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The Lonely Battle of Wael Ghonim

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Ghonim does not exactly prefer Dubai to Cairo. But he is a pragmatic person and has come to terms with its appeal: The schools are better, his wife likes it, and the cleanliness of life permits a certain focus. “There are not so many distractions—you can just innovate,” he told me. There may also be a deeper connection. Like him, the city is an amalgam of modern and traditional, of West and East. “People like Wael and myself kind of innately refuse the dichotomy of Arab or modern, of Islam or modern,” says his close friend Moez Masoud, a prominent thinker on contemporary Islam. “A lot of people in the West will see the jeans and the MacBook Air and think that Wael is heavily individualistic. I think it is more complex.”

Since Ghonim was an adolescent, raised in Saudi Arabia and Cairo, the Internet has been the object of his idealism, and the place where he feels himself most purely expressed. Ghonim was always excellent at school but less sure of himself socially—“never very capable of expressing emotions,” as he puts it—and as a teenager he discovered he preferred virtual interactions to those in the real world. One could be more forthright online, and even in person, Ghonim has the impulsive, withering energy of a message-board regular. “The Internet has been instrumental in shaping my experiences as well as my character,” he writes in his memoir. By the time he was an undergraduate at Cairo University, he had launched his first startup, a social-networking site called Islamway.com, where users posted religious sermons.

Ghonim came to the United States in June 2001 to study and stayed for six months. Here, the distance between the virtual world and the real one began to narrow. He met a young American woman, a Muslim convert, online, and after just a few weeks of knowing each other, they married. He was struck by the religious freedom American Muslims enjoyed, the quality of the universities, the openness of political expression. “We’re being fooled in Egypt!” he would tell his friends back home. But the culture also seemed lonelier, and he missed the communal bonds of Egyptian society. Ghonim’s preferences, he discovered, were rather conservative. Through his wife, he has been eligible for U.S. citizenship for a decade, but he has never applied. I asked him once if he thought Egyptian society, in the compress of globalization, would become more Western. “I hope it doesn’t,” he said fervently.

He told Google he wanted to change the Middle East: “I believe that the Internet is going to help make that happen.”

But if America did not seem perfect, Google did. For a half-decade he applied for Middle East–based jobs that the company advertised. Ghonim “marveled at its culture, which was all about listening to others. Data and statistics ruled over opinions.” He was repeatedly rejected, but he got his M.B.A. in the meantime and worked for a succession of Middle Eastern technology companies. Finally, in 2008, Google hired him for a marketing position in its satellite office in Cairo. A year later he was promoted to Dubai to oversee marketing for the entire Middle East. In his initial interviews, Ghonim had been asked why he wanted to work for Google. He wanted to help change the Middle East, he said: “I believe that the Internet is going to help make that happen.”

Most places in the world that are educated, cosmopolitan, and alluring are also wealthy; they are the places you go to get jobs. The crazy accident of oil in the Middle East means this is not the case in Egypt. Cairo is easy to love—it is the educational center of the Islamic world and a casual, social city; men and women are out on the street, hanging out in restaurants at midnight. But since at least Ghonim’s father’s generation it has been an exporter of talent. Globalization has burdened Egypt with an Uncle Tom problem, where every success becomes a sellout. But it has also created a class of talented Egyptians whose success had not depended on the government. At the core of Ghonim’s anger at the regime, says his close friend Sherif Mamdouh, was the feeling that “the Egyptian people were always being underestimated by their own government. He was about showing what the Egyptian people could do.”

It had seemed to Ghonim, when he first started to build the Khaled Said page, as if the existing activist groups were barely even trying to broaden their appeal. To Ghonim, a political movement was in essence a marketing operation, and he treated it as such. His appeal would be emotional, rather than intellectual, and would engage the conviction that Egypt deserved something better. He kept his identity secret, and to create a sense of immediacy he often used the collective “we,” not the singular “I.” On the websites of more doctrinaire groups, he saw angry, alienating rhetoric: The police were often described as “dogs of the regime.” Assiduously, Ghonim scrubbed the comments on his page of similar language. He avoided, at first, any references to violence between the minority Christian and Muslim communities, for fear of inflaming sectarian tensions.


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