CAIRO // More than 130,000 people have joined a Facebook group backing the Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim, 30, who has emerged as a rallying point of Egypt's revolt since he was released yesterday after 12 days in custody, to be their spokesman in negotiations with the Egyptian government, with one new person signing up to his Facebook page every second.
Mr Ghonim, who is Egyptian but lives in Dubai, told the American publication Newsweek that he had written the original Facebook page "We Are All Khaled Said", named in honour of a blogger beaten to death by police this summer, which became a rallying point for last week's demonstrations. It was run anonymously by Mr Ghonim, who referred to himself simply as "El Shaheeed", "the martyr" in Arabic.
His initial Facebook page started as a small campaign against police brutality but quickly grew into an attack on human rights abuses in Egypt, hosting a stream of news, photographs and video, downloadable flyers, and calls for all Egyptians to join the protests against President Hosni Mubarak's government.
Mr Ghonim also created the Web page for Mohammed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize winner who has returned to Egypt to become one of the main leaders of the opposition to Mr Mubarak.
After Mr Ghonim's disappearance two weeks ago, friends, family, and Google officials frantically tried to track him down, fearing for his safety.
"A lot of people died," Mr Ghonim told Newsweek. He was unhappy, he said, that he had become such a prominent face of the movement. "That was not my plan, and I hate it, but it was out of my hands," he said.
Mr Ghonim was detained by Egyptian authorities on the morning of January 28. Members of his family were allegedly bombarded with anonymous calls saying Mr Ghonim was being "taught a lesson."
Protesters have lacked a clear, representative voice and many worry the traditional parties are trying to hijack the uprising, which began when activists used the internet's social networks to mobilise the hundreds of thousands who first took to the streets.
The demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square have said they would not enter negotiations with the regime before Mr Mubarak's departure. Mr Mubarak insists that he intends to serve the remainder of his current, six-year term, which expires in September, and that he would die in Egypt, thus rejecting any suggestion that he should leave the country.
Protesters appear to have settled in for a long standoff, turning Tahrir Square into a makeshift village. Tens of thousands come every day, with some sleeping in tents made of blankets and plastic sheeting.
At mid-morning today, volunteers swept the dusty grounds, as several thousand milled in the plaza. Impromptu security details, including young girls in headscarves, screened visitors for weapons at the square's entrances. At a field hospital in a small mosque bordering the square, nurses sorted donated medicines. The mother of a young man wounded in the clashes stood near one of the entrances, silently holding up his bloodied shirt.
Graphic designer Walid Abdullah, 41, sporting a stubble and a black-and-white checkered scarf wrapped around his head, said he has been in the square from the start. Like many of the protesters, he said he will not leave until Mubarak steps down.
Mr Abdullah, a father of three who lives on $335 a month, said: "There's no such thing as a half-revolution."
The US-based Human Rights Watch has told the Associated Press 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.
President Mubarak set up a committee today to recommend constitutional amendments to relax presidential eligibility rules and impose term limits, seeking to meet popular demands as a standoff with protesters seeking his ouster enters its third week.
Mr Mubarak's decrees were announced on state television by vice-president Omar Suleiman, who also said that Mr Mubarak will set up a separate committee to monitor the implementation of all proposed reforms. The two committees will start working immediately, he said.
The government has promised several concessions since the uprising began on January 25 but has refused the protesters' main demand that Mr Mubarak step down immediately instead of staying on until the planned pelection in September. Today's decision was the first concrete step taken by Mr Mubarak to implement promised reforms.
Mr Mubarak's efforts to stay in office received a boost from the Obama administration in the US, which conceded that it will not endorse calls for the president's immediate departure, saying a precipitous exit could set back the country's democratic transition.
After several days of mixed messages about whether it wants to see Mr Mubarak stay or go, Washington stepped up calls for a faster, more inclusive national dialogue on reform in Egypt. Under Egypt's constitution, Mr Mubarak's resignation would trigger an election in 60 days. US officials said that is not enough time to prepare.
State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said: "A question that that would pose is whether Egypt today is prepared to have a competitive, open election. Given the recent past, where, quite honestly, elections were less than free and fair there's a lot of work that has to be done to get to a point where you can have free and fair elections."
"I think that would be a challenging undertaking," he said.
Mr 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, Mr 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."
The committee considering constitutional and legislative changes 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 Mr Suleiman by the end of this month.
The latest government announcement came two days after Mr 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 Brotherhood issued a statement earlier today 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 said.
The president went on with official business Tuesday, receiving the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed.
*with Associated Press