By Ella Christoph
A year ago, days into the protest in Tahrir Square, news stories breathlessly proclaimed the importance of social media in the massive participation of Egyptian youth in a revolution few saw coming. Facebook pages, Tweeting—all of a sudden they were validated, by a monumental, real-world event. But as the protests raged on, Americans knew few of the details of how, exactly, all this social media was mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people living under oppressive regimes.
And neither Egyptians nor the rest of the world knew the name, or the face, behind a Facebook page that was pivotal in catalyzing the protests. Who was the anonymous “Admin” behind the Facebook page “I am Khaled Said”—the page that first suggested, and then coordinated, the momentous January 25th protests?
In the summer of 2010, Wael Ghonim, Google’s Cairo-based head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa, saw an image that brought him to tears: The disfigured, mauled face of a young Egyptian man named Khaled Said. He was haunted so much that, despite his disinterest in politics and fear of the wrath of the Egyptian police, he anonymously launched a Facebook page to condemn what he had seen.
He didn’t know where it would lead. “There was no planning, there was no master plan,” Ghonim, an Egyptian himself, says. “I wasn’t someone who was an activist.”
But, as he accounts in his sincere and inspiring memoir, Ghonim was spurred by the disturbing image of Said and hoped to attract as many people as he could to a common cause: Basic human rights for Egyptians. Intuitively applying marketing techniques, Ghonim spoke in the voice of Khaled Said himself on the page. He named the page “I am Khaled Said” in order to inspire solidarity among young Egyptians, and used colloquial Egyptian and the singular “I” pronoun. He avoided the didactic and political language other activists preferred.
“People believed it and connected with it because it came in a language they related to,” he says. “I was very keen to talk to the mainstream people, with their language.”
Ghonim launched the Facebook page on little more than a whim, but it continued to grow, gaining 350,000 friends by the January 25th revolution (today it has upwards of 1.8 million friends). Ghonim became consumed by the project, even as he continued long days at Google. He slept less than three hours a night and rarely spent time with his wife and children, all the while keeping his identity secret from all but those closest to him.
Sleep-deprived and terrified, even when Ghonim felt as doubtful as the most critical Facebook members, he stayed upbeat. “I was very optimistic most of the time, I was always telling myself that things are going to change, that at least I’m spreading awareness.”
Rather than making decisions himself, Ghonim would crowdsource the Facebook page, gathering input from its friends on what they believed in and what they wanted to change—a virtual democracy that earned Ghonim, known only as “Admin,” the trust that he was acting only as a facilitator of the people. Like Ghonim, many Facebook participants were afraid to be politically active in real life, but willing to speak up online. Then, as Egyptians on Facebook became empowered by the ever-growing community they found online, the barrier of fear that had stopped them from demanding justice in real life began to fall.
Today, with a democratically elected Parliament and Egypt’s emergency law partially lifted but no democratically elected president, Ghonim says there’s still a long way to go. “The goals, why people took to the street, are achieved,” he says. But, he says “The revolution was a process… It will take time.” He continues to manage the “I am Khaled Said” page, keeping Egyptians motivated to continue insisting upon full democracy.
While the Arab Spring is past and Ghonim clearly survived, his account of his experience during the protests is so on-the-edge-of-your-seat, stay-up-all-night captivating, it seems unfair to give away any of the details.
Ghonim hopes his perspective will give other people who want change—not just activists—inspiration on how to make it happen, but he doesn’t see his memoir as a guide to changing the world. Ghonim, who is unceasingly modest, sees “Revolution 2.0” just as his own small sliver of the collective history of the Egyptian revolution. “This revolution had no leader—there wasn’t like one person leading the movement, a lot of people were doing a lot of work,” he says. “In order to write the history, we connect all those stories, so we have a complete sense of how things work.”
“I’m just an ordinary person who used technology and social messaging to spread messages and communicate with people and collaborate with them,” he says. Ghonim believes anyone can do what he did, and, wishful thinking or not, it’s incredible to imagine a world of six billion people as “ordinary” as he is.
“Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People is Greater Than the People in Power: A Memoir”
By Wael Ghonim
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pages, $26
Wael Ghonim will be speaking with Chicago Tribune culture critic Julia Keller at Printers Row Live on February 4 at 3pm at the Rubloff Auditorium at the Art Institute of Chicago, 230 South Columbus, (312)222-4358. $15.