Brave Thinkers 2011 November 2011

Wael Ghonim

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Google marketing executive
Cairo, Egypt

An unlikely revolutionary sparks a monumental uprising with the click of a mouse.

So much for brand loyalty. The defining act in the life of Wael Ghonim, a Google employee since 2008, was founding a group on Facebook.

“We are all Khaled Said,” declared his group’s thousands of members, associating themselves with the young Alexandrian Internet activist beaten to death in Egyptian police custody in June 2010. That group grew rapidly from seed to sprout.

After members helped organize the first Egyptian protests in January 2011, Hosni Mubarak’s government decided to cut off the Internet to try to stop them from bringing more protesters to Tahrir Square.

Brave Thinkers 2011Absent from center stage in this drama was the social-media Trotsky himself. Ghonim was snatched up by Egyptian authorities on January 28, and interrogated in isolation for 12 straight days. In Ghonim’s telling, his questioners were incredulous rather than violent—shocked that all of this revolt could have erupted from the efforts of just a few “noisy kids on Facebook,” while Egyptian state media were blaming meddling by foreign powers. The media were issuing countrywide alarms: look out for Israeli, Qatari, and Iranian spies. Then the police met their revolutionary, and he was an Egyptian.

Of the Egyptian revolution’s few unmistakable inflection points, Ghonim’s post-prison interview with Dream TV was perhaps the most decisive. Ghonim, who had been unaware of the unfolding drama while he was in custody, spoke through tears about the revolution’s dead. This emotional display was utterly alien to the Mubarak regime—and proof to many wavering Egyptians that the revolutionaries were humans, and the government was a heartless bureaucracy easily capable of every brutality of which it had been accused. Popular fear dissolved, and Tahrir Square became a protest site for ordinary Egyptians, not just for Facebook friends and a crowd of tweeting revolutionaries.


Image: Khaled el Faqi/EPA/Corbis

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Graeme Wood is an Atlantic contributing editor

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