Wael Ghonim on Egypt’s Revolution
"The recent uprising in Egypt that toppled the country’s long-sitting president, had no leader and no single hero, according to Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing manager in Egypt and one of the revolution’s galvanizing forces. Instead, every Egyptian was a leader and every Egyptian a hero.
Ghonim launched an anonymous Facebook page that quickly became an organizing tool for protesters, and ultimately a symbol of the revolution. The page memorialized Khaled Said, an Egyptian businessman who had been beaten to death by authorities in June 2010. The page was titled, “We Are All Khaled Said.”
When the revolution that began in Tunisia spilled into Egypt, Ghonim anonymously posted a note to the Facebook page calling on Egyptians to make Jan. 25th a day of protest. “#Jan25″ quickly became the Twitter hashtag of the revolution. But the protests didn’t end that day; they continued the next day, and the next.
On Jan. 27, Ghonim was arrested by Egyptian authorities and detained for 12 days blindfolded and incommunicado before he was released. The country he saw after he was freed bore no resemblance to the one he knew before his confinement.
The 30-year-old father of two spoke to a TED audience in Cairo this week. Video of his talk was broadcast to the Technology Entertainment and Design conference in California on Tuesday and has since been published online (see above).
Ghonim told the audience that for 30 years under president Hosni Mubarak’s rule, Egypt had been going downhill.
“We only ranked high when it comes to poverty, corruption, lack of freedom of speech, lack of political activism,” he said. “Those were the achievements of our great regime.”
Yet despite their unhappiness and frustration, fear kept Egyptians paralyzed.
“And then came the internet,” Ghonim says.
YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook helped people realize they weren’t alone in their frustration and that others shared their dream of freedom. it dawned on them that they could use the internet to organize.
When Khaled Said died, Ghonim said, the government claimed he’d choked on hash. But the internet allowed dissenters to counter those claims online, and as their voices grew, the government lost its power of deception, Ghonim said. Ghonim, as the anonymous administrator of the Khaled Said Facebook page, invited people to join the page and share their voices and suggestions for action. Within a few days, thousands of people had signed up.
“It was an amazing story how everyone started feeling the ownership, everyone was an owner in this page,” Ghonim said. “People started contributing ideas.”
Someone suggested a silent protest, where people dressed in black would gather in the street, turn their faces to the sea and stand silently for an hour before dispersing and going home.
“People were making fun of the idea,” Ghonim said. But then thousands of protesters showed up in Alexandria.
“It was great because it connected people from the virtual world, bringing them to the real world, sharing the same dream the same frustration the same anger the same desire for freedom,” he said.
Then came the Tunisian uprising, which helped tip Egypt into its own revolution. Ghonim’s Facebook page again became a central point for expressing frustration.
“Everything was done by the people to the people, and that’s the power of the internet,” he says. “There was no leader. The leader was everyone on that page.”
Ghonim declined to discuss what occurred during the nearly two weeks Egyptian authorities detained him, but the day after his release, he went directly to Tahrir Square and couldn’t believe what he saw.
“Seriously? With the amount of change I have noticed in this square, I thought it was 12 years [that had passed since my arrest],” he said.
“People were so empowered … and now asking for their rights,” he said. “Extremism became tolerance. Who would imagine before the 25th if I tell you that hundreds of thousands of Christians are going to pray, and tons of thousands of Muslims are going to protect them, and then hundreds of thousands of Muslims are going to pray and tons of thousands of Christians are going to protect them.”
When he saw what was happening he knew it was the beginning of the end and returned to his Facebook page to post a note.
“I said that we are going to win,” he recalled writing. “We’re going to win because we don’t understand politics. We’re going to win because we don’t play their dirty games. We’re going to win because we don’t have an agenda. We’re going to win because the tears that comes from our eyes actually come from our hearts. We’re going to win because we have dreams. We’re going to win because we are willing to stand up for our dreams…."