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The Lonely Battle of Wael Ghonim

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But in Egypt, Ghonim’s liberal optimism was a temporary bridge between a small core of activists committed to radical change and the far larger number of Egyptians who are much more cautious. This bridge has all but collapsed. The newly elected Parliament will be dominated by Islamists, and the military’s campaign of repression has deepened. The Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, the great liberal hope, announced last week that he was withdrawing from the race for president. When he goes out in Cairo, Ghonim is often confronted both by opponents of the revolution, who hold him responsible for its radicalization, and by more doctrinaire revolutionary activists, who believe he never really shared their views at all. One activist opened a mocking Twitter account under the handle @GhonimWithBalls. A young comedian, Ahmad Spider, made himself famous by unspooling a conspiracy theory in which Ghonim is the agent of a global plot, run by Freemasons, to destroy Egypt. To many Egyptians, Ghonim had almost seemed to materialize from the Internet and then disappear back into it. “Wael Ghonim,” one Egyptian journalist said, searching her memory, when I explained why I was visiting Cairo. “What is he even doing these days?”

Since the spring, Ghonim has come to view his reputations abroad and in Egypt as if they are operating inversely, on either end of a seesaw, and he monitors them, ambivalently, all the time. In Cairo last month, ABC News wanted to film him voting, but he agreed to cooperate only if the producers would arrive at the polls independently and then pretend to come upon him by accident. (ABC News declined.) Houghton Mifflin Harcourt had planned a broad international publicity campaign for his book, but Ghonim abruptly pulled out of the first leg, saying he’d prefer to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution in Egypt. When his fame builds abroad, “it kind of backlashes on me here,” he says. “And I don’t like that.”

A little more than two weeks ago, Ghonim settled into his regular three-hour flight from Dubai to Cairo. His seatmate, an older Egyptian executive type, recognized him immediately and started right in. “Isn’t enough enough?” the man asked. “What are you doing to this country?” The executive turned out to be an engineering consultant whom Ghonim pegged at around 50; he might have been Ghonim himself born twenty years earlier. Ghonim is both an interested listener and not great at getting out of conversations, and so he spent the flight absorbing his seatmate’s story: The older man had supported the protests at Tahrir Square and experienced “the epitome of happiness” when Mubarak had been forced down on February 11. But as the revolution had barreled on, some of its demands seemingly extreme, and the country continued to falter, the consultant had come to resent all of it. Recently he had even joined the counterprotests denouncing the revolution that had materialized in ­Abassiya Square. As the two men argued, Ghonim began to feel that he shared his seatmate’s underlying sense of fear for the country’s future. The man was unsparing. He told Ghonim, “You’ve ruined Egypt.”

When Ghonim sat awake in jail, isolated and singing to himself for company, it was the passwords that preoccupied him. The passwords, he thought, would be a problem.

Ghonim had been kidnapped on day three of the revolution—tackled to the ground, stuffed in a car—just after leaving dinner with two of his Google colleagues in the posh neighborhood of Zamalek, and the police took his laptop. This was the first time Ghonim had flown to Cairo to physically participate in any protest he had helped organize, and now the risks of such engagement were very real. His e-mail, if properly dissected by the secret police, would yield a contact list for the revolution. His laptop wasn’t even powered off; it was just in sleep mode. The layers of protection were so thin. Ghonim’s hope, when he reasoned it through, was that it would take the police long enough to focus on his e-mail that his friends in Dubai would realize he was missing, guess he was being interrogated, and change the password. This seemed like too many conditions to count on.

Ghonim spent the next eleven days blindfolded. He was not beaten badly, but neither was he permitted to shower; over time he began to experience coughing fits, and a rash spread over his body. He had no idea what had happened to the revolution—whether it had toppled the regime, been violently put down, or simply evaporated. There were daily interrogations. Ghonim quickly confessed to being the administrator of the Khaled Said website and to having called for the January 25 protests; he gave up the password to the site itself, figuring the worst they could do was to shut the site down. When they asked for the password to his computer, he delayed, saying that it had been automatically reset and the new one was in his phone, which was at the time in some separate bureaucratic cubbyhole. Mostly, though, the interrogators were searching for the revolution’s source in the wrong place altogether, in Ghonim’s tenuous links to the powerful. What was ­ElBaradei’s role in the protest? What was the relationship between the CIA and Google? It took three days for the police to access his computer and register an interest in his e-mail. “I need the password,” one of his interrogators said finally. Ghonim weighed his options and state security’s reputation for torture. He gave it up. That night Ghonim was sleeping in his cell when his guard woke him. “Your e-mail password is not working,” his interrogator said.


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