Wael Ghonim's book “Revolution 2.0”: chronicle of a personal and political odyssey in the social media era
an Arabic version of this article appeared in Al-Hayat 25 February 2012:
وائل غنيم في كتابه «الثورة 2.0»: مسلم ملتزم متفائل بالأكثرية التي ستحكم مصر
One year on from the January 25 2011 revolution in Egypt, Wael Ghonim – the 31-year-old Google executive who became in the eyes of people worldwide the “face of the Egyptian revolution” – has been touring the UK and USA to promote his book “Revolution 2.0”. The book’s subtitle is: “The Power of the People is greater than the People in Power“.
The book is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the USA and by Fourth Estate (an imprint of Harper Collins) in the UK. Ghonim is currently on leave from Google to launch a non-governmental organisation supporting education and technology in Egypt. The proceeds from his book are going to this organisation.
Ghonim’s book and tour have generated much interest and enthusiasm. Ghonim received extensive media coverage, and was warmly received by packed-out audiences at his many public appearances and booksignings in London and in cities across the US. He came across as an engaging, thoughtful personality, humorous and highly intelligent.
Over the past year Ghonim’s role in helping to spark the revolution has brought him international praise and recognition. Time magazine put him in first place on its 2011 list of the world’s 100 most influential people. Arabian Business ranked him 2nd on its list of the world’s 500 most influential Arabs in the world.
The international awards made to Ghonim include the JFK Profile in Courage Award, presented to him last May by Caroline Kennedy daughter of the late president John F Kennedy. He received it in the name of the people of Egypt.
But throughout his tour Ghonim was modest about his role in a “leaderless” revolution. He writes in his book:”I utterly refuse to be labelled as a hero or take credit for igniting the revolution. I was no more than a guy with some marketing experience who started a Facebook page that snowballed into something greater than any of its thousands of contributors.”
Ghonim first leapt to worldwide fame after he was kidnapped by State Security agents in Cairo on the night of 27 Jan 2011 and disappeared for 11 days. In captivity he was kept permanently blindfolded and was interrogated by State Security officers who, he recounts in his book, accused him among other things of being a CIA agent.
Google issued advertisements saying Ghonim, its head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa, had gone missing and asking for information on his whereabouts. A cry rang out around the world – Where is Wael Ghonim?
During Ghonim’s detention it was revealed that he was the hitherto anonymous founder and administrator of the highly influential Facebook page “Kullena Khaled Said” [ie “We Are All Khaled Said”]. Ghonim set up the page in June 2010 after seeing a gruesome photograph on the internet of the injured face of Khaled Said who had been beaten to death in Alexandria by two security agents.
Ghonim wept when he saw the photograph. “For me Khalid Said’s image offered a terrible symbol of Egypt’s condition. I could not stand by passively in the face of such grave injustice. I decided to employ all my skills and experience to demand justice for Khaled Said and to help expose his story to vigorous public debate.”
Ghonim had done a Masters in Business Administration at the American University in Cairo. This course was crucial for him: “Learning the science behind marketing was key to my career progress, and later on was vital to my online activism.”
He used his marketing skills to develop the “Kullena Khaled Said” page and to mobilise people to protest. On its first day 36,000 people joined the page, and to help him cope with the volume of activity he asked his trusted friend AbdelRahman Mansour to be the second administrator. Ghonim wrote his postings on the site in the first person “I”, but used only the name “administrator” rather than his own name. The tone of his postings was consistently non-violent. Among the novel ways of demonstrating pioneered by “Kullena Khaled Said” was the series of Silent Stands in which people were asked to dress in black, bring copies of the Quran or Bible, and stand in city streets silence in a human chain.
Ghonim announced on “Kullena Khaled Said” that there should be an event on January 25 2011 to mark National Police Day. On January 14 Ben Ali departed Tunisia and “I started to believe that we could be the second Arab nation to rid itself of its dictator”. For the first time Ghonim used the word “Revolution” on the page, declaring “January 25: Revolution against Torture, Poverty, Corruption and Unemployment.”
He started rallying people by appealing to organised groups such as the “ultras” soccer fans and by working with other activists such as those from the April 6 Movement. He was living and working for Google in Dubai, but flew back to Egypt on January 24 to take part in the January 25 demonstrations.
On his release from captivity on February 7 2010 Ghonim made a memorable and emotional appearance on the popular satellite channel Dream TV. He insisted to the interviewer Mona al-Shazly that he did not want to be treated as a hero. “I was only one member of the revolutionary masses who had fulfilled his duty toward his country.”
When Ghonim was shown during the TV interview pictures of those who had been killed in the demonstrations while he was in detention he broke down in tears. He said he wanted to tell every father and mother who had lost a child he was sorry. “But this is not our fault: it’s the fault of everyone who clung on to power and would not let go” he said. He said he wanted to leave, and he ran out of the studio.
Mehdi HasanIn a discussion with senior political editor of the New Statesman magazine Mehdi Hasan in the Mosaic Rooms in London, Ghonim said there were three reasons for writing the book. The first was his wish to inspire people to realise that “they can achieve things bigger than they could imagine through gathering and organising people, talking about matters, and delivering messages and spreading awareness.”
The second reason was to give an account of the Egyptian revolution from his angle and personal experience. “We are blessed that this revolution is leaderless. A lot of people were involved in different angles of it.” Ghonim thinks it is “important for all of us, not just me, who experienced the 18 days of revolution to write about it, and to tell the story from his angle, so we can put these bits and pieces together for a complete picture of the Egyptian revolution.”
His third reason for writing the book was “to tell the West we are not terrorists”.
As for the title of the book, “Revolution 2.0”, Ghonim explained that during the January 25 revolution it had struck him that the revolution was like the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, in that “people contribute together on doing something amazing and you simply don’t know most of the contributors. Everyone is contributing anonymously. When you go to Wikipedia you don’t see who wrote what but you do trust the content of it and the outcome.”
Unlike revolutions in which there has been a charismatic leader, “there was no Gandhi in the revolution or Martin Luther King that was inspiring the masses and directing them”. There was instead what he refers to as the “Wisdom of the Crowd”. This was to Ghonim a second version of revolution, ie Revolution 2.0.
Ghonim was born in Cairo and grew up in Egypt and in Saudi Arabia. His father went to work Saudi Arabia to escape the horrendous economic conditions in Egypt – but like many other Egyptians he lost his life savings through Islamic private investment companies which promised huge returns and he stayed much longer in Saudi Arabia than originally planned.
In his book Ghonim writes of how when he was at high school the death of a female cousin in a car crash led him to explore his faith. He started to start to pray five times a day, and often at the mosque. “At the university I mixed with people from many religious groups and ideologies including the Muslim Brotherhood, and I joined many of their activities at the school. But I always made my own sense out of things.”
In 1998 Ghonim founded the IslamWay.com [tariq al-Islam.com] website to help Muslims worldwide network with one another. It became one of the most popular Islamic destinations on the Internet.
“Surprisingly, IslamWay led me to my future wife,” he writes. Despite his young age he wanted to get married, but he had been rejected by the Egyptian girls to whom he had proposed. “Stubborn and independent-minded as ever, however, I was determined to solve my problems my own way.”
He decided that he needed to marry a non-Egyptian who would convert to Islam. And because he admired the openness of American culture he wanted an American Muslim convert. “I figured that anyone who changed her faith after a period of contemplation must be someone special.”
He started corresponding online via IslamWay with an American Muslim convert but she refused his suggestion that she travel from California where she lived to visit him in Cairo. Their correspondence faded out. But when he travelled to the USA in June 2001 to donate the IslamWay website to a US-based Muslim charity a friend introduced him to a woman who was looking for a Muslim husband – and it turned out to be Ilka, the girl from California. They married within weeks. He did not tell his parents in advance, and they were at first not happy about the marriage. It took his mother in particular some time to accept her new daughter-in-law.
Ghonim had planned to stay in the US to finish his degree because he was so impressed with American higher education but he changed his mind after the 9/11 terror attacks when life in the US became difficult for him and his headscarf-wearing wife. They moved to Egypt in December 2001, and are now parents of a daughter and son.
Ghonim says he was not one of the typical Egyptian political activists, but his book chronicles his growing anger over the way the Egyptian political system was going. After the rigged parliamentary and presidential elections of 2005 “we all knew it was a sham. The question was, would we put up with it?”
He writes “we all craved an alternative. We needed a saviour.” For a time Ghonim thought that the saviour was Mohammed ElBaradei. When ElBaradei returned to Egypt in February 2010 he helped him with his Facebook page and with circulating ElBaradei’s petition with its “Seven Demands for Change”. But eventually he recognised “ElBaradei had it right all along: we did not need a saviour; we had to do it ourselves.”
During Ghonim’s book tour interviewers and audiences were struck by his optimism, despite the continuing turmoil and bloodshed in Egypt. “I believe pessimism is not an option,” he said. “I personally believe that patience is very critical and being optimistic is very critical because you cannot really change things if you think that we’re doomed”.
He said: “Personally I am very optimistic, I think we have achieved things in the past 12 months that if someone had told me two years ago that this is going to happen I would have said that guy was crazy”. The revolution is a still unfinished process, with many challenges ahead. The most critical issue now is “electing a president as soon as possible”.
Some of those who talked to Ghonim during his appearances on his tour expressed concern that the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis had performed so well in the recent parliamentary elections. But Ghonim refused to share their concern. In the elections 27 million Egyptians voted, and 10 million of them thought the Muslim Brotherhood the right people to govern, he said.
When Mehdi Hasan asked him whether being in government would moderate these parties Ghonim replied: “I wouldn’t say moderate because I don’t want to give the impression that they are extremists. In Egypt one out of almost every two people lives on under $2 a day. Those people are not going to sit down and listen to intellectual debates about what should happen and who’s doing this and who’s doing that.”
He added: “One of the best quotes by a spokesperson for the Salafis came when he was asked ‘would you guys ban alcohol in Egypt if you get a majority?’ I love his answer - he said over 50% of Egyptians drink polluted water, and you are asking about alcohol...”
Ghonim added: “I remember one of the Muslim Brotherhood statements is that we are there to help people with economy and so on, not to teach them religion, and I think this will be the spirit. They deserve to have the right to govern the country; democracy brought them to power. They were elected based on their reputation. If in 5 years they are re-elected, this will be based on their performance.”