(Photo: Khaled Desouki/AFP)
Hailed as a hero of the Egyptian revolution, Wael Ghonim is the Google manager who went missing during eleven days, early in the revolution, as a result of creating a Facebook page that fueled mass mobilization against Mubarak’s regime. One year ago, the page "We Are All Khaled Said"—in honor of a young man from Alexandria who tragically died at the hands of the police—rallied millions of Egyptians online and in the streets. Ghonim spoke to a packed and policed room at Harvard’s Kennedy School earlier this month, in the midst of turmoil in Egypt and escalating tension with U.S. aid agencies, to talk about his recent book, Revolution 2.0.
The moderator, David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership (CPL) at Harvard, reminds us of the current events surrounding Ghonim’s visit: the day before, 74 Egyptians were killed in Port Said following a football match, with several witnesses reporting that the violence was orchestrated by the police. Gergen asks the audience—seated in the building’s amphitheater-like entrance hall, predominantly composed of young students—to stand in a moment of silence.
As we all know, a great deal of change is underway in Egypt: the Muslim Brotherhood won the parliamentary elections last December, and presidential elections are scheduled for June. But a year after the revolution, Egypt is still experiencing social unrest and the military, which insists on managing the transition, is facing strong demands to give way to a civilian rule.
Meanwhile, Egypt-U.S. relations are suffering from a dispute over American non-governmental organizations. Members of pro-democracy groups such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) are brought to trial in Egypt and the U.S. is threatening to cut $1.5 billion in foreign aid. The involvement of these groups in the aftermath of the revolution points to yet another attempt at promoting a U.S.-centric conception of democracy abroad, one which is not well received in Egypt.
This visit is a chance for Wael Ghonim to "contribute," he says. He insists that he is not speaking on behalf of anyone else—but in spite of this disclaimer, he is irresistibly, in the eyes of the audience, the quintessential insider. When a young student, standing first in line for the Q&A, asks Ghonim about the role of America in the revolution, he boldly reminds the audience of Hilary Clinton’s repeated statements of support for Mubarak, in the first few days of the uprising. "The U.S.," he says, "was betting on the winning horse." On U.S. interference in Egypt’s future, he is unequivocal: he wants the US to stay out of it and to do nothing. Ghonim is probably not the only Egyptian who feels that way—he tells us that the public is sensitive to U.S. interference and resents being told what to do by the superpower. Now, he goes on, he hopes that the U.S.’s relation with Egypt will be transformed into a relationship among equals. Perhaps recognizing the bravery of speaking with such honesty, in a place that breeds the country’s foreign policy-makers, a forceful round of applause ensued. Is that enough to indicate that the Harvard audience took serious note of what he had to say?
Ghonim insists several times on his uneasiness with being depicted as the hero of the revolution. For him, "change should not be personalized." This is why he remained anonymous while managing the Facebook page, until he was detained and his identity was revealed.
This was also an occasion to address misconceptions about the Muslim Brotherhood. Rising to ask a question, one member of the audience, an older scholarly type, suggested—to sum up roughly—that Western political philosophy should guide Egypt’s transition away from fundamentalism and towards progress. Ghonim, to his great credit, replied with patience. Drawing from examples of colonialism, he explained that change cannot—that is, should not—be enforced on people. The Islamic party now needs to respond to Egyptians’ demands. If they do not deliver—especially in the economic realm, which is the greatest challenge ahead—then they will be replaced, Ghonim affirms.
He urges us to recognize that the biggest achievement of the revolution has been to allow for democratic turnover to take place. It is essentially irrelevant whether the Muslim Brotherhood or ElBaradei is in power—"Change should not be personalized." And it is not for someone at Harvard, or anywhere in the U.S., to decide.
Being careful to note that it is easier for him to analyze his actions in hindsight—and insisting that there was no "master-plan"—Wael Ghonim provided some lessons on strategies of non-violent activism. He opted, he tells us, for non-confrontational actions—having people gather for "silence stands" in front of government buildings for example—to defeat the regime’s attempts at picturing its opponents like extremists. "We’re going to get all of our rights by being non-violent," he continues, "by showing them that they are ugly (…) and we are civilized." For him, these Ghandi-inspired tactics allowed the number of protesters to swell. It brought more people into the mainstream: "You should not try to avoid the mainstream, you should try to get the mainstream to adopt your ideas."
Ghonim is fascinated by the online world, and—admitting to this as a cliché idealistic statement—sees the internet as a way to change the world. It is widely accepted that social media was a mobilizing force in the revolution. Yet, the former Google executive who self-identifies as a tech nerd, insists that technology is only a tool. "I don’t trust any tool, I trust the people behind the tool."
These reflections on technology and social change are developed in his book, which David Gergen presents as an "instructive tale," one, he told us, which he hopes will be studied here at Harvard. It is worth noting that all the proceeds of the book will go to Egyptian non-governmental organizations—for Ghonim, the indecency of reaping profits from his book is unambiguous ("People die and I become a millionaire?").
Ghonim chooses to stay an optimist. The greatest challenge for Egyptian democracy is now to institutionalize the political participation of young citizens—the youth must now run for office, he tells us. But for him the generational change is inevitable: a brighter future awaits Egypt. Those who made the revolution will be "those who are ruling you [and they] are going to be," he promises us, "accountable."