Wael Ghonim: A reluctant revolutionary

Wael GhonimThis article appeared in Gulf News' 4Men Magazine, and can be found here

His courage and online activism inspired an uprising in Egypt. But former Dubai resident Wael Ghonim continues to shy away from media attention. 

Ordinary people are capable of the extraordinary. Not that Wael Ghonim was ever strictly ordinary. He had worked towards a master's degree in marketing from the American University in Cairo, and found employment at Google in late 2008. Just over a year later, he became Google's head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa, which involved a Dubai posting. He moved, complete with his family, to a villa in one of the city's newer suburban communities. In January 2011, he managed to convince Google to send him back to Egypt, citing ‘personal problems'.

For all intents and purposes, Ghonim never embraced his role as a revolutionary. He was pushed into it, by dint of conscience, and the fact that he realised the potential of digital media to broadcast, disseminate, and unify.

Records show Ghonim had used several aliases - including Admin 1 and El Shaheed of the "We are all Khalid Said Facebook page". This, incidentally, was the page that catapulted Ghonim from conscientious objector to a genuinely influential force.

The page had more than 340,000 fans, and close to 50,000 responded to the first tentative call for a demonstration. The revolution was not just tweeted, but was initiated through social media. That is how Ghonim wanted it. While social media might not substitute for sneakers on the street, it at the very least offered a way to collaborate, gather, and overcome the psychological barriers of standing up to the "Pharaoh", Hosni Mubarak.

Ghonim had been using his technological nous to stand against Mubarak's regime in various guises for a while. For instance, he had been managing opposition leader Mohammad Al Baradei's Facebook page. But it was the Khaled Said episode that made him sit up and take notice.

Said, a young Cairo-based businessman, had witnessed policemen stealing drugs from a stash they had seized. He recorded that on his cellphone, and passed the video around. Days later, the police showed up to offer retribution. They beat Said to death in broad daylight, in public. Photos of his shattered face and caved-in skull went viral. Resentment bubbled, anger brewed, and Ghonim's ‘We are all Khaled Said' page offered vent to it.

At this juncture, very few select confidantes were aware that Ghonim was the administrator behind the page. When he decided to join the Tahrir Square protests on January 25, he did so in a personal capacity. He tweeted on the morning of the day, "I made [sic] my final decision. I'll attend #Jan25 Protest."

Tweets thereafter show a man drawn into the magnitude of unfolding events. They are a mix of exhortations for people to show up and protest, and first-hand accounts of police brutality against protesters. "We got brutally beaten up by police people #Jan25," reads one. "We are now marching in the streets in downtown in hundreds after being beaten up by police and breaking siege," says another.

January 25 was an eventful day that will surely retain prominence in history for a while to come. But Wael Ghonim (that's his Twitter profile pic above left) was still just one of hundreds, of thousands. On January 27, he went to sleep "dreaming of freedom", a dream that was still weeks away.

A last, ominous tweet was sent on January 28, saying "Praying for #Egypt. Very worried because it seems government is planning a war crime tomorrow against people. Pray for us. We are all ready to die. #Jan25" And then Ghonim disappeared.

Speculation was rife as to his location, and whether he had been arrested by pro-Mubarak forces. He had, and his incarceration lasted 12 days. While he endured psychological distress, he was one of the lucky few who didn't suffer physical brutality. During this time, rumours started surfacing that he was Al Shaheed of the "We are all Khaled Said" Facebook page: instigator, narrator, collator and administrator. His profile grew, as did the clamour for him to be found and released from custody.

On February 7, he was released as the government caved under a confluence of local and international pressures. By then, his identity as ideological youth leader was under no doubt. A series of correspondences shows Ghonim unwilling to accept the burden of any sort of leadership role. In the true vein of a Web 2.0 technologist, he insisted the revolution was crowd-sourced, and had no leadership. "I am not a hero, I slept for 12 days [in confinement]," he said in a live interview on the Dream 2, one of Egypt's most watched TV channels.

"The heroes, they're the ones who were in the street, who took part in the demonstrations, sacrificed their lives…"

His interview came at a pivotal moment in the revolution. Mubarak and his ilk had withstood wave after wave of people power. Despondency was setting in amongst many that the revolution had reached its zenith, and would slowly dwindle in the face of Mubarak's obduracy. It was not to be.

Ghonim's tearful interview galvanised the nation. His honest, emotional responses convinced even fence sitters and spectators that Mubarak had to go. More and more people poured out onto the street. Enough was enough.

Yet Ghonim continued a strange reluctance to offer interviews to foreign media. He went on CNN, but said it was only to counter the viewpoint of a general who had been on earlier. He spoke to Newsweek, yet insisted that he was not a leader, because the revolution had none. The disdain for Western media and leaders was evident in his exclaiming they had stayed silent for 30 years: there was now no need for them to become involved.

Ghonim believed a revolution won by the people of Egypt required no hijacking, either by the acquiescent international community or political opportunists within the anti-Mubarak movement. Mubarak finally stepped down on February 11. For Ghonim, it was like welcoming back Egypt after 30 years of not knowing his own country.

Apart from offering an interview to CBS, he has maintained media silence. His avoidance of the media eye continues to the present. While still engaging in post-revolutionary Egypt, he keeps a low profile. When asked for a statement for this article, he politely demurred, saying current projects he's working on demand media silence.