As amazing as the gathering of protestors in Cairo’s Tahrir Square is, you noticed one thing: the lack of a charismatic figure, the one person that galvanized supporters. In the long run, if the protestors are to sustain their movement, they would need someone to lead, to help turn dreams and desires into a functioning government and economy that could deliver.
On Monday, there was one: Wael Ghonim, head of marketing for Google in the Middle East and North Africa. An Egyptian, Ghonim, we now know, was behind a Facebook page calling for his countrymen to show up in Tahrir on January 25. An eager adopter of all-things tech, Ghonim had tweeted his intention to join the demonstrations and by January 28, his tweets had taken a more ominous tone. He feared a government crackdown was imminent; he also said he wasn’t afraid to die.
That was his last tweet. He was detained by Egyptian security forces and he says he spent the next 12 days in silence, not knowing what was going on, not knowing what his family knew. In an interview with Dream TV in Egypt a few hours after his release, he wept when he saw a photo montage of the young men, like him, who had died during his imprisonment. He insists he’s not a hero, though the millions who gathered in Tahrir Tuesday clearly didn’t agree.
In Dubai, Ghonim, a 30-year-old father of two, is known as a tech-obsessed jokester. I spoke to a few people who know him from the U.A.E.’s world of technology geeks and entrepreneurs for my latest story in TIME.
And if you haven’t seen the multi-part interview with Dream TV, you should. The New York Times has compiled each part of the interview, with English subtitles.
Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2011
Egypt’s New Hero: Can Geek-Activist Wael Ghonim Overthrow Mubarak?
By Angela Shah / Dubai
Wael Ghonim is talkative and confident, just like many in the new generation of Arabs out to change their world — and prosper in it — by way of technology. He has pointed out that Norway, so much smaller than the Mideast in population, had more indigenous language content on the web. There was so much room to grow. “We live in a digital age, and it is important that the Arab world takes advantage of this new medium,” Ghonim told an Abu Dhabi paper.
I’ve met him briefly on a couple of occasions here in Dubai, where the expatriate Egyptian lived and worked as Google’s head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa. Slim and standing a little more than average height, Ghonim, 30, is typical of the new guard: speaking English with an American accent but audibly Arab when he pronounces Arabic words. He is at ease in both worlds. (See TIME’s special report “The Middle East in Revolt.”)
But, in spite of his career achievements and comfortable life, he also chose to be part of a hidden, more dangerous world — one in which he sought to activate change in his homeland. After he returned to Egypt, that work would thrust him into prison for more than 10 days and, when he emerged, he was suddenly hailed by some as the leader of the faceless group of youthful revolutionaries credited with getting the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak off the ground.
Only a few of Ghonim’s friends knew that he was the creator of the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said” on which he called for the Jan. 25 protest that launched the Egyptian uprising in Tahrir Square. (Khaled Said was a 28-year old techie and businessman believed to have been brutally killed by police in Alexandria in 2010.) Ghonim would spend “nights and days” on the website, says his friend and fellow geek-entrepreneur Habib Haddad. “I had been in close touch with him as he was doing it and as he was seeing it taking off,” he says. “He was quite emotional about it.”(See TIME’s photogallery “Mass Demonstrations in Egypt.”)
Haddad, the founder of Yamli.com, an Arabic search engine and transliteration technology, says he and Ghonim would engage in cross-continental Internet chats. Haddad says that after he himself had gone to bed and gotten up, he’d see from the chat indicator that ghonim had stayed up nights working on the website. In fact, he remembers Ghonim joking that his countless hours on the Web was causing tension in his marriage. (Ghonim is married to an American and the couple have two children.) Still, says Haddad, “It was like the feeling you would get when you are a college student, when you think you’re onto something big.” Haddad, who splits his time between the Middle East and Boston, met Ghonim about four years ago, says his friend found himself in a situation where he could use his skills” to help the movement in Egypt. Says another fellow entrepreneur, Yousef Tuqan Tuqan, chief executive officer of Flip Media, an interactive ad agency in Dubai, “We’re in this young digital generation. What can we do with this wonderful gift that we have besides just make money?”
Still, Haddad says he urged Ghonim to be careful. But Ghonim knew the risks he was taking. On Jan. 27, he tweeted: “Pray for Egypt. Very worried as it seems that government is planning a war crime tomorrow against people. We are all ready to die.” He was arrested shortly afterward. And on Jan. 28, anti-riot police pounded protesters with tear-gas canisters as they marched toward Tahrir Square. (See TIME’s Exclusive Photos: Turmoil in Egypt)
His friends and family started a wave of concern over twitter and other social media that got his name out into cyberspace. And when he was finally released, he increased his media profile by giving an emotional interview on Dream TV, one of Egypt’s satellite stations, breaking down in tears in the middle of a montage of images of young men killed in the protests. The next day, many people who showed up in Tahrir Square said they had been motivated by the footage to go out. The epicenter of the uprising had suffered a slacking off of dissent the day before as the focus of political events shifted to meetings taking place behind closed doors. (See TIME’s video of Wael Ghonim as he views photographs of the protest dead.)
Ghonim showed up in Tahrir on Tuesday as well and was met with a thunderous greeting. But, even as he grows increasingly mediagenic, he has pleaded that he should not be portrayed as the hero of the movement. “I ask you, really, please don’t turn me into a hero,” he said during his TV interview. “I am not a hero, okay? I am not a hero. I am a very ordinary person. The heroes are the ones in the street.” (Comment on this story.)
He took time to tweet thanks to “@Google for all the efforts you did in ‘searching’ for me. Today ‘I’m feeling lucky’ that I work for this company.” Through the technology he so fervently embraces, Ghonim has become for many the archetype of the future of leadership in the Arab world: educated, savvy and entrepreneurial. Says Tuqan back in Dubai: “He really does represent what’s best in all of us.”