Khaled Said has not been among the thousands of youths camping out in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo defiantly calling for Hosni Mubarak, the president, to step down. But he has been a crucial spiritual presence in a fortnight of dramatic events that has sent shockwaves across the Arab world.
Murdered by police in June, Mr Said has become a symbol for the tens of thousands of protesters taking part in Egypt’s youth-driven uprising against the country’s autocratic regime. He is seen as one of the “martyrs” whose names the protesters invoke as they pledge to keep up their campaign to unseat Mr Mubarak and his regime.
Born out of the outpouring of popular outrage which followed his killing, a Facebook group, We Are All Khaled Said, became a magnet for disaffected youths to begin mobilising against the regime.
For the protest movement, Mr Said’s alter ego is now Wael Ghonim, a 30-year-old Google executive who moderated the Facebook group and who was released on Monday, having been “disappeared” by the security services for 12 days during which he was kept blindfolded.
After giving a tearful and emotional television interview, Mr Ghonim has become the latest icon of the protesters, seemingly invigorating the masses and striking a chord with many ordinary Egyptians touched by his sincerity and remorse at the deaths of demonstrators, but continued defiance against the regime. The Facebook page and other sites played vital roles in the lead-up to the mass demonstrations that began on January 25. It now has some 644,000 followers.
In the interview soon after his release, Mr Ghonim, a father of two normally based in the United Arab Emirates, said he could have emulated many other well-off Egyptians by immersing himself in his successful life and ignoring politics.
“We will win because we have no [secret] agenda, because we do not understand politics, its balancing acts, compromises and dirty tricks, because our tears come from our hearts and our dreams are legitimate,” said Mr Ghonim on Wednesday on the Facebook page.
Like many in his generation, his internet messages are written in colloquial Arabic in a simple and heartfelt tone, and he has intervened many times in debates on the internet to call for moderation and advise his supporters against vindictiveness.
“He was just a regular guy who had an idea,” said Ramy Shalaby, a protester. “It wasn’t new, but because of his faith people started following it.”
In a country where all political ideologies have failed, Mr Ghonim exemplifies a generation which is not politicised, but is motivated by what it sees as the rejection of injustice.
The stories of the two young Egyptians highlight the role of the internet and the middle class in the uprising, as well as abuses by the regime’s feared security apparatus. Many young ordinary Egyptians have found it easy to identify with their tales, which are separate but intertwined.
Mr Said was from an average middle-class family, educated and with no history of involvement in politics. Two plainclothes men dragged him out of an internet café in the port city of Alexandria and brutally beat him in front of passers-by. His head was banged against a marble staircase and his dead body was left on the street. It was said at the time that he planned to post footage of police corruption on the internet.
The message that resonated after his death was that if such an attack could happen to him, it could happen to anybody.
“Khaled Said represented the majority of the Egyptian youth, middle class, university educated looking for a job, a lot of people could identify with him,” said Wael Abbas, a blogger and activist.
“We have been living under military rule for 50 years and people were oppressed. But Khaled Said made them realise that they are never far away from the brutality of the regime.”
Hafez Abu Saada, a human rights activist, contends that the Egyptian view of Mr Said is that he is “like our son” while Mr Ghonim is emerging as a leader of the youth groups.
He said that when Mr Ghonim made a speech to the huge crowds in Tahrir Square on Tuesday it resonated because he “used very simple language but it had a very deep meaning.”
“Wael makes them stronger and confident that they can reach their goals,” Mr Abu Saada said. “He came back (from detention) very strong and certain to achieve his goals and did not apologise for what he did.”
Additional reporting by Michael Peel