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The Lonely Battle of Wael Ghonim

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CAIRO, Egypt — It has now been twelve months since Wael Ghonim—a studious, physically small, prosperous computer engineer living in Dubai and working for Google—became in the public’s mind the symbol of the Egyptian revolution. If before the protests began you had scoured all of Egypt, pharaohlike, for candidates for this position, no one would have suggested Ghonim. He was a political naïf who lived mostly as an expatriate in Dubai; he had few connections and no obvious charisma. “A real-life introvert and a virtual extrovert,” one of his closest friends told me. “A real computer geek.”

But the revolution, at first, was itself more extroverted online than in the streets. And though the protests had many authors, and a long prologue, Ghonim was its best propagandist, and it was Ghonim perhaps more than anyone who figured out how to sell the promise of revolution to ordinary Egyptians. He organized many of them online and, in so doing, helped radicalize them. Hosni Mubarak had ruled Egypt for 30 years, and the campaign to oust him had spent a decade in an activist niche. In a few short months last year, it became a mass movement.

Ghonim was from the outset his own cadre. One day in June 2010, his wife found him sobbing alone in his study in Dubai. On his Facebook wall, a friend had posted a brutal photograph of the body of a young Egyptian activist named Khaled Said, beaten to death by police—his jaw had been dislocated, his face so broken it was blue. Had Ghonim been more politically engaged, the photograph might not have carried so much surprise; human-rights groups and bloggers had been publishing evidence of state torture for years. Convinced the photograph had been doctored, Ghonim sent a frenzy of messages to a political e-mail list. But the photograph was authentic, and somehow this discovery permanently altered the way he thought about his homeland. Ghonim set up a Facebook page as an online vigil. He called it We Are All Khaled Said.

To Ghonim, who as a kid had spent his time so buried in bulletin boards that his father, a physician, took away the computer until his son could pay the dial-up bills himself, the Internet had always been a ham radio, a way of connecting. It took just one week for the Khaled Said Facebook page to gather its first 100,000 members, and Ghonim now had a community of outrage. The members of his page suggested public demonstrations, and throughout that fall Ghonim took their advice and helped them organize. He was cautious, though; he didn’t consider the Facebook page a political protest so much as a moral one. He was also worried that he would be discovered by the Egyptian authorities, and so did all he could to remain anonymous. (He used as his avatar the Guy Fawkes mask from V Is for Vendetta, a movie he loves.)

Early in January, the Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali succumbed to protests there and fled to Saudi Arabia. Ghonim had been trying, without much success, to build enthusiasm for a big demonstration on National Police Day, later that month. Tunisia suggested to him the outside extreme of what was possible. On Facebook, he had at first advertised the protest, sarcastically, as “Celebrating Egyptian Police Day.” Now he switched it. “The Day of the Revolution Against Torture, Poverty, Corruption, and Unemployment.” He felt a rush. The invitation, posted and reported, eventually reached over a million people. On January 25, the protest began in Tahrir Square, its particulars having been planned by other, more experienced activists, and it has never completely left.

Two nights later, Ghonim was kidnapped by the police on the streets of Cairo. He spent eleven days in prison and became, unwittingly, one of the earliest liberation cries of the revolution. Released, he appeared on Egyptian television, weeping over those killed in the demonstrations, and then, delirious, in the square itself, wearing a rugby-style shirt with the oversize icon of a lion splayed across the left breast. On February 11, Hosni Mubarak abdicated the presidency.

What followed, for Egypt, has been a complicated kind of freedom. For Ghonim, it has been a complicated kind of fame. Because he is young and modern, because he works for Google, because he is secular and politically unattached, Ghonim came to represent the element of the Arab Spring that most seduced the West—the proof that crowds organized online could even bring down dictators. Suddenly, Ghonim was extraordinarily famous. In March, he sold the rights to a memoir to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for a startling $2.25 million, and he soon took a leave from Google. (The book, Revolution 2.0, is out this month.) In April, he was flown to New York, where Time named him one of the world’s 100 most influential people. Last fall, he had the disorienting experience of being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.


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