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Wael Ghonim, Egypt, and Viral Revolution

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, February 9 2011

Image by celinecelines

Wael Ghonim is quickly emerging as a figure of considerable interest in the month-long protests in Egypt, an uprising that has been notable for its rather utter lack of recognizable high-profile personalities amongst the protestors.

Ghonim, a 30 year-old Egyptian and the head of Google's marketing efforts in northern Africa and the Middle East, first came to widespread attention when he was, it seems, detained by Egyptian authorities, a development that was widely noted, particularly on Twitter, by Google Inc. and countless others. Ghonim re-entered public view on Monday, 12 days after he was reported missing, and with his emergence dropped some news: he was the organizer, identified only as "El Shaheeed," ("The Martyr" in Arabic) behind the Facebook group largely created with ignited the January 25th movement and with it the protests that have been roiling Egypt. The New York Times's David D. Kirkpatrick and Jennifer Preston pick up the story:

Ending the mystery over who helped begin the social media campaign that inspired the protests, Mr. Ghonim said that he was a creator of the We are All Khaled Said Facebook page. That page and multiple videos uploaded on YouTube about Mr. Said, a 28-year-old Egyptian man beaten to death by the police in Alexandria on June 6, 2010, helped to connect human rights organizers with average Egyptians and to raise awareness about police abuse and torture.

[Note: For the backstory on Said's death -- and an incredibly gruesome photograph of Said's body -- visit "Rantings of a Sandmonkey," Ghonim's blog]

Mr. Ghonim, an Egyptian who lives in Dubai with his wife and two children, was not well known outside of technology and business circles in Egypt. But his disappearance, followed by his interview Monday night on the same program where the Nobel laureate and diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei plunged into Egyptian politics a year ago, appeared to have quickly turned him into a national celebrity.

The Facebook page published cellphone photographs from the morgue showing the horrific injuries Mr. Said had suffered, YouTube videos contrasting his smiling face with the morgue photos and witness accounts that disputed the initial Egyptian police version of his death. The information helped lead to prosecutors arresting two police officers in connection with Mr. Said's death. It also prompted Facebook members to attend both street and silent protests several times since last June.

Truly fascinating stuff, and news that prompts a trio of takeaways.

First off, it's worth keeping in mind that, if all the facts bear out, Ghonim was able to catalyze Egyptian sentiment with a suite of humble Internet-age tools -- a mixture of a "good idea" (in manner of speaking, considering the morbidity of having Said's death as a rallying point), a free and open Facebook group, and some skillful use of multimedia, what with the photos and videos involved. And he did it remotely; he's based, in regular life, in the United Arab Emirates. It's difficult not to see Ghonim's accomplishment as a powerful story about creating political change armed with little more than the web and a brain. At the risk of introducing another glib shorthand to the mix of "Twitter Revolution" or "Wikileaks Revolution," it seems like there's a way to look at what's happening in Egypt as something of a viral revolution -- spreading, once it takes hold, with amazing rapidity and reach.

Indeed, Ghonim's interview with Egyptian television to the right suggests that he's himself a bit shocked as what his simple actions set into motion. Speaking to the mothers and fathers of the hundreds of people who have died thus far in the protests, Ghonim says to his interviewer, "the people who thought of this demonstration never thought of breaking a thing, let alone [the] kill[ing] of a human being," according to the provided English subtitles.

(An addendum to that first takeaway: it's not clear whether the Egyptian authorities knew that Ghonim was behind the "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook group when they took him in, if that's indeed what happened. But that's the implication, and if true, they may well have served to further amplifying Ghonim's importance -- in what history might prove to have been a rather boneheaded way.)

Which leads to the second takeaway, and that's that, as alluded to above, Ghonim is starting to attract interest as a potential leader of a movement that hasn't demonstrated having any leaders known to the public. In a way, the Said Facebook group has served in something of a leadership role. But now, it seems, some of the passions of the Egyptian people are being poured into the man who seems to be behind said Facebook group. A, yes, Facebook group that nominates Ghonim as a leader of the January 25th uprisings has attracted more than 231,000 fans. (Though not all are Egyptians, of course; I recognized three New York activist types among its followers.) And a 20-something Egyptian protestor told the Guardian of Ghonim, "He's the most credible person in Egypt right now."

It's anecdotal, sure, and it's easy to overextend the idea, but there's a way of looking at what's actually happening in Egypt as much as a "basically leaderless" movement, to borrow a phrase from State Department official-turned-Google official Jared Cohen, perhaps, as one that had a Facebook group as a leader-by-proxy until the human behind it emerged.

And that leads into the third takeaway: there's a considerable modern foreign affairs aspect to all this that we'll only be hearing more about. If for appearances sake only, it's striking that Ghonim works for Google, and that the company put what looked to be significant time and attention into tracking him down while in custody. After Ghonim's release, he tweeted his gratitude in an appropriately Googley way: "Thanks @Google for all the efforts you did in 'searching' for me. Today 'I'm feeling lucky' that I work for this company."

The particular reason why Ghonim's professional life jumps out has to do with a push to equip young and youngish activists around the world with the tech-enabled abilities to, well, change the direction of your repressive nation with a Facebook group, a push that brings together the U.S. State Department, corporate entities like Google, figures like Cohen who has had feet in both worlds, and organizations like the Alliance for Youth Movements (a.k.a. AYM), co-founded by Cohen when he was at State and which he now helps to lead from his perch at the head of Google's new "Ideas" effort. The story of those efforts is starting to jump into some big press venues (see Newsweek, the New York Post), with an assist from a Wikileaks cable that documented the involvement of one Egyptian activist in a 2008 AYM summit in New York City.

And those realities feed into a critique of tech-savvy global public policy that holds that you can't have the American government and American companies like Google putting their weight behind the idea that the Internet is a more or less neutral tool for freedom's dissemination without foreign governments and interests coming on their own to the idea that sides are being picked and battle lines being drawn.

Anyway, those are some rough thoughts. Yours?

(With huge help from Anna Lekas Miller)

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