Egypt’s No. 1 Net Activist
A riveting memoir by Egyptian revolutionary—and Google marketing executive—Wael Ghonim.
Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power, A Memoir
320 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
Last May, when I heard that Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian revolutionary (and Google marketing executive) who had surreptitiously built the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page that helped spark the Jan. 25, 2011, uprising, had signed a $2.25 million book deal with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to write a memoir, I cringed a little. Not because I begrudged Ghonim a single penny of his seven-figure advance—which he is donating to Egyptian charities and the families of the Jan. 25 victims. But I worried that the pressure to write a best-seller that could recoup that huge advance might result in a book tailored to American readers accustomed to feel-good stories of individual struggle and success, or one of those “as told to” memoirs written by ghostwriters who are good with words but have little ability to tease out the details of what makes a revolution possible.
Well, my worries were misguided. Ghonim’s new book, Revolution 2.0, is a revelation. Go buy it, read it, and then share it with a friend. It is a careful and thoughtful retelling of the roots of Egypt’s uprising and the nuts and bolts of Ghonim’s online organizing, as well as an inspiring illustration of a trend. That is, how a new generation that is growing up networked keeps spawning “free radicals”—people who teach themselves how to use technology to build community, share powerful messages, and ultimately weave movements for social change. Ghonim is just the most famous of a list of net-native activists who have figured out how this Internet thing can tip the scales their way.
Ghonim is quick to admit that the Internet changed his life. In 1998, as he was starting his studies at Cairo University, he created a website called IslamWay.com, “to help Muslims network with one another.” It was a hub for sharing audio recordings of religious sermons, “featuring a complete range of moderate Islamic opinions.” Two years after its launch, the website had tens of thousands of daily users and was curated by more than 80 volunteers. Ghonim eventually donated it to an American Islamic foundation to maintain. I mention this bit of biographical history for only one reason: It shows that a full decade before Ghonim turned his challenging the Mubarak regime, he was already an online community organizer.
Ghonim’s first foray into Facebook organizing was to support Mohamed ElBaradei, a former top UN official who became an outspoken critic of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Ghonim created a fan page for ElBaradei that grew to more than 150,000 members, but ElBaradei’s reliance on mainstream media and cautious approach to opposition politics also left Ghonim frustrated by the pace of change.
Then, on June 8, 2010, he writes, “while browsing on Facebook, I saw a shocking image that a friend of mine has posted on my wall.” It was an image of Khaled Said, a 28-year-old who two days earlier was pulled from an Internet cafe and beaten to death by the secret police. Ghonim found himself in tears and decided he could not “stand by passively in the face of such grave injustice.” Instead of publishing the news of Said’s killing on ElBaradei’s Facebook page, which he felt could be seen as exploiting the death for one politician’s gain, he decided to create a new Facebook page devoted to Said.
And here is where Ghonim’s tale starts to get really interesting for Net activists. He quickly discovered that there already was a page called “My Name is Khaled Mohamed Said,” but it was run by political activists whose discourse Ghonim found too confrontational to become mainstream. Instead, Ghonim called his page “We Are All Khaled Said” and started writing in colloquial Arabic, avoiding language that average Egyptians wouldn’t use. Within a single hour, the page had 3,000 followers. By its third day it had 100,000.
Ghonim details several strategies he employed to engage page members directly and convince them to become more active. One was to ask people to photograph themselves holding a paper sign saying “Kullena Khaled Said”; hundreds did so, helping personify the movement. Another was to rely on page members to promote protest events, like a series of “Silent Stand” rallies that were designed to be visual evocations, not provocations.
Ghonim’s story eventually moves from the virtual world of Facebook, to the tumultuous days of the Jan. 25 revolution, to his arrest by the secret police. The memoir culminates with the heady night in Tahrir Square when Mubarak finally stepped down from power, touching only glancingly on government efforts to trick and co-opt Ghonim and other members of Egypt’s youth movement, and saying little about the unfinished business that remains.
But even if Ghonim’s (and Egypt’s) story is unfinished, the value of online organizing seems conclusively settled by the events of last year. As he writes in an epilogue, “thanks to modern technology, participatory democracy is becoming a reality. Governments are finding it harder and harder to keep their people isolated from one another, to censor information, and to hide corruption and issue propaganda that goes unchallenged. Slowly but surely, the weapons of mass oppression are becoming extinct.”
At the same time, Ghonim is not a techno-utopian. After a recent talk at Harvard University, I asked him whether activists should trust Facebook, which shut down the Khaled Said page at a critical moment. “I don’t personally trust any tool,” he said. “I trust the people behind the tool.” And that remains the most important lesson of Revolution 2.0. Technology is just an enabler. It is what people decide to do with it that matters most.