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Revolution 2.0: How The Internet Changed Wael Ghonim's Life and Helped Spark Egypt's Uprising

In a new memoir, Ghonim describes how the Egyptian people finally rejected 30 years of oppression and found their voice. Here, he discusses with Terrence McNally.
 
 
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Wael Ghonim was a little-known 30-year-old Google manager, unwilling to publicly criticize the Egyptian regime, until he anonymously launched a Facebook campaign to protest the death of one particular Egyptian at the hands of security forces. In his memoir, Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People is Greater than the People in Power, he tells us, from his experience, why and how the Egyptian people finally rejected 30 years of oppression and found their voice. "People have called me a hero, but that is ridiculous – this has not been a revolution of heroic individuals, but about people coming together to overcome dictatorship…Social media allow ideas to be shared. They are places where people can unite, revolutions can begin. A new type of revolution – Revolution 2.0," he says.

Wael Ghonim was born in Cairo and grew up in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, earning a degree in computer engineering from Cairo University in 2004 and an MBA from the American University in Cairo in 2007. He joined Google in 2008, rising to become head of marketing for Google Middle East and North Africa. He is currently on sabbatical from Google to launch an NGO supporting education and technology in Egypt. 

Terrence McNally: Who were you before you created a Facebook page for Khalid Sayid?

Wael Ghonim: I was just an ordinary Egyptian who happened to work in a multinational company. I loved my country and cared about it, but was always intimidated by a fear of consequences for opposing the regime. Also I saw no alternative, no light at the end of the tunnel. I was more focused on my personal life and my career. At the same time, there were many great Egyptians on the front lines publicly opposing Mubarak, calling for strikes and protests, but they hadn’t captured a large or mainstream audience because of the fear. Everyone was scared.

McNally: You have written that “…the Internet has been instrumental in shaping my experiences as well as my character.” What do you mean by that?

Ghonim: I was 16 years old the first time I got on a computer at school. Like many people, I got addicted to using computers, and the computer was at that time my best friend. I logged on to the Internet when I was 17 and fell in love with the virtual world. I love communicating with people from different countries and backgrounds, with people whom I don’t know and where there are no politics to worry about in communicating or collaborating with them. In fact, I met my wife in a online discussion forum. 

I created an Islamic Web site for the Arab world that was sort of like YouTube, but with audio. It is still today one of the largest in this category. I learned a lot online, and most important was collaboration and engagement. The Internet is a platform that allows everyone – not just talented or gifted people – to reach out to others without any filtration, without anyone to tell you what you should and should not say. 

The more the Internet grows, the more decentralized mainstream media gets, the more empowered are users rather than experts. I was working for a Gmail competitor in the region before joining Google, and I’ve done hundreds of transactions with customers and clients I’ve never met, never known, and never talked to -- all through the online communication. I call myself an Internet extrovert and a real-life introvert. I love to communicate with people online more than I do offline.

McNally: You spent six months in the US in 2001 as a student. You arrived before 9/11 and left after. What was that experience like for you?