The Unwilling Revolutionary Egyptian Activist Wael Ghonim's Quest for Peace
One year ago, Egyptian Internet activist Wael Ghonim quickly became the face of the uprising. But he was never comfortable with the role and would still prefer to retreat into the crowd. The digital world is his comfort zone.
He has stuck his white headphones into his ears so that no one talks to him, he is looking at the ground so that no one recognizes him, and he is walking briskly so that no one stops him. But everyone in Egypt knows Wael Ghonim, and some call him the face of the revolution. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and Time counts him among the 100 most influential people in the world.
But Ghonim doesn't like all the attention. It makes him feel uncomfortable, and he believes that it is bad for him. He starts walking faster. It's only a few blocks from his parents' apartment in Cairo's Muhandisin neighborhood to the offices of a PR company he has hired to keep the press at bay.
It is the period surrounding the anniversary of the revolution that began on Jan. 25, 2011, the day Ghonim had spent so much time and effort working to achieve, a day that ultimately led to the revolution. There is a strange tension in the air over Cairo. On the one hand, the first freely elected parliamentmet for the first time in this last week of January. On the other hand, it is dominated by Islamists. On the one hand, the military council lifted Egypt's emergency laws, in place since 1981, to mark the anniversary of the revolution. On the other hand, there are angry demonstrations against the military government almost every day. Ghonim has a lot on his plate -- and then he has written a book, which has just been published.
It's called "Revolution 2.0." In it, Ghonim describes how he came to the revolution, how he guided the protests through the Internet, and how agents working for then President Hosni Mubarak's state security service tracked him down, jailed, isolated and interrogated him. By the time he was released, the country was no longer the same. And then Ghonim found out that he was partly responsible for it.
The book is interesting because it finally tells the story behind sayings like the "Internet revolution" and the "Facebook youth," which the West has used to explain the toppling of the regime in Egypt. Until it was published, no one but a few computer nerds truly understood the significance of people coordinating their plans on the Internet and then taking to the streets to protest.
Lack of an Icon
Besides, to this day the Arab revolutions lack an icon, a figure with whom we can identify its stories so that we can understand them better.
Stories without characters are not as compelling, which is one reason why people in the West have now somewhat lost their sense of connection to the Arab spring. There is no Danton, no Gandhi, no Dutschke, no Che Guevara, and not even someone like the former East German artist and activist Bärbel Bohley. The revolution has no face.
For the West, Ghonim was the most appealing candidate for the role of symbolic figure. He seemed modern, well-educated, morally upright and not overly radical -- living proof, in other words, that Western values could indeed bring down an Arab dictatorship.
But Ghonim doesn't want to be this face. In fact, he would prefer not to be Wael Ghonim at all, but rather "Admin1" or "AlShaheed," the Martyr, the screen name he used while masterminding the Facebook page that coordinated the protests. Until a year ago, the world puzzled over who could be behind the Facebook page, and not even his friends knew that it was Wael. Wael, the computer specialist who found politics boring? Who had married at 20 and founded companies, who had studied business at the American University, who had always been a go-getter and had now found his dream job at Google in Dubai? He, the one who spent his nights in front of a computer, was supposed to be coordinating the uprising?
But then there is the video of Ghonim's appearance on Egyptian television. It depicts the moment that changed everything and made the rest of the world aware of Ghonim. The clip, broadcast on Feb. 7, 2011, quickly circled the globe.
It was the day of Ghonim's release. The riots on and around Tahrir Square had escalated by then, people had been killed and the Mubarak regime was teetering. But none of this news had reached Ghonim in his prison cell. From the prison, the state security agents drove a blindfolded Ghonim via a circuitous route to the Interior Ministry, where the new interior minister congratulated him on his release. The dying regime was now hoping to gain Ghonim as an ally.
When he understood the situation, he decided that same evening to go on television. His friends told him he should drive to Tahrir Square first, assess the situation there and speak with other revolutionaries. After all, they added, he had disappeared into a black hole for 12 days and might have been brainwashed. But Ghonim wanted to show the country right away that the government had not broken him.
When the host of the program began the live interview by showing images of the dead on Tahrir Square, Ghonim broke down. He lowered his head and began to weep. But the host was unrelenting. As even more private images of the victims appeared on the screen, set to a dramatic musical score, she spoke about their lives and what they had done. Ghonim couldn't stop weeping. The station showed the two images on a split screen, with the victims on the left and the sobbing Ghonim on the right. He managed to say that he was sorry, and that he had not wanted people to be killed. Finally, he got up and walked out of the studio.
Shortly after the broadcast, a page called "I nominate Wael Ghonim to be the spokesman for the Egyptian protest movement" appeared on Facebook. It accumulated a quarter of a million followers within 48 hours. The Egyptians were clearly touched by this sincere young man in an Argyle sweater.
"I was supposed to become the spearhead of the revolution on that day," says Ghonim. "But I knew that it would harm the protest movement. There would be resentment and envy. And what had I done compared to those who had risked their lives in the streets and had been killed or wounded by Mubarak's henchmen?"
A meeting with Ghonim today, almost a year later, is an encounter with a harried man. He is carrying a shoulder bag, the white headphones, an iPhone 4S and a thin Apple Notebook, and he is wearing narrow glasses and, once again, an Argyle sweater. He was unreachable for weeks, even for his publisher. Is he hiding again?
"No. I just wanted to stay away from the media."
'Write that I Am a Geek'
He sits down right away and forces his face into a crooked smile. Can we get started, he asks? He doesn't really understand the purpose of an interview with the mainstream press. And he doesn't comprehend why his book is attracting attention. What he has to say can be found on the Internet, so why take the trouble to speak with people directly? He postponed a book tour his publisher had organized for the United States. He believes that he would not be forgiven for being on a PR tour of the United States on the anniversary of the revolution, and he is probably right. There is already a Twitter account called "GhonimWithBalls," whose authors poke fun at this well-behaved young man who suddenly emerged from the Internet at the height of the revolution, and then disappeared back into it.
Ghonim says: "In the virtual world, I'm relaxed and interested in communicating with people. In the real world, unfortunately the opposite is the case. You can go ahead and write that I'm a geek."
It makes sense that at a time in which Apple co-founder Steve Jobs inspires people more than the American president, in which former hacker Julian Assange is responsible for more truth than the Washington Post, and in which the leading thinkers are no longer philosophers but brain researchers and computer scientists, the leaders of revolutions work at Google.
Ghonim was the Middle East marketing director there. In Dubai, where the company stationed him before the revolution, his American wife, a daughter and a son are still waiting for him to return to them, that is, if this revolution ever comes to an end. Ghonim is only 31, but he has already founded multiple companies, including one of the leading financial websites in Arab world. He is a computer scientist, economist and marketing expert. He has taken a sabbatical from Google and now heads a group called Masrena, or "Our Egypt."
After spending a few hours with Ghonim, one quickly realizes why the job of revolutionary leader was entrusted to him. He is an intelligent specialist, as well as an optimist with an undisguised openness, like an algorithm with feelings. If he isn't pleased with the interview, he says so. If he feels the need to weep on television, he weeps. When he was interrogated, the agents asked him whether he was behind the leading protest site on the Internet. He reflected for a moment, put his faith in God and, against all reason, said: yes.
- Part 1: Egyptian Activist Wael Ghonim's Quest for Peace
- Part 2: A Digital Tsunami