Google’s Ghonim Recalls Sparking Egyptian Mutiny via Facebook

The cover jacket of "Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People is Greater Than the People in Power" by Wael Ghonim. Source: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via Bloomberg

Last February, viewers of Egypt’s Dream TV network were stunned to see a young man weep in the middle of an interview and walk off the set. Fresh out of captivity, he was only just discovering the names and faces of those who had died in anti-government protests.

He was Wael Ghonim, Google Inc.’s head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa. Through nimble use of social media, Ghonim had helped unleash a wave of protests that, four days later, would end the three-decade presidency of Hosni Mubarak. In “Revolution 2.0,” his new memoir, the 31-year-old agitator recalls that Web-generated mutiny.

Ghonim has his critics, who say he dropped the cause. Yet his role in igniting revolt is beyond dispute. A joke about it even cropped up last year: Mubarak dies and runs into his predecessors -- Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated, and Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had heart failure. They ask him how he was killed. “Facebook,” says Mubarak.

Ghonim is a reluctant hero. Just as he refused to grandstand in thronged Tahrir Square, he resists megalomania in the book, despite his 340,000 Twitter followers.

The lachrymose television guest is far less prone to emote on the page. He writes in clipped sentences with an understated style that can border on the banal. “My skills and experience were enriched by Google,” he declares on page 26.

Dial-Up Internet

Ghonim was born into Egypt’s secular middle class. His physician father moved the family to Saudi Arabia, then stayed on as the rest of the family moved back. Wael got a job while at Cairo University -- to pay off his huge bills for dial-up Internet access.

In 1998, he founded a YouTube of sorts: IslamWay, a forum for sharing audiotaped religious content. Heading to the U.S. in 2001 to donate the site to a Muslim charity, he met and married an American convert, and moved back after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Seven years later, he joined Google in Cairo, then transferred to Dubai.

Distance did nothing to alleviate his anger at Egypt’s plight. In 2010, he set up a Facebook support page for Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, who had just returned to Egypt. ElBaradei taught him one thing: “We did not need a savior; we had to do this ourselves,” he writes.

Rage turned to outrage when on June 8, 2010, Ghonim saw a photo of the disfigured Khaled Said -- a young man who had been dragged out of an Alexandria Internet cafe and fatally beaten. Justice for Said became his primary cause.

Anonymous on Facebook

Ghonim set up a Facebook page called “Kullena Khaled Said” (“We Are All Khaled Said”) -- constantly changing Internet proxies to stay nameless -- and scheduled a peaceful protest in Alexandria where people in black held hands and faced the sea. The protest eventually snowballed into a Jan. 25 rally. By Feb. 11, Mubarak was gone.

Ghonim spent 12 of those heady days blindfolded in a cell, arrested on suspicion of espionage after dining with two American colleagues from Google. While in detention, he was unmasked as the Facebook webmaster -- and miraculously freed. The tide had turned, and he had helped turn it.

“Revolution 2.0” contains few personal anecdotes, besides his wife begging him to spend more time with the two kids. Ghonim seems more at ease in virtual reality -- “a real-life introvert yet an Internet extrovert,” he says. Climactic moments are evoked by reproducing his Facebook rallying cries, which, ex post facto, lack fizzle, and which all end with the tally of Facebook “likes” and “comments.”

Web pages and mouse clicks don’t add up to a rousing revolutionary narrative. Yet in the real world, Ghonim’s low-key style proved more effective than guerrilla warfare, and his book is a balanced account that gives credit where it’s due.

Today, Ghonim is on sabbatical from Google to set up an education-and-technology nonprofit. In Egypt’s political pecking order, he’s nowhere: The dominant powers are the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. Yet there’s no doubting that his tell-it-like-it-is memoir will be studied by historians for generations to come.

“Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power” is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the U.S. and Fourth Estate in the U.K. (308 pages, $26, 14.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Farah Nayeri is a writer for Muse, the arts & leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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