Bilal can only speak in a whisper. At first he was just hoarse, then his voice turned into a croak and now he can barely speak at all. But that doesn't stop him from mouthing the chant of the demonstrators: "The people want the end of the system," over and over again. "The people want the end of the system."
And with each passing day Bilal spends on the street, the goal seems to come a little closer.
Bilal has been on the streets of Cairo for much of the last six days, even spending several days on Liberation Square wrapped in a wollen blanket in the glow of a camp fire. Demonstrators conquered the square in the city center last Friday after a battle with police -- and they haven't budged from it since.
It has become the beating heart of a revolution bent on toppling the seemingly eternal president, Hosni Mubarak.
'We'll Block the Regime'
And Bilal has become a passionate participant in that revolution. His family thinks he is at work, but Bilal's boss doesn't mind that his employee has taken to the streets almost fulltime. Bilal, after all, a 23-year-old native of Cairo, is a veteran of the Egyptian protest movement against Mubarak's regime.
In April 2008, the police arrested activists who had called for a general strike. A few days later, the prime minister at the time, Ahmed Nazif, held a speech at Bilal's university. Bilal embarrassed him by publicly calling on him to release the prisoners. Soon, Bilal became a regular guest on political talkshows in Egypt -- but he paid a price for his insubordination. His university only allowed him to graduate with a significant delay.
Bilal is close to several opposition parties and movements but has so far avoided committing to any one of them. He has his own Facebook page in which he joined the call for the latest demonstrations -- until the government switched off the Internet. The regime can block Facebook and Twitter, says Bilal. "But we'll block the regime."
The country has been brought to a standstill for almost a week. More than 100 people have died, most of them as a result of police violence, the army is out on the streets and the opposition is grasping for power -- only President Mubarak isn't budging. Rumors abound every night that he has already fled, that he will order the army to fire on demonstrators, that the army is preparing a coup.
Bilal, for his part, is sure the regime is about to fall and he has continued to do his best to mobilize people to protest. With the Internet unplugged, he has resorted to face-to-face encouragement.
Internet Helped Mobilize Demonstrators
The role Facebook and other social networking sites played in triggering the revolt should not be underestimated. There is a Facebook page in memory of the blogger Khalid Said, who was killed by police and it has hundreds of thousands of supporters. When the call for the first mass protest on January 25 was put on the page, 70,000 of them said they would take part. That was important, says Bilal. Unlike in April 2008, protestors could be pretty sure that they wouldn't be alone. Only numbers could offer a measure of protection from police brutality. At least 30,000 people turned up.
"Now we're in a different phase," says Bilal. "People are turning up without being called on, everyone knows we'll continue until Mubarak falls."
Liberation Square has turned into a hive of protest. A woman of about 35, veiled in a red robe is sitting on a wall and ruffles her son's hair as he lies in her lap and rests. Some activists are clearing away rubbish from last night. "We are civilized," they say. A man with a bandage on his face wants to tell his story. Another tells how people were killed when police opened fire with live rounds in front of the Interior Ministry. Here and there in the square, small groups form, agree on a battle cry and then march around chanting. As evening approaches, the crowd grows and by sunset there are tens of thousands here, just like on previous nights.
Bilal waves and greets people. He has made many new friends in the last few days. There are knots of protesters who have thrown their support behind Mohammed ElBaradei, Mubarak's challenger. Elsewhere are followers of the April 6 opposition movement. Bilal laughs. "It's a bit like Facebook -- but analog."
The Facebook generation is central to the uprising, but the movement is being fed by many other streams -- one of them originated a few kilometers away from Liberation Square, in the fifth floor of an old, slightly run-down office building, in the wood-panelled office of an intellectual and opposition leader Abd al-Rahman Yusuf.
Yusuf, 40, is a handsome man. He's wearing a smart black pullover and is sucking yellow throat lozenges. He too is hoarse. He has a massive desk with an imitation crocodile leather top.
Yusuf's business card says he is a poet, and YouTube has videos showing him reading his work. He doesn't mince words when it comes to Mubarak. Until December he was a kind of spokesman of ElBaradei's movement, now he's an ordinary, if high-profile, member. He spoke on Liberation Square before ElBaradei arrived from Vienna last Thursday.
Yusuf is part of a slightly different strand of the revolutionary movement than Bilal, one could call him a representative of the civil society. It is heterogeneous but a little more organized than the Facebookers, it includes political parties and trade unions. Yusuf's spectrum is less spontaneous, a little older, less Internet-based. That isn't to say that Yusuf doesn't use the Internet. He too mainly works online. His emails reach tens of thousands of people. His latest email started: "To the Egyptian people, I call on you to take part in the demonstrations. The hour of truth has come." But now he too is offline, like the whole country.
The hour of truth -- Yusuf too believes that the revolution is close to reaching its goal. "Mubarak," he says, "has days left, weeks at the most."
ElBaradei Emerges as Central Figure
Yusuf says he is driven by his belief that the people must determine the fate of the country, that they can't be pushed aside, like Mubarak is doing. "Power without control brings out the worst in people," he says.
A friend brings in herbal tea, Yusuf sips it. He knows very well that not every Egyptian is on the streets helping to topple Mubarak, and that the majority of the demonstrators are under 35. And he knows that not all protestors want the same thing. "But that is natural. There are right-wingers and left-wingers, what is important is that we have thrown off the shackles of fear and are making our rules ourselves."
On Sunday evening, ElBaradei made his first public bid for power. He said he wanted to form a government of national unity, with the Muslim Brothers, and after talks with the army. Yusuf stood next to him on Liberation Square. Shortly afterwards, the first "ElBaradei" chants could be heard. But not everyone found the Nobel Peace Prize-winner's speech inspiring.
Nevertheless, ElBaradei is now the central figure in the opposition and activists like Bilal wouldn't be opposed to him leading negotiations -- provided it doesn't lead to a feeble compromise. But it is completely open whether such talks will happen. Mubarak would have to leave voluntarily, or be forced out.
Activists Remaining Careful
The demonstrators are in high spirits. It is true that they have shaken off their fear. In effect, they have already enforced total freedom of assembly in Mubarak's dictatorship.
But the worry remains that the pendulum could swing back. Some activists want to stick to their clandestine organizations as a result. "We have a small office in Cairo," says one female activist. Only a few people know its location, she says. The office is used to keep in touch with activists in other Egyptian cities where the situation is tenser. They are organized in groups of six whose leaders maintain contact with other groups.
Now the entire opposition is calling for a new mass rally on Tuesday and hope to bring one million people onto the streets. Abd al-Rahman Yusuf, Bilal Diab and the unnamed activist will be there. And will be hoping that the power of the people will finally bring Mubarak down.