CAIRO // A young internet activist released from 12 days in detention emerged yesterday as the reluctant hero of Egyptian protesters still leaderless after two weeks of demonstrations.
The Dubai-based Google executive Wael Ghonim, 30, was greeted with cheers, whistling and thunderous applause when he told a massive crowd in Cairo's Tahrir Square: "We will not abandon our demand, and that is the departure of the regime."
As the protesters roared their approval, Mr Ghonim said: "I'm not a hero, you are the heroes, you're the ones who stayed on this square. You must insist that your demands are met. For our martyrs, we must insist."
Mr Ghonim was a key organiser of the online campaign that inspired the first protest on January 25 to demand the removal of the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. He disappeared in Cairo two days later.
In an emotional TV interview on Monday night, Mr Ghonim described how he had been stopped in the street and wrestled to the ground by four state security officers in plain clothes. He said he was blindfolded, taken to detention and questioned. Except for his captors, no one knew where he was, or if he was alive or dead.
"I was blindfolded for 12 days, I couldn't hear anything, I didn't know what was happening," he said.
"I'm not a hero, I slept for 12 days. The heroes, they're the ones who were in the street, who took part in the demonstrations, sacrificed their lives, were beaten, arrested and exposed to danger."
As the TV channel showed images of those killed during the 15 days of protests, Mr Ghonim wept and said: "I want to tell every mother, every father who lost a son, I'm sorry. It's not our fault, I swear, it's not our fault. It's the fault of everyone who was in power and held on to it."
Within minutes of the interview's conclusion more than 70,000 had joined new protest pages on social networking sites.
Internet broadcasts of the TV interview turned into a viral recruiting agent for the demonstrations. Tens of thousands more protesters joined the throng in Tahrir Square, and many said they were inspired by Mr Ghonim. By yesterday almost 130,000 people had signed up to a Facebook page calling on him to be their leader, and many of the young people flooding into Tahrir Square yesterday said the same.
"We want him as our leader," said Nasma Nafea, 19, an aspiring journalist who edits a magazine for teenagers in Egypt. "But I guess that's his choice, not ours."
So far, at least publicly, Mr Ghonim has denied himself a leading role in an opposition movement that has remained rudderless except for its uniform demand that Mr Mubarak step down immediately.
"There are no heroes. We are all heroes on the street," Mr Ghonim said during the TV interview. "And no one is on their horse and fighting with the sword."
In many ways, Mr Ghonim seems the antithesis of a system that has long governed Egypt with the help of a state-run media that many say is little more than a Mubarak propaganda machine. He works as the Middle East marketing manager for Google, perhaps the world's most influential purveyor of information.
For many young protesters, Mr Ghonim's struggle with Egypt's government is emblematic of the broader factors dividing Egyptians, such as education and literacy levels.
Many Egyptians seem to believe rumours about protesters and journalists covering the rallies. The rumours, some of them broadcast on state television, accuse demonstrators of receiving free food and money for taking part, and accuse foreign journalists of inciting the unrest.
Amr Saeed, a 30-year-old physician taking part in the demonstrations yesterday, blamed his country's deep socioeconomic divisions as much he does the state media for propagating the rumours swirling throughout the country.
"Think about it: so many Egyptians can't even read Arabic and don't have internet. So of course they are susceptible to the Egyptian media propaganda," he said.
"Even I was hesitant in coming here at first because of what the TV was saying about the foreigners."
Haya Higazi, a 30-year-old political researcher in Tahrir Square, believes that is why Egypt is in need of leaders such as Mr Ghonim: modern, democratic and, perhaps most important, honest.
"I don't think he really wants to be the hero of the revolution, but I believe the people love him," she said. "So many people thought this man was killed."
For some, such as the amorphous youth groups who have organised the protests on social networking sites, Mr Ghonim's modesty has stayed true to the demonstrations' ethos.
"He doesn't represent the true heart of Egypt," said Ahmed, 23, a mechanical engineering student at the University of Cairo.
Pointing to the protesters, he said: "This, here, is the true heart of Egypt. These are the people who will decide who leads our country."
Yet if the thousands who have gathered to demonstrate in Tahrir Square do not see Mr Ghonim as taking charge, they certainly regard him as a symbol of their cause.
Now, says Ismail Saif El Nasr, 44, a businessman protesting in the square, many Egyptians see in Mr Ghonim all the ordeals that provoked many in this nation of 84 million to revolt.
"I personally know many people who decided to come here after watching him on TV last night," he said amid the tens of thousand of protesters calling for Mr Mubarak to step down.
Whether that would make him a revolutionary leader, Mr El Nasr said he didn't know. But he had generated important public momentum for the demonstrations.
"What he has done has created a spirit of sincerity to this cause for many, many Egyptians," he said.
* With additional reporting by Cassie Biggs