals in three cities and the group said it was likely to rise.
While there was no exact breakdown of how many of the dead were police or protesters, "clearly, a significant number of these deaths are a result of the use of excessive and unlawful use of force by the police," said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.
Egypt's Health Ministry has not given a comprehensive death toll, though a ministry official said he is trying to compile one. Protesters have clashed with police who fired live rounds, tear gas and rubber bullets. They also fought pitched street battles for two days with gangs of pro-Mubarak supporters who attacked their main demonstration site in Cairo's central Tahrir Square. The violence has spread to other parts of Egypt and the toll includes at least 65 deaths outside the capital, Cairo.
Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that she and other researchers visited five hospitals in Cairo, a field hospital in Tahrir Square and one hospital each in the cities of Alexandria and Suez.
The count is based on interviews with hospital doctors, visits to emergency rooms and morgue inspections, she said. Morayef said a majority of victims were killed by live fire but that some of the deaths were caused by tear gas canisters and rubber bullets fired at close range.
"We personally witnessed riot police firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at the heads of protesters at close range, and that is a potentially lethal use of such riot-control agents," said Bouckaert.
In most cases, doctors declined to release names of the dead, Morayef said. The group counted 232 deaths in Cairo, including 217 who were killed through Jan. 30 and an additional 15 who were killed in clashes between government supporters and opponents in Tahrir Square last Wednesday and Thursday.