At the start of the year, the Arab Spring saw protests sweep through the Middle East and North Africa. In Egypt, they were powered by a unique coming-together of people and technology. One of the people caught up in the protests was Google's Wael Ghonim, who became an unintentional leader of the 2011 uprising. Here he talks about how the internet assumed the role of the mainstream media and played a critical role in sparking the revolution.

Written by
Matthew Lee
September 2011

When it comes to selecting the most iconic images of Egypt’s revolution, several shots enter the frame. It’s hard to forget the shocking pictures of thugs on camels attacking peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square or, a couple of weeks later on the same spot, the hugs, smiles, flags, and fireworks that greeted Hosni Mubarak’s resignation after three decades in power. But perhaps the most powerful image is a blurry freeze-frame from a TV show – a close-up of a man sitting on a sofa and crying.

On February 7, the guest on Mona el-Shazly’s popular talk show Al Ashira Masa’an, not usually a platform for dissent, had just been released from prison. Tired and vulnerable after 12 days of detention, Wael Ghonim repeatedly pledged his loyalty to his country and insisted that Egypt’s revolutionaries were peaceful people with honorable intentions. As photos of some of those killed by pro-government forces were shown to him, he broke down and wept.

“I want to tell every mother and father who lost a son that I’m sorry, but it’s not our fault,” he said, his voice cracking. “It’s the fault of those who have clung to power for so long and won’t let go.” Moments after he walked off stage, a message circulated on Twitter: ‘The regime in Egypt was just demolished live on TV by a 30-year-old man’s tears.’ A quarter of a million people joined a new Facebook group: ‘I authorize Wael Ghonim to speak on behalf of young Egyptian revolutionaries.’ But he had no intention of being their leader.

Six months after he was interviewed on Dream TV, Ghonim – a Google marketing manager who is now on sabbatical – finds himself in an apartment in Al Rehab, 20 minutes from downtown Cairo. He’s talking with conviction about how the revolution happened and why it was necessary. But it’s with even greater conviction that he downplays his own role in the uprising.

This wasn’t a revolution led by a single, charismatic individual. It was a leaderless movement that used the internet to galvanize millions of Egyptians. But it began with the death of one man.

In the summer of 2010, 28-year-old Khaled Said was killed in police custody. The photographs of his body that circulated online became a symbol of endemic police brutality. In response, Ghonim, acting alongside two others and taking the pseudonym ‘El-Shaheeed’ (‘The Martyr’), set up a Facebook page called ‘We are all Khaled Said.’ It soon became a focal point for the growing unrest.

It was on that page that the first ‘Silent Stands’ were organized – political flash-mobs designed to send a sharp message to those in power. Participants, having received the details on Facebook, stood five meters apart to circumnavigate a ban on protests. They stood silently for a few minutes before going home without having said a word. Within a few weeks, the protests were taking place in towns and cities across Egypt, and throughout the Arab world.

“It was proof you could bring the internet to the streets,” says Ghonim, who had been quick to realize the potential of the internet as a mobilizing tool. “Lots of political analysts, particularly in the West, argue that the internet can’t help movements on the ground; that it can facilitate contacts between pre-existing groups but that a virtual group can’t cross over into the real world. We proved this wrong.”

As the movement gained momentum, there was talk among Mubarak’s advisers of shutting down the social network, a ploy that Ghonim is sure would have backfired. “If you block people from accessing Facebook, it raises a flag that you’re scared,” he says. That is exactly what happened when the regime finally pulled the plug on January 27, two days after Ghonim organized a huge demonstration in Tahrir Square.

“Banning Facebook on January 27 helped us,” he admits. “It reassured us that the people were strong and the regime was scared, so more people took to the streets. At that point, a lot of the people just watching and monitoring what was going on became convinced that they needed to be part of the action, while others who had been scared started to become more self-confident because they saw that the regime was weaker than they thought. I tweeted on January 27 that a government that is scared of Facebook and Twitter should govern a country like Farmville. If they’re scared of their own people, then they’re doing something wrong.”

Newly emboldened by events in Tunisia, where President Ben Ali had recently been deposed, the talk among Egyptian activists turned from reform to revolution. “I asked people on the [Facebook] page if we could get hundreds and thousands on the streets,” Ghonim recalls, “and the comments were, like, ‘Let’s do it!’ and ‘We’re ready to die!’” Other activist groups in Egypt chose to protest alongside them. It was going to be a united show of strength – much more than just another protest.

On January 25, around 50,000 people across Egypt took to the streets; within four days it was closer to a million. On the evening of January 27, Ghonim tweeted: ‘It seems the government is planning a war crime against the people tomorrow. We are all ready to die.’ The following morning, while hailing a cab, he was taken by state security.

The authorities had one man behind bars, but by now the revolution had a momentum of its own. “On January 25, the Facebook page was instrumental,” Ghonim says, “but from January 28, I had no control over it. There was no central management, nobody telling people what to do.”

The internet played a critical role in sparking the first event. Without that it would have been very hard [to succeed].

As the uprising grew, his Twitter prediction turned out to be accurate – the state resorted to violence. By the time of the TV interview, the fear factor was creeping back in. Mubarak was prepared for a fight, and people were nervous about the prospect of a long period of instability when the economy was already so weak.

But in that interview, Ghonim helped win over mainstream opinion, giving greater legitimacy to an increasingly broad movement. The mood across Egypt was changing. They had to keep fighting until Mubarak stepped down.

Looking back, how important does he think the role played by technology was to the revolution? Could the Egyptian people have succeeded even 10 years ago? “Ten years ago people were not as angry as they are today,” Ghonim replies, “but the internet certainly played a critical role in sparking the first event – and without that it would have been very hard [to succeed]. The idea was that if thousands of people break the fear, tens of thousands will join them and hundreds of thousands will follow, then millions. The question was how to get thousands of people on the streets without access to the mainstream media [to spread the message]. The internet assumed the role of the mainstream media and played a critical role in sparking the revolution.”

While acknowledging the importance of Facebook and Twitter, however, Ghonim strikes a note of caution when assessing the role they should play in future uprisings. “I think it’s important that tech companies take a neutral role,” he says. “They shouldn’t support ‘x’ over ‘y,’ even if ‘y’ is clearly evil and ‘x’ is good. The best thing is to give people technology and let them sort it out themselves. You don’t need to tell them what they should be doing. That’s why we were successful.”

As he gets up to leave, there’s just time to ask him about the flip side of social media – what Evgeny Morozov calls ‘the dark side of internet freedom’ – its capacity to be used as a tool of control and misinformation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ghonim remains an optimist, retaining some of the Silicon Valley utopianism that has become the hallmark of his generation. “In the twenty-first century, the more you make restrictions, the more you are vulnerable,” he argues. “The more open you are, the better it will be for you. In the long run, the idea of controlling the internet isn’t an ideology that’s sustainable.”