Revolution 2.0: How The Internet Changed Wael Ghonim's Life and Helped Spark Egypt's Uprising
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?
Ghonim: I was not happy with education in Egypt and I traveled to the US to continue my education, but after 9/11 everything completely changed. The media launched a huge campaign, not so much against terrorism as against Islam, Muslims and the Middle East. Whether it was intentional or unintentional wasn’t the issue, and nothing bad happened to me, but the feeling of being singled out was not comfortable. My wife and I agreed to go back to Egypt because the US was getting harder to live in for someone from the Middle East. We made our decision at the peak of anger and frustration and media focus, but I think it was, after all, a good decision that I went back home. I’m happy that I did.
McNally: You are both a citizen of Egypt and a citizen of the Internet, so in some sense a global citizen. When you were a young student with your wife in the US prior to 9/11, what did America feel like to you?
Ghonim: I was actually impressed. The first time I visited the US, I went back home saying to my friends, we are fools here. If they’re convincing us that this is the best it can get, there is definitely something wrong.
I had a lot of respect for the human rights, the democracy, the freedom of speech in the US. At the same time, coming from the Arab world, I was always wondering, “How come this is not applied?” The US that we see inside the US is not reflected in its foreign policy. I was also impressed with the level of education among the people I communicated with. As a young guy, it’s easy to get impressed just flying to the US. In fact, a dream for many people in Egypt is to visit the US for a couple of months and go back and talk to everyone about it.
McNally: In your initial Google interviews you were asked why you wanted to work for Google, and I believe you said that you wanted to help change the Middle East and that you thought the Internet was going to help make that happen.
Ghonim: Yeah, it wasn’t really about the meals at Google [laughs]. I had this long-lasting belief that the Internet was one of the hopes for change. At the end of the day, change happens by the people, but people need tools, and the Internet shows you the whole world. The access to information is very democratic. It’s easy to verify the truth of things, and you get to see different points of views on any issue. People can collaborate and communicate effectively.
In April 2010, almost a year before the revolution, I wrote that the Internet would change the face of politics, and that the 2011 elections were not going to be like the elections in 2005, when Mubarak won easily. With a company like Google, the scale of change you can offer is huge, even without actually getting involved in politics. Providing people with tools empowers them to do whatever they want with them.
McNally: The subtitle of your book --"The Power of the People is Stronger than the People in Power" – that’s more than a subtitle to you, isn’t it?
Ghonim: It’s what I felt right after February 11th. I wrote it and, after writing it, I asked myself, who said that? I thought I’d copied it from someone, and I Googled to make sure to get the reference right. There wasn’t anyone who had said it before me, it is truly what I felt.
In the past people in Egypt said, “This is their country, they are the strongest, they govern us, no one can go against them. If you speak up, you’re going to be arrested. You have to walk on the sidewalk.” It’s an Egyptian saying: “Don’t walk in the street or you’ll get in trouble.”
What happened in Tunisia on the 13th January and the 14th January was such an inspiration to a lot of us. Wow! All of a sudden, you see an Arab dictator addressing his nation, saying I am sorry, I was wrong. This was the first time in my whole life I’ve seen such a thing. The next day he escapes to Saudi Arabia, and that was the sign.
When people are united and determined, when they know what they want and they are ready to pay whatever price to make it happen, it will happen. Regardless who is in power or what kind of power they have. I truly believe that one big reason that 11th February happened and Mubarak was forced to step down, is that most of us did not really understand politics. We were naïve. We did not want any deals cut, we were not seeking any concessions, we just wanted him out -- and this is exactly what happened. Once the people are united, their power is definitely greater than anyone who is in power – no matter what weapons or tools they may have.
McNally: You point out that, prior to this, the hopes of people usually focused on putting someone else in power? You put up a Facebook page for Mohamed El Baradei, prior to the 2011 elections….
Ghonim: We felt we needed someone we trust that could bring change. Before El Baradei returned to Egypt, I was not really interested in politics. One, because you are always scared of the consequences. Especially if you work in a good company, if you have family, you will ask yourself 10 times before getting into this. And second, we had no hope. Like, “So what, you know, what can happen?” No one was envisioning how change would happen.
When El Baradai showed interest in the change campaign, some young activists online started calling for him to nominate himself for the presidency. He played a critical role at that time by saying, “Listen, I’m not running for president unless these seven things happen.” It was great how he came up with seven demands and campaigned online and offline for people to sign on to them. The demands basically said, we are not going into so-called democracy, we need real democracy. For that to happen, we need to make sure that judges are the ones monitoring the elections; Egyptians are voting; Egyptians abroad are voting; Egyptians vote with their ID cards, they don’t have to get other cards that complicate the matter, and so on.
I named the second chapter of the book, “Searching for a Savior.” I clearly remember El Baradai said, “If you are looking for a savior, I am not the savior. Egyptians have to save themselves.” We wanted a magical solution, we wanted something crazy to happen, someone to comes in and make it happen -- but that wasn’t to be.
McNally: Can you provide a little context? Egypt is an ancient civilization with a very youthful population, nearly two-thirds 30 years old or younger. Millions are unemployed, frustrated, see no future….
Ghonim: I think if the revolution gave us anything, it gave us hope. In Egypt almost one out of every two lives on under $2 a day. More than one out of every three can’t read and write. And the country ranks very high in corruption, at all levels from the top to bottom, in politics, in education, in the health system…everything was corrupt.
A lot of Egyptians, including my dad, left the country because the salary he made in Egypt was one 20th what he could make in Saudi Arabia. There’s millions of Egyptians who live outside the country trying to find a better opportunity. And things were getting worse. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of Egyptians started getting on boats risking their lives to reach the other side of the Mediterranean in Europe. Many people have died in this trip.
And yet, Egyptians are very proud of their nationality. I was interviewed by state security in 2007. When I told the interrogator I love my country, he asked me why. I don’t have an answer, I don’t know. This is how it is. I have a very strong sense of love toward my country. A lot of people became sort of broken, feeling they couldn’t brag about being Egyptian. This revolution has brought back the pride and the hope that things would get better.
McNally: A turning point for you prior to the revolution is when you set up the Facebook page. What drove you to that?
Ghonim: It’s purely personal. I hate injustice, and when I saw the photo of Khalid Sayid, the young Egyptian who died after being brutally beaten up by two police officers in the street, I felt that this has to stop. I know he wasn’t the first one, but he was the first one whose photo I saw after being beaten. And he was young; he comes from the middle class, and that connected with me and with many Egyptians. That was a very strong turning point.
I remember sitting down and breaking into tears in my room thinking, “What can I do?” I decided I have to take his case to the public, I among many others have to try and help to make sure that this is a public case, to expose what the dictator is doing. The worst thing for a dictator and for oppressors like the ministry and state security, is to expose them. They know they are wrong, and want to limit knowledge of what they’re doing. The more you expose them, the more you put pressure on them. The page was mainly about spreading awareness and working with others to try to understand what can we do to fix the situation.
McNally: The state security apparatus wants people to know just enough to be afraid, but nothing beyond that.
Ghonim: Yeah, they want the people who might speak up to know exactly what they do and to be scared. Sometimes they intentionally tell you what happened so that you are always intimidated, you calculate your steps. Eventually they call you every other week, to know what you are up to. They tell you, “We are after you, be careful.” But the public should not know about that. The authorities were scared of a moment like January 25th. The more you do, the more the anger mounts, until there will be a moment where everyone is going to say, “No. Enough. This is not going to happen anymore.”
McNally: You were anonymously organizing silent protests through the Facebook page. Until everything shifted, what were you doing and what were you hoping?
Ghonim: I was not an activist and I think that was very good, because most of the activists get into situations where others don’t see. For example, human rights activists see the cases of torture, speak directly with the victims, get involved and see what is happening. Eventually there is a gap in communication -- of course, unintentionally -- between them and the masses. They will not always know how to tell the people the reality in a way that people can connect with them.
When I created the page, the first day 36,000 people joined it, and in three days 100,000. It was obvious that the amount of frustration and anger was big. I’ve learned that engagement was key. This wasn’t a page that tells people what to do, this was a page that asked people, “What should we do?” and created surveys. Then, based on the most liked choices, actions took place.
Second, language -- talking the talk of the people. I wasn’t saying “we,” I was always talking as “I,” so that people would understand that the guy running the page is the same guy writing it. He’s one person. It’s not a group sitting in the back plotting master plans and applying them on the page. It was one person. Again unintentional, it wasn’t planned.
Eventually I got a second administrator, Abdul Mansur, but we always used “I.” We stayed away from words like the “regime.” We say the “government” because the “regime” is such an activist-tainted word. It’s not a word that most of the people connect with.
McNally: This distinction that you’re making between what you were doing on Facebook, in the look and feel and language, distinguishing it not just from the government and state security, but from in some way, ongoing activism. This was how you thought things could broaden?
Ghonim: Actually it wasn’t separating things from activism. The activist is crucial and important. They were basically on the front lines doing the right things. We were missing the crowd in the middle -- where I come from -- which basically understands and relates to the activists’ demands, and at the same time is able to deliver the message to those who might not be interested or misunderstand the message if it comes directly.
It was also very important to make sure that this was not confrontational. Most of the people were scared. I personally was intimidated, and I clearly expressed my real feelings throughout the whole journey. I didn’t shy away from saying that I’m someone who’s always worried about the security of myself as well as my family and everyone whom I ask to do something. The non-confrontational approach made a lot of people connect with the page.
Finally, anonymity was critical – and not only for security reasons. I believe the cause was the hero. People joined this page not because Wael Ghonim from Google created it but because they care about Sayid, they care about the cause, they are not happy with the Ministry of Interior Affairs. Contrary to what many people would think, the anonymity added a lot of legitimacy to the page.
And why? Because people could connect directly to the cause. The cause is not personal. The moment you personalize the cause, it can be attacked through the person. You can question the intentions of the person, you can basically defame the person, find anything wrong with them and use it so that people will not connect with the cause.
All of this just played very well. I’m probably articulating it now as if I had a plan, but at that time it just happened. It wasn’t like I was sitting down making conscious decisions -- except the anonymity one, which I consciously made.
McNally: So “the power of the people is stronger than the people in power,” applies also to the person who might be in power behind a Facebook page or behind a cause.
Ghonim: If that call did not make sense no one would have answered it – because there have been many calls before. It’s just the fact that when people believe and subscribe to a cause, are determined to do it, ready to sacrifice for it -- that cause will happen. For most of our lifetimes, hardly anyone had argued that the regime needed to go. That was the biggest thing.
Ideas were coming mostly from the members of the page. The “silent stands”-- the first underground activity I tried calling on the page -- were not even my idea. A guy emailed me, and said, “Listen, I know you said we are not protesting because we are afraid of what happens to the protestors, so how about we all go out wearing black, looking at the beach, giving our backs to the street, standing up for one hour, doing nothing, and then going back home.”
I tried to visualize it, and I was like, “Wow, that’s a very good idea.” So what next? I asked the people on the page, “What do you think? Should we do this?” I surveyed the people, the people liked the idea. We started collecting ideas. People said bring a Koran or Bible, listen to something, don’t hold each other’s hands… People were developing ideas on the go until we went to the streets on that day.
The moment the footage started coming in, there was another lesson learned. People were very happy sharing their photos. Why? Because of the instantaneous feedback. The moment you upload the photo on the page, hundreds of likes, tons of comments, and it made everyone happy that they took part. So all of this played a critical role in building the DNA, the credibility between the page members and the page, despite the fact they didn’t know who was running it.
McNally: In some sense, they were running it.
Ghonim: That’s what I was always saying.
McNally: The page existed, there were demonstrations, but you were nowhere near a revolution. In late 2010, you called for a celebration of Egypt’s National Police Day on 25th January. What was your sense of things at the time?
Ghonim: Four days before the 30th, Abdul Mansur, the other administrator, came and told me, police day is on the 25th, we should do something. And I told him I don’t think so, it’s a Tuesday. We used to do our activities on Fridays which is the weekend in Egypt. But he told me, it’s a day off. We started thinking, what can we do? He suggested we honor all the good police officers with a Wall of Fame and a Wall of Shame for the bad ones. And at that point, we didn’t know what exactly will happen.
So on the 30th of December I posted that these guys are basically doing a lot of bad things in the past year and nothing has happened in the case of Sayid, how about we see what can happen? I was trying to get some suggestions from the people. I started talking to some activists like Ahmad Madur from 6th April, asking him what should we do? At that time, we were planning something that a thousand or a couple of thousand people might do.
The moment when Ben Ali made his speech was the turning point for me. I started feeling more revolutionary, which is not me. I was completely against the idea of launching massive protests and even wrote about that on January 7th, but Ben Ali‘s escape made me forget all that. I said, “We have got to do exactly what Tunisia did, even if it comes at the expense of my personal life” -- and I was very serious about it. I renamed the event, called it a revolution instead of a celebration of Police Day, I titled it the Revolution on Torture, Corruption, Unemployment, and Injustice.
McNally: And at that point, for you at least, the dye is cast. You’ve shifted.
Ghonim: Completely -- and it wasn’t just me, it was basically everyone in Egypt. Everyone in the critical mass went on 25th. Everyone just felt this is the moment. It’s our moment, we will make it, we will do it. The feedback was enormous, in a couple of days the invitation on Facebook reached about a half a million people and there was about 27,000 confirmations. Up to then, the largest event had 12,000 Facebook confirmations.
McNally: So two things happened: first, you raise the ante, and two, raising the ante elicits a much greater response.
Ghonim: Huge response. I think the fact that the page is not a political movement, not a biased individual calling it, made it easy for others to adopt and own. There was no owner of the invitation. I don’t like the fact that I’ve been given a lot of the credit. Many others worked and had a lot of influence on what happened on January 25th.
I call that period a great marketing campaign. In the book, I’ve tried to detail what happened -- not just the story, but also reflections on what was going on that made a lot of people adopt the call, and work on the marketing campaign.
McNally: Was there an offline grassroots uprising of the poor or the workers that your online-inspired uprising joined with?
Ghonim: In 2010 there were about 1,000 strikes and sit-ins by workers and a few small protests against the regime in general. I believe this revolution would have happened eventually because, at the end of the day, there is a level where people will say, “That’s it, this is no longer happening.” Tunisia accelerated it and the Internet helped organize the day. But we were definitely heading towards a point where this regime would have to be taken out of power.
It is critical to understand that this was going to happen anyway, but because of the Internet and because of Tunisia it happened this way -- on the 25th by online invitation that spread offline. All the grassroots movements joined the call, that was very essential. If all of them had said, “No, we’re not going and this is wrong," it probably wouldn’t have happened.
At the end of the day, those who are online do not belong to a specific movement. I was always arguing with my friends who claim the Internet is not going to do anything. I said those online are not zombies, they are real Egyptians. The fact they are more brave online than offline can change. Something can happen that can change that. At the end of the day, it wasn’t the Internet that made the revolution, it was the people, and it wasn’t the power of social media it was the power of the people.
McNally: You were captured by secret police on January 27th just as the revolution is taking off. You were held for 11 days in interrogation. What do you want to say about that period?
Ghonim: In the book, I detail the whole interrogation in the prison. The hardest thing that I went through was that I did not know what was going on outside. I was all the time blindfolded and waiting for the unknown. The hours seemed like days, the days seemed like months. With the exception of the night prayer, I just lost track of time. I lost track of the days.
I was praying that something happens to get me out of there. I wanted to know exactly what was going on outside. I have to say that I was very lucky because I was beaten up here but not physically tortured as generally happens to people. People have died inside prisons in Egypt while being tortured. I was very lucky that it was only 11 days and I was basically blindfolded and handcuffed and that’s all.
McNally: You have thanked the regime of Mubarak for making their overthrow inevitable. What do you mean when you say that?
Ghonim: I think that their reaction to what was happening was the main reason he lost power. They completely underestimated what was going to happen on January 25th. One of my friends, now a Parliament member and part of the movement from the beginning, wrote a letter to Mubarak on the 23rd January saying that it’s about time you have to listen. Of course, they did not think anything would happen.
When people took to the streets on the 25th, we had demands, such as firing the minister of interior affairs; making sure there is a minimum wage, etc. If they had come on January 25th midday and said, “Okay, we’re doing one, two, three, four, that’s it,” that would have at least created friction between the activists and the masses of people in the street over whether they should stay or leave.
Instead, security forces used teargas, rubber bullets and water hoses. They beat everyone up and forced people to leave the square. This made people more persistent. The friend I was just referring to was arrested on the night of 25th. An interrogator told him, “Do you think you guys can go in the street and get us out of power? You are dreaming, you don’t understand Egyptian security.” They were completely arrogant.
Also cutting off the Internet and phone was very important, because it showed the whole of Egypt that they were scared. The worst thing is to show the person who is fighting you that you are scared. I think they made a lot of mistakes. They did not understand the young people who they’d never been communicating with anyway. All of a sudden you saw an Egypt that you’d never seen before.
McNally: Let’s move to the present. Fourteen months ago the protests were taking place. This year’s parliamentary elections gave first and second place to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Party. Ruled by a council of generals, the country has veered from violence to uncertainty even as it lurches through political campaigns and promises of stability. Where do things stand? What’s your sense of where Egypt is and where the revolution is today?
Ghonim: I’m very sorry about all those who have died in protests. I think one of the biggest problems we have been facing is that the lives of the Egyptian people are not as valuable as we want in the eyes of those in power. This must change and we are all working on this.
I believe that the situation in Egypt can be seen from different angles and it’s definitely complicated. It’s not zero or one, there is a huge gray area.
I believe we have achieved things that if you told me 13 months ago they would have happened I would think you were crazy: Mubarak stepping down; his son in prison; his government no longer there; his party dissolved. For the first time in 60 years, 27 million Egyptians go to the street waiting in lines to vote for whomever they want in the parliament. Those are amazing achievements. No one had envisioned this, no one had seen it coming and we have to celebrate our success.
But at the same time, many people have died and there haven’t been real investigations or trials for those who killed them. This is one thing that really makes us angry. The pace of the transitional process is not acceptable to many Egyptians, who want to see a president as soon as possible. They want military rule, which has lasted for over 60 years, to end as soon as possible so that we can start looking for next steps. We took to the streets not just for democracy. One of the main reasons is the economy. We want social justice, we want people to live a better life, especially the almost 50 percent of the people who are living under the poverty line.
I think that the revolution is a process. A critical mass of Egyptians have broken their fear and a larger group have become more politically active. People are now voting, people are following the news. In cafes, people were watching the first parliamentary session as if it were a critical soccer game. We are heading in the right direction I believe. The pace is very slow. It’s disappointing to a lot of us, including myself, yet I have to remain personally optimistic, and I have to look at the bright picture.
That doesn’t mean escape from the problems. We definitely have to face the problems. But the new Egypt that we want is not going to happen if we all think that we’re doomed.
McNally: There was a line in a review of your book in the Philadelphia Enquirer that I’d like to read: “There is an energy in the book and in Ghonim’s words that makes one feel it is much too soon to assume the revolution is over or to underestimate what the rebels achieved.”
Ghonim: In the prologue to the book, I state clearly that it’s not over and it will not be over until the democratic transition of power happens. Those are the things we all should be working on. Yet, on an individual basis, the revolution for Egyptians has achieved its objectives. I don’t think the brave men and women who took to the street and stood against tanks, who were ready to take shots, are going to be afraid again. This is it. We needed a critical mass of Egyptians to be brave and ready to sacrifice for the right cause.
McNally: You say history will ultimately be the judge of whether the revolution happened too soon or needed more planning or leadership. When you say that, are you thinking a year, two years, three years from now? When will you be able to give an assessment?
Ghonim: It takes more time to judge. It’s important that we look from time to time to see if we’re moving in the right direction. We have lists of what we want to achieve: democracy, social justice, freedom. Now I still see that we are on the right track, despite the challenges.
The presidential election and the writing of the constitution present a very strong challenge which will be significant in determining the path -- ensuring that the military is not going to get any special privileges over the president or in the constitution. This is very critical, yet I foresee it taking place.
Everything is happening now at a fast pace. Books are written about the revolution in the same year. In the past, it used to be 40 years before people would tell you what happened. While we should be happy with that pace and we should keep moving, we shouldn’t underestimate the fact that we are recovering from 60 years of military rule, 30 years of dictatorship. Things are not going to change overnight.
McNally: A mentality that must be overthrown as well as a leader?
Ghonim: I believe so…and it will take time.