The Unwilling Revolutionary Egyptian Activist Wael Ghonim's Quest for Peace
Part 2: A Digital Tsunami
His Facebook page, called "We are all Khaled Said," was dedicated to the young blogger who was beaten to death by corrupt policemen, because he had allegedly observed them carrying out a drug deal. Cases of police torture and abuse were common in Mubarak's Egypt, as human rights groups repeatedly pointed out. But the fact that this particular incident ultimately led to the president's downfall was a result of Ghonim's emotionalism. It began the way Ghonim's story ended: with tears. On June 8, 2010, his wife found him in his study in Dubai, staring at his computer with tears streaming down his face. He had discovered the pictures of the murdered blogger online and was weeping in sorrow for his country, where, as he says, policeman had turned into monsters.
"I wasn't a political person," he now says. "And I'm still not a political person." In fact, he is more of the young, sentimental patriotic type. For us in the West, it is a type that doesn't exist, making it difficult for to fully understand him. When Ghonim had stopped crying, he set up a Facebook page and tried to apply all the knowledge he had acquired over the years on how to disseminate information on the Internet.
Ghonim knew that the tone was important. He had to speak the language of all Egyptians and not just that of the activists, which was full of rage and hate. And his comments had to be written in the first person. His first post on the new site read: "Today they killed Khaled. If I don't act for his sake, tomorrow they will kill me."
Two minutes later, the page had 300 members. There were 3,000 after an hour and 36,000 by the evening, and soon that number had shot up to 100,000. Today the page has almost two million members. Some 1,800 people posted comments on the first day alone. Apparently ordinary Egyptians felt safe on the site. It seemed to be beyond the range of the government's repressive apparatus because it had apparently never heard of Facebook. (Today even the military council has its own Facebook page).
An Important Step
Ghonim remembers how the state security service had questioned him once before, a few years earlier. At the time, they were only interested in his religious views. They believed that religion posed the greatest threat. Ghonim was stunned. "If they had spent more time thinking about the Internet, instead of classifying Egyptians according to their faith, they might have been better prepared for the digital tsunami that was headed for them," he says.
What was to be done now with the hundreds of thousands of people who were waiting for his instructions? It was clear to Ghonim that it was time for him to take an important step, out of the safe Internet and into the dangerous streets. But he didn't want to be the leader, so he asked the members of his site to make suggestions and vote on them.
They agreed on something Ghonim called silent stands: chains of silent people, lined up along the coastal road in Alexandria, and later along the Nile River in Cairo. They were all dressed in black, and it almost seemed like a piece of performance art. The uncanny aspect of it all was that the people came out of nowhere, and yet they had merely come from the Internet. They trusted Ghonim, and it worked. But Ghonim became increasingly fearful. He disguised his IP address and used proxy servers around the world so that no one could track him. More and more members asked: "Who are you, Admin?" but he merely showed them a picture of a Guy Fawkes mask, which later became famous when the Occupy movement used it at the other end of the world.
Ghonim felt conflicted, realizing that more was needed, that it was time for a real demonstration. He chose Jan. 25, which was a holiday, National Police Day, in Egypt. On the Facebook page, he sarcastically called upon members to attend a "celebration of Egypt's National Police Day." But then the Tunisians ousted their president and Ghonim felt ridiculous with his semi-ironic call for a protest to commemorate National Police Day. On Jan. 14, he changed the name of his event. It was now called "January 25: Revolution Against Torture, Poverty, Corruption and Unemployment." There it was, the word revolution. Now Ghonim was calling for an overthrow, something he had not dared to do until then. His appeal reached a million people, and the revolution he had evoked actually began.
Retreating Back to the Internet
On its third day, Jan. 27, 2011, after Ghonim had destroyed his SIM card and gone into hiding in the office of a friend, state security agents attacked him on the street at night. They put him in a blindfold, and kept it on for the next 12 days. Ghonim still doesn't know how they found him, nor does he know where he spent those 12 days. He was told that he was no longer Wael Ghonim. He was now Number 41.
Today, in the week of the anniversary, Ghonim says that he is no longer afraid. In Cairo, protests are now taking place against his revolution on Abbasiya Square, the anti-Tahrir Square. A majority of Egyptians have lost interest in the revolution, perhaps partly because it no longer has a figure like Ghonim.
In the weeks leading up to the anniversary, the people who assembled in Tahrir Square were only hardcore activists, the wounded of the revolution, family members of those who died and vendors selling trinkets.
Almost every day, there was a small demonstration of perhaps 100 people, who shouted slogans against the military government. They set up tents on the square, in the dust and the mud and the garbage, and in the tents they hung up photos of the uprising that had taken place a year ago, a sort of archive of the revolution. One photo depicts an older Egyptian sitting on a blue container with the Facebook logo sprayed onto its side. But Ghonim rarely visited the square; it could be that he feared the activists' anger.
Last Wednesday, however, the day of the anniversary, Ghonim did join the protesters once again. He met with people from his Masrena organization on Mustafa Mahmoud Square in the neighborhood where he lives, Muhandisin. From there, they planned to join thousands of others as they marched to Tahrir Square. Ghonim had prepared signs that showed an artist's rendition of the faces of those killed in the revolution and he had attached a mask onto the back of his head that showed the face of Khaled Said, the young man whose story had marked the beginning of Ghonim's involvement in the movement. Throughout the march, Ghonim repeatedly fled from photographers trying to take his picture and people trying to talk to him.
And so, Ghonim found himself moving through the crowd, holding up a sign showing the face of someone else. No, it was never about him, he says. It isn't his movement, this movement that was always bigger than he is. That, at least, is the way he sees it. It is the movement of the people who were standing around him on that day, people he had merely helped, during those turbulent days a year ago, to find their voices.
By the time Ghonim and the other marchers arrived, there were already hundreds of thousands of people on Tahrir Square. It was so crowded that it was difficult to move. But it suited Ghonim well. His sign in one hand and his iPhone 4S in the other, he disappeared into the crowd. The next day, Ghonim retreated back into the Internet.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Egyptian Activist Wael Ghonim's Quest for Peace
- Part 2: A Digital Tsunami