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The Lonely Battle of Wael Ghonim


Ghonim joining the protests in Tahrir Square on February 11, 2011.  

The delay had been enough. A friend who worked at Google had gone to Ghonim’s villa in Dubai and used his iPad to change his e-mail password. (Ghonim’s wife did not know the password to his tablet, but his 8-year-old daughter, Isra, did: She used it to play Angry Birds.) After ten days, Ghonim’s guards told him that he would be freed. Prominent activists had demanded his release, and the interior minister acquiesced in hopes of demonstrating that the regime could be amenable to change.

Ghonim was permitted to call his wife, Ilka, in Dubai. His voice was so hoarse that she didn’t believe it was him. “What is my mother’s maiden name?” she asked cautiously. Then he was out.

It was February 7, day fourteen. The revolution had gone on without him; the protesters had stayed in the square, but neither side had buckled. Mubarak had just given a dramatic speech, volunteering to step down in September, and many of the young protesters were getting calls from their parents telling them to come home, that the revolution had run its course. Ghonim contacted a television host he knew, Mona al‑Shazly, and told her that he wanted to appear on the program that night, on an independent station called Dream TV.

It was immediately obvious to Ghonim’s friends that he was not well. Normally, Ghonim is as logical and straightforward as an algorithm. Now he was an emotional mess. “He was in total breakdown. We tried to calm him down,” says his friend Amr Salama, a young Egyptian filmmaker. “We started to test things—is that right to say or not? After he got on the air, he forgot it all.”

The camera settled on Ghonim, sitting across a round table from Shazly. His hands were clasped on the table, and he was staring down fixedly. He spoke without lifting his eyes. At first he stuck to the case he and his friends had designed for the revolution: He wasn’t a hero, because the heroes were those who had died in the streets. “There isn’t one of us here that is on some high horse leading the masses.” He took issue with how the state-run media had denigrated the protesters as paid-for tools of foreign agents. “We live in great homes, and we drive great cars,” he said. “I don’t need anything from anyone, and I never asked for anything from anyone.” Then Ghonim began to crack. “I’m not ungrateful, it’s just that it’s not right … it’s not right … that my dad, who has lost an eye … and could lose the other one any day … could spend twelve days without knowing where his son is.”

“Wael, catch your breath,” Shazly said. “This is not an interrogation.”

When they came back from commercial, Shazly asked if Ghonim had seen a series of photographs.

“No, I haven’t seen a single one.”

They were snapshots submitted by families of protesters who had been killed during the two weeks of the revolution. The camera fixed on each of them, a dozen young Egyptian men, nearly all of them smiling, in better times. By the third photograph, Ghonim put his head down and started to sob wildly. “I want to tell every mother and father who lost a son that it’s not our fault,” he said, half-­regaining his composure. “I’m sorry, but it’s not our fault. It’s the fault of everyone who held on to power and clung to it.” He started to cry again, and his voice got high and pinched. “I want to leave,” he said.

In the studio’s lounge, Ghonim started to kick the furniture. “Animals!” he shouted. “Animals! Animals!”

When scholars discuss why, in its last few days, the revolution was reinvigorated, the main reason they give is the reaction to the brutal charge of the regime’s mounted thugs into the square on February 2: “the Battle of the Camel.” But Ghonim’s interview, they say, was one of the significant secondary events that helped nudge things along. “Wael Ghonim’s Dream TV appearance was kind of a turning point at this emotional level for the revolution. It forced people to make an emotional decision—which side am I on?” says Frances Hasso, a Middle East–studies scholar and sociologist at Duke. “There was a little bit of an Egyptian soap-opera quality to it. You could see that he wasn’t really radical.” Hasso was not in Egypt at the time, but she was talking about Ghonim’s appearance with an Egyptian academic friend in Cairo, Zeinab Abul-Magd. “She said, ‘I know it—tomorrow all the mothers will be out there with the strollers and the babies.’ And they were.”


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