Emotions of a Reluctant Hero Galvanize Protesters

Wednesday, 09 February 2011 08:20 By Kareem Fahim and Mona ElNaggar, The New York Times News Service | Report | name.

Emotions of a Reluctant Hero Galvanize Protesters
Thousands of Egyptian, anti-government protesters gather in Tahrir Square to demonstrate against the current regime in Cairo on February 8, 2011. (Photo: Ed Ou / The New York Times)

Cairo - The television host narrated the pictures of the dead protesters on the screen, young men with sweet smiles whom she compared to roses in a garden.

“They went out only for the sake of Egypt,” said the host, Mona el-Shazly. “They said what the previous generations couldn’t do, we can do.”

Her guest was the newly freed Google executive and activist Wael Ghonim. He is a tech-savvy organizer of the antigovernment protests, secretly detained by the authorities as demonstrations gathered force. But faced with the toll of the uprising, he was overwhelmed.

He got up from the table in the studio and walked off camera while Ms. Shazly took out her earpiece and followed him.

That episode on Monday night of “Ten P.M.,” broadcast on a popular independent Egyptian satellite channel, appeared to undercut two weeks of relentless state propaganda and inject new vigor into a protest movement that some supporters feared had begun to wane.

Mr. Ghonim, emotive and handsome, quickly became the movement’s reluctant icon, and Ms. Shazly, poised and defiant, its champion. When protesters converged on Tahrir Square on Tuesday — in numbers greater than at any other time during the two-week uprising — Mr. Ghonim and Ms. Shazly were the ones many came to cheer.

Ms. Shazly’s program had always been popular and a notch above many of her competitors’. She had a reputation for independence.

But in recent weeks, like her competitors, she faced pressure from the Egyptian authorities to underplay the magnitude of the protests, demands she alluded to in recent days on her program. While some of her competitors sat on the fence, Ms. Shazly ignored the demands and gave Mr. Ghonim a platform to talk about his detention by the security services while allowing him to react to the pictures of the men who had died.

Watching at home, Ibrahim el-Bahrawy, a college professor, was stunned.

“His emotions exploded,” Professor Bahrawy said. “I was very, very moved.”

On Tuesday, Professor Bahrawy quit his post in the ruling party and for the first time traveled to Tahrir Square to join in the protests.

For the protesters, the publicity was a relief. Some of them have spoken with regret about an early tactical mistake in their uprising: the failure to counter the influential role of state-run television, which depicted their movement as foreign and violent. The channel’s coverage of the protests — which often meant ignoring them — helped President Hosni Mubarak’s government regain its balance.

Realizing the importance of the media war, the protesters have fought back, attracting allies like Ms. Shazly and spreading their message on their own, from locations they try to keep secret. One is an apartment near Tahrir Square where a rotating cast of 20 or so antigovernment activists disseminate the news of their revolt on a Facebook page named after the square.

They include wealthy children of Egypt’s ruling class who have settled for a squat with mattresses on the floor, where they smoke cigarettes and trade stories of the revolution. It is a small but growing effort: sitting around laptops, they chronicle history for slightly more than a thousand fans on their Facebook page.

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They said the work was a crucial antidote to the negative press their cause had attracted. “I think people should see with their own eyes what’s happening in Tahrir,” said Hana el-Rakhawi, a 19-year-old high school student. Omar el-Shamy, a 21-year-old media student, added, “The Egyptian TV is just brainwashing everyone into believing what we are doing here is wrong, but I think that’s not working anymore.”

Nearby, in the square, other activists distributed a fake version of Al Ahram, the state-owned newspaper, which was a convincing enough to confuse several protesters. A front-page headline read, “Live in dignity under the shadow of the flag.” An article with a picture of a mummy said: “To the grandchildren of our grandchildren in Tahrir Square. You gave me back my spirit.”

The sounds of the square are broadcast on a pirate radio station that streams over the Internet. Two organizers with a notebook collect the phone numbers and e-mail addresses of the protesters. Facebook pages herald new turns in the conflict.

The latest turn came on Tuesday, hours after Ms. Shazly’s program, which has been on a channel called Dream TV since 2006. In a recent interview, Ms. Shazly said she landed at the network after a stint hosting a variety show on a Saudi-owned channel. By her own estimate, she is one of the highest paid hosts on Arabic satellite television.

She talked about the government pressure on journalists in Egypt. “They don’t understand that a presenter is not a spokesperson for the government or the regime,” she said. “I am not a spokesman. But you always have this problem.”

In the early days of the protests, some of Egypt’s best-known independent channels seemed unsure how to cover the story of a revolt against the government. “People were intimidated at the beginning,” said Hafez al-Mirazi, who hosts his own program on satellite television and is director of the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism Training and Research at the American University in Cairo. “They had sympathy and fear for the country. They didn’t realize there was something else happening. Then they started to regain their balance.”

At the end of Ms. Shazly’s interview with Mr. Ghonim, he gathered himself for a few seconds and tried to make the most of the platform she had given him. “I want to tell every mother and every father who lost a child, I am sorry, but this is not our mistake,” he said.

“I swear to God, it’s not our mistake. It’s the mistake of every one of those in power who doesn’t want to let go of it.”

Liam Stack and Ed Ou contributed reporting. 

This article "Emotions of a Reluctant Hero Galvanize Protesters" originally appeared at The New York Times.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 09 February 2011 09:11