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Wael Ghonim: Why 'Engagism' is More Valuable Than Activism

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, February 20 2012

Wael Ghonim at Harvard Kennedy School, February 3, 2012. Photo by Martha Stewart.

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 January 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 to the families of the January 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--The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power: A Memoir," is a revelation. Go buy it, read it, and then share it with a friend. It is both 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 will be familiar to many techPresident readers. 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 then 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.

Speaking at Harvard two weeks ago on a brief book tour, Ghonim insisted that, "I am an ordinary person who happened to use some tools" and that Egyptians revolted because they had been oppressed for so long, not because he convinced them to act. At the same time, he declared, "I am a geek. I love computers more than anything else. The first time I logged onto the Internet it was heaven on earth." (Ghonim's brief-lived Blogger account describes him as an "internet addict from 1996.")

And this changed his life. As he writes in Revolution 2.0, in 1998, at the age of 18, as he was starting his studies at Cairo University, he created a website "to help Muslims network with one another" called IslamWay.com. It was a hub for sharing audio recordings of religious sermons and lectures "featuring a complete range of moderate Islamic opinions." Two years after its launch, it had tens of thousands of daily users curated by more than 80 volunteers, and 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 marketing and organizing skills to challenging the Mubarak regime, he was already an online community organizer.

The best part of Revolution 2.0 is that it is full of illustrative examples that show exactly how Ghonim nurtured the online community "We are All Khaled Said (Kullena Khaled Said)," including lots of posts and comments translated from the original Arabic--so many that you actually can get a strong sense of the culture of the page. But that wasn't Ghonim's first foray into Facebook organizing. He first started his political activism as an online supporter of Mohamed ElBaradei, a former top UN official who became an outspoken critic Mubarak. Ghonim created a fan page for ElBaradei that grew to more than 150,000 members, but ElBaradei's reliance on mainstream media and generally cautious approach to opposition politics also left Ghonim, like many of his peers, frustrated at the pace of things.

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 then 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. Ghonim writes:

Their discourse was confrontational, beginning with the page's headline: "Khaled's murder will not go unpunished, you dogs of the regime." From experience I knew that such language would not help in making the cause a mainstream one.

Instead, he called his new page "We are All Khaled Said," and starting writing in colloquial Arabic, avoiding language that average Egyptians wouldn't use, like "nizaam," the word for regime.

I was keen to convey to page members the sense that I was one of them, that I was not different in any way. 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…This informality contributed to the page's popularity and people's acceptance of its posts.

Within a single hour the page had three thousand followers. By its third day it had 100,000.

Ghonim details several strategies he employed to directly engage page members 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. (Shades of the "WeArethe99Percent" Tumblr.) 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. "It was important to make repeated reference to the high responsiveness of our members and to broadcast any and all positive feedback about the Silent Stand," he writes. "The motto that stuck in my mind as I wrote on the page, trying to transmit its sentiment to everyone else, was 'Yes, we can.'" Ghonim often polled page members and shared the results back with all. And he notes that action on the ground often had the effect of increasing "likes" and comments on the page.

At one point Ghonim made contact with the administrator of the "My Name is Khaled Mohamed Said" page, the more belligerent one. It had 60,000 more members than "Kullena" but, Ghonim writes, upon comparing page stats, he discovered "the participation and comments on our page were sometimes double the other page's." This gave him an opportunity to compare engagement strategies. "The issue lies in the difference between activists and regular nonpoliticized young men and women," he told the other page admin. "Activists speak in rebellious language that is hard for those who have not gone through similar experiences to understand. The result is a gap between activists and their audience." Speaking at Harvard, Ghonim tried to make this distinction clear, declaring that he believed that "Engagism is more important than activism." That is, that it was more important to engage mainstream audiences rather than withdraw from them.

Ghonim's story eventually moves from the virtual world of Facebook, where he did most of his organizing while living in Dubai, to the tumultuous days of the January 25 revolution, when he flew home and was soon kidnapped and held by the secret police during the days that followed. It culminates with the heady night in Tahrir Square when Mubarak finally stepped down from power, touching only glancingly on the efforts of parts of the government 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 by surely, the weapons of mass oppression are becoming extinct."

At the same time, Ghonim is not a techno-utopian. At his Harvard talk, I asked him whether activists should trust Facebook, reminding him of how the Khaled Said page was shut down at a critical moment because it violated the company's rule against anonymous administrators. "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.

[Here are my notes and the audio of Ghonim's talk at Harvard, where he was interviewed by David Gergen before a packed audience.]