A Google Executive's Place in the Egyptian Uprisings

Wael Ghonim helped spearhead the Internet activism underpinning the protests but mysteriously disappeared over a week ago

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Egyptian authorities will release Google executive Wael Ghonim from government detention on Monday, according to family, friends, and Egyptian news outlets, following over a week of speculation about Ghonim's whereabouts.

Anti-government protesters have adopted Ghonim--Google's Dubai-based head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa--as a "symbolic leader" ever since his disappearance on January 28, the Wall Street Journal reports, with the April 6 Youth Movement even naming Ghonim their spokesman. While it's unclear whether Ghonim had a hand in organizing the protest movement, the Journal explains, he helped establish its foundation through online political activism in the lead-up to the January 25 uprising, administering a Facebook page that served as a "virtual headquarters" for the demonstrations and setting up the official campaign website for opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei.

What does Ghonim's detention say about the company he works for and the nature of the Egyptian protest movement as a whole?

  • Will Google Stay True to Its 'Do No Evil' Mantra? wonders Rob Coppinger at The Inquirer. He notes that Google launched its "speak-to-tweet" service after Ghonim's arrest, which enabled Egyptians to tweet via voicemail when they lost web access, but adds that "it remains to be seen if [Google] will try to do good even if that will likely ruin its chances of doing business in other less than democratic states around the world."
  • Google's Doing a Better Job Than Facebook, argues Gawker's Max Read. He notes that the Facebook page Ghonim reportedly helped create was launched in memory of Khaled Said, the Egyptian businessman who police beat to death in June 2010:

That group was taken down by Facebook--the first in a string of unbelievably unhelpful decisions by the social networking giant--and a second group, "We Are All Khaled Said," was created.

Though the administrators of the second group were anonymous, most people seem to assume that one was Ghonim ... Google won't comment on whether or not Ghonim violated company policies. But between its association with Ghonim and its sponsorship of ... speak2tweet, it's certainly showing Facebook how internet companies should be responding to democratic, popular uprisings--by not being evil.

  • Ghonim's Detention Illustrates Digital Nature of Movement, contends Ryan Sholin at Invisible Inkling: "To the Facebook pages serving as vital organizing tools, to the missing Google executive, to the [protesters] executing the time-honored urban hack of charging their mobile devices using the wiring in a streetlight's base, to Andy Carvin's retweet curation of reliable sources on the ground in and around Tahrir Square ... No matter how it turns out, this period has been a coming of age for a Web-native generation in Egypt."
  • Ghonim Is Pivotal to Uprising, declares Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris, as quoted in The Wall Street Journal: "When he is released he will become the living hero of this revolution."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.