by Daphne Benoit
CAIRO, EGYPT - Like a rock star, Ali Elfi faces adoring crowds, a microphone in hand as he belts out lines. But his lyrics are anti-regime chants and his stage is Cairo's protest central: Tahrir Square.
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Elfi is dressed like a rocker, in jeans and a leather jacket, but his role is more like that of an orchestra conductor, controlling the mood of the crowd, riling them up and leading call-and-response chants against the government.
Arms raised, he shouts "Dictator out!" and "We won't go, he will go," taunting Egypt's embattled President Hosni Mubarak.
Demonstrators have taken to the streets for 16 days running to call for the overthrow of Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for 30 years.
As the crowd shouts their reply to his chants, Elfi holds out the microphone to them, amplifying their response through speakers set up in a makeshift soundsystem at one end of the iconic square.
He feigns not being able to hear them, cupping his hand to his ear as though their deafening cries were barely audible, prompting them to scream louder and louder, vigorously waving their flags, posters and banners.
In the absence of a charismatic leader, the diverse crowd in Tahrir is relying on a cast of masters of ceremony to animate protesters day after day, including those who have camped out in the square for nearly two weeks.
Elfi, who at 39 says he has had "only nine years on earth without Mubarak," takes his role as top protest agitator very seriously, neglecting no method to rouse the hundreds of thousands gathered in Tahrir.
With the rhythmic cadence of a preacher and the airpunches favoured by rappers and popstars, he keeps the crowd's attention, even taking suggested protest chants scribbled on bits of paper from protesters gathered below.
It's not a job for the faint of heart, requiring long hours, no compensation and a journey back home after the start of the daily curfew imposed in the wake of the unprecedented demonstrations.
"I've talked every day since the beginning. I will be here until midnight. And tomorrow too," Elfi said.
He would like to stay overnight, camping with others in the square, but instead he heads home each evening. "My wife is pregnant," he explains, smiling and miming a curved belly.
A political science researcher by profession, Elfi is a poet in his spare time, and he is determined to stay put, helping motivate the protesters, until Mubarak steps down.
"Until he goes I will be there," he says. "I am talking here on stage because we need to put an end to 30 years of corruption."
Mubarak has offered some concessions to demonstrators.
He appointed the first vice president of his three-decade rule, promising to step down after September elections and pledging to seek amendments to much-criticised articles of the constitution.
But the protesters have insisted he resign immediately, and Elfi said he is confident Mubarak's last day in office is near, describing himself as "200% sure he will leave in a few days."
He is also convinced the protest movement that has shaken Egypt is far from losing steam, and is in fact growing stronger.
"I just saw friends and members of my family in the crowd in front of me. They live in the province of Beheira, I didn't know they were here!" he says excitedly.
Suddenly, two little girls climb onto the stage, both of them in tears. One whispers into Elfi's ear, prompting him to scribble something down before taking to the microphone.
"Little Nesrine is here," he shouts, hoping to alert her parents to the whereabouts of their missing daughters.
"The revolution watches over its children," he says proudly. --AFP