How an Egyptian Revolution Began on Facebook
By JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS
Published: February 17, 2012
In the embryonic, ever evolving era of social media — when milestones come by the day, if not by the second — June 8, 2010, has secured a rightful place in history. That was the day Wael Ghonim, a 29-year-old Google marketing executive, was browsing Facebook in his home in Dubai and found a startling image: a photograph of a bloodied and disfigured face, its jaw broken, a young life taken away. That life, he soon learned, had belonged to Khaled Mohamed Said, a 28-year-old from Alexandria who had been beaten to death by the Egyptian police.
The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power: A Memoir
By Wael Ghonim 308 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $26.
At once angered and animated, the Egyptian-born Ghonim went online and created a Facebook page. “Today they killed Khaled,” he wrote. “If I don’t act for his sake, tomorrow they will kill me.” It took a few moments for Ghonim to settle on a name for the page, one that would fit the character of an increasingly personalized and politically galvanizing Internet. He finally decided on “Kullena Khaled Said” — “We Are All Khaled Said.”
“Khaled Said was a young man just like me, and what happened to him could have happened to me,” Ghonim writes in “Revolution 2.0,” his fast-paced and engrossing new memoir of political awakening. “All young Egyptians had long been oppressed, enjoying no rights in our own homeland.”
Ghonim’s memoir is a welcome and cleareyed addition to a growing list of volumes that have aimed (but often failed) to meaningfully analyze social media’s impact. It’s a book about social media for people who don’t think they care about social media. It will also serve as a touchstone for future testimonials about a strengthening borderless digital movement that is set to continually disrupt powerful institutions, be they corporate enterprises or political regimes.
An accidental activist, Ghonim tapped into a shared frustration that became immediately evident online. Two minutes after he started his Facebook page, 300 people had joined it. Three months later, that number had grown to more than 250,000. What bubbled up online inevitably spilled onto the streets, starting with a series of “Silent Stands” that culminated in a massive and historic rally at Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. “We Are All Khaled Said” helped ignite an uprising that led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak and the dissolution of the ruling National Democratic Party. In turn, Ghonim — who was arrested during the height of the protests — reluctantly became one of the leading voices of the Arab Spring.
Ghonim’s writing voice is spare and measured, and marked by the same earnest humility he has displayed in media appearances. During the interview he gave on Egyptian television after his release from detention, when he broke down crying as a photo montage of young Egyptians killed in the protests played across the screen, he was quick to point out that “the real heroes” of the revolution were those who had been martyred. He resists being labeled an icon. He insists he represents just one story and says his online activism should be seen only in the context of “hundreds of other pages, Facebook accounts and Twitter profiles” dedicated to covering and organizing the Arab Spring.
And he’s right. But his individual story resonates on two levels: it epitomizes the coming-of-age of a young Middle Eastern generation that has grown up in the digital era, as well as the transformation of an apolitical man from comfortable executive to prominent activist.
The Middle East is home to roughly 100 million people ages 15 to 29. Many are educated but unemployed. Though only a fraction of Egyptians have Internet access, Ghonim writes, the number of Web users in the country increased to 13.6 million in 2008 from 1.5 million in 2004. Through blogs, Twitter and Facebook, the Web has become a haven for a young, educated class yearning to express its worries and anxieties.
Technology, of course, is not a panacea. Facebook does not a revolution make. In Egypt’s case, it was simply a place for venting the outrage resulting from years of repression, economic instability and individual frustration. Ghonim writes that in 2011, out of Egypt’s more than 80 million people, some 48 million were poor and 2.5 million lived in extreme poverty. “More than three million young Egyptians are unemployed,” he says.
A father of two, Ghonim comes from a relatively prosperous family. Though he places himself in “a small, privileged slice” of Egypt’s population, he once shared his countrymen’s indifference to politics. “Most of us shied away,” he writes, “believing that we could not do anything to change the status quo.” Connecting online with other young, educated Egyptians changed his mind.
The Internet, Ghonim says, was “instrumental in shaping my experiences as well as my character.” Like many who grew up with instant messaging, online video games and the here-comes-everybody ethos of sites like Wikipedia, he refers to himself as a “real-life introvert yet an Internet extrovert.” He met his wife, Ilka, an American Muslim, online.
Ghonim drew on his considerable skill and knowledge as an online marketer while running the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page. Early on, he decided that creating the page, as opposed to a Facebook group, would be a better way to spread information. More important, he knew that maintaining an informal, authentic tone was crucial to amassing allies. People had to see themselves in the page. “Using the pronoun I was critical to establishing the fact that the page was not managed by an organization, political party or movement of any kind,” he writes. “On the contrary, the writer was an ordinary Egyptian devastated by the brutality inflicted on Khaled Said and motivated to seek justice.”
He polled the page’s users and sought ideas from others, like how best to publicize a rally — through printed fliers and mass text messaging, it turned out. (“Reaching working-class Egyptians was not going to happen through the Internet and Facebook,” he notes.) He tried to be as inclusive as possible, as when he changed the name of the page’s biggest scheduled rally from “Celebrating Egyptian Police Day — January 25” to “January 25: Revolution Against Torture, Poverty, Corruption and Unemployment.” “We needed to have everyone join forces: workers, human rights activists, government employees and others who had grown tired of the regime’s policies,” he writes. “If the invitation to take to the streets had been based solely on human rights, then only a certain segment of Egyptian society would have participated.”
As the youth-led Tunisian upheaval further inspired young activists in Egypt, Ghonim was arrested by the secret police. For nearly two weeks, he was held blindfolded and handcuffed, deprived of sleep and subjected to repeated interrogations, as his friends, family and colleagues at Google tried to discover his whereabouts. That he was released as quickly as he was demonstrated the power of Revolution 2.0.
A year after Mubarak’s ouster, it remains to be seen exactly how and when — or whether — Egypt will transition to a better democracy. What Ghonim’s book makes clear, however, is that revolution begins with the self: with what one is willing to stand for online and offline, and what one citizen is willing to risk in the service of his country.
Jose Antonio Vargas has written for The Washington Post, The Huffington Post and The New Yorker. He is the founder of Define American, a multimedia campaign for immigration reform.