Conversations: Wael Ghonim
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Wael Ghonim

We talk with internet activist Wael Ghonim, whose Facebook campaign helped launch Egypt's peoples revolution.

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About the Episode

Google Executive and Egyptian Activist Wael Ghonim talks about his launching of a Facebook campaign to protest the death of an Egyptian man at the hands security forces and how it played a major role in a revolution that brought about the downfall of President Hosni Murbarak.

About Wael Ghonim

Wael Ghonim is an Internet activist and computer engineer with an interest in social entrepreneurship. In 2011, he became an international figure and energized pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt after an emotional interview following 11 days of secret incarceration by Egyptian police. During his incarceration, Ghonim was interrogated regarding his work as the administrator of the Facebook page, "We are all Khaled Saeed," which helped spark the revolution. TIME magazine added him in its "Time 100" list of 100 most influential people of 2011.

Enrique Cerna:
Wael Ghonim. Welcome to Conversations. Thank you for being here. I appreciate it.

Wael Ghonim:
Thanks for hosting me.

Enrique:
Well, what a difference a year makes. A year ago at this time, things were I guess pretty hot in your life. And actually, as we speak right now, a year ago at this time, you had just been released just a few days before that by the security police, who had abducted you for 12 days. Can you take me back to that time and how that transpired and what you went through.

Wael:
Well, it was a very, you know, it's very hard time. I never thought I would be in the middle of all these events. Before it all happened. And by the time we're speaking now, it would have been the time I was speaking, talking to hundreds of thousands of Egyptians and telling them I am, you know, I'm free and I support them. And I'm supporting their demand that Hosni Mubarak must go. I just found myself in the middle of all these events. And after I, you know, on the 14th of January, I wrote an invitation for Egyptians inspired by what happened in Tunisia, that can't we just do like them? Which is pretty much what a lot of Egyptians were saying at the time. That Egypt is this, in a situation that is much worse than Tunisia, and we should just, you know, try and do it.

Enrique:
And eventually, you did. Looking back to when you were taken by the police, did you think that you would come out alive?

Wael:
Well, when I go in the car, when, they arrested me at about 1:00 a.m. on the 28th of January. And when they surrounded me and basically waited for a car and put me in the car, the one thing I kept wondering about is what do they know? And how much information do they know about me? And I really want to, it was inside me that I wanted to see my kids again, I wanted to get out of this. And the hardest part I think of the whole experience is that I was waiting for the unknown. I was handcuffed, blindfolded for 11 days, I did not see the light. And I did not know anything of what was going on outside. They meant to keep you completely isolated. So I was waiting for anything to happen, which was taking forever. Hours feel like days, the days would feel like years. And you know, all that I had was basically hope that the people outside would find out where I am and try and help and get me out of it.

Enrique:
Was your head covered or were you bound this whole time or what was your situation?

Wael:
No. I was blindfolded, so I had a thick blind fold, I could not see anything basically, including the time I was eating. I was eating handcuffed and blindfolded. I was using the bathroom handcuffed and blindfolded. The whole idea I think was that I would not know where I am, and also, it does have a huge impact, try and do it for three or four hours, force yourself to be blindfolded and not being able to communicate with anyone. And it does have a psychological impact on how you, I think that was meant to be the case. So they...

Enrique:
To break you down?

Wael:
Break me down.

Enrique:
And make you fearful. And they managed to do it. And did they beat you and yell at you...

Wael:
Yeah, of course. The whole thing, all these things happened, but I have to say I wasn't tortured physically. Beating up is not physical torture, according to, you know, the typical practice of the police. Because they use much more worse tools with many other people. I was lucky enough to have, and this is why, when I, you know, when I told my story in the book, I don't see this as a brave, you know, move. Because I know, many Egyptians had been kept there for months, they get tortured, physically tortured, beaten up, some of them die during the torture process. That didn't happen to me. Yet it was not easy, waiting for the unknown was not easy.

Enrique:
How did you end up being released? How did that all come about?

Wael:
I don't know. One guy who just came, one of the guards told me the interrogator wants you in there, and he's like conducted, we finished our interrogations, and we found that you're not guilty, and it's about time that you are going to get out. I think part of it was because of the pressure, the family, the connections, Google announcing in public, the media picking it up, the story, and putting pressure, activists in the square saying that we want Wael to be released. All of this worked out together in putting pressure and making me become a liability for them. And until this moment, I don't know why exactly they sent me out. One possible reason is that they thought I could be the leader of the movement and then tell people to go back home and they would listen to what I said. And if they thought the same, I told them, you know, this revolution is like a horse, like an angry horse. And if you think anyone can just get on the horse and direct it, absolutely wrong, it's not gonna happen. The horse is gonna kick that guy off and probably, you know, step on it if what he's saying is not what the people want. And pretty much, you know, my influence was not as big as people thought, with the exception of course of the interview, which, you know, I came on TV on the same night, and a lot of Egyptians...

Enrique:
After you were released, you did an interview on a very popular Egyptian television program.

Wael:
Yeah.

Enrique:
You were very emotional. And the next day, that seemed to inspire many people to hit the streets and come out to the square and really it back fired on that regime.

Wael:
It did. It's mainly because they were promoting a lot of propaganda and lies about the people in the square. And those who took to the streets. They called us traitors, they called us people coming in for an agenda, or people who, you know, do not love this country, do not understand. So I guess when I spoke, a lot of the Egyptians established a connection with what I was saying. And sort of believed me. And so after seeing the footage of the people who died, which I had never seen because it was sort of like I came out of jail darkly, saw my family, and then the studio, and I didn't see any of the footage of them. The moment I saw the footage as they were displaying it, I just thought I could be one of those. If I was free, I could have died. And it's such really, such an unfair thing that someone dies for being a peaceful protester or seeking nothing but a better future for his kids and family.

Enrique:
Let's talk about the fact that social media, the Internet, Facebook, twitter, Google, played a huge part in this revolution. Revolution 2.0. And it really empowered the people. And you were the one that kind of instigated part of that in the sense that you had set up the Facebook page. To honor Khalid Sayid. Tell me about that.

Wael:
Well, tools are tools. People use them all the time. And I know that the real social media is either underestimated or overestimated. I've met people coming in from different backgrounds and they look at the story from different aspects. One is that this is the power of social media. And the other side, people say Internet was, had nothing to do with the revolution, and most of the people who were in the street did not really even have Internet access. And I think the truth lies in between. And if you go through the book, which I detailed the experience, what I personally went through, you will find out that it's the power of the people, not the power of social media. The people who are the ones who were passionate, courageous, brave, amazing, and persistent. And they just happened to use every single tool that is available around them, cell phones, Internet, forums, social networking sites, e-mails. And that's the common pattern in every single revolution, you need to reach the masses, and you find the ways to reach the masses. 100 years ago, there was not even a fax machine. And still people were able to...

Enrique:
So it was a tool, but it was the people and the power of the people that really...

Wael:
Yeah. And that's how I see it. Yeah, the tool to facilitate, that gave it to us, and the first announcement for January 25th was online. The invitation, the events invitation reached about 1 million Egyptians on Facebook, and 100,000 of them confirmed attending. They played a role in the January 25th process. And that was a cornerstone in the revolution. Because if only a couple of hundred people took to the streets on January 25th, nothing would have happened. We would have lost hope. Yet on January 25th, January 28th, the revolution was on the street, not online. Online was just a tool to disseminate information to tell everyone the reality of what is happening on the ground and responding to the government propaganda.

Enrique:
The fact too that Egypt's population is, I think I read it's something like two thirds of the population are 30 years old and younger. You're in that age range.

Wael:
I just passed it.

Enrique:
You're 31 now. But you were in the midst of it as you were, as things were heating up. The youth part of this and the fact that many of them are a lot of educated folks there in that age range. And yet they couldn't find jobs, even though they have education, high unemployment rate, high poverty. You just said, hey, enough.

Wael:
Yeah, sure. As well as, by the way, many of those who took to the streets were also coming from the middle class and upper middle class. Because they were also injustice, I don't have to be poor to feel the pain of the poor people. I could be one of the rich people who also, you know, feel the pain of those who eat trash from the street or cannot afford doing an operation, you know, because their legs are broken. And I think this whole thing of frustration was mounting. Yet we didn't see what can we do until what happened in Tunisia, you know, there was this turning point on the 13th of January, when there was a second speech after the events were, you know, growing in the country. And he said I'm sorry, I understood you. And I kept playing and playing and playing that video. This is for the first time in my life, I see an Arab dictator apologizing to the people of his country, his people. This was amazing. And the next day when he flew to Saudi Arabia, they were all talking about that, the Egyptians were very desperate, they wanted to see change in their country. They didn't know how. And the Tunisians made that happen and show us how it could work. And we just followed.

Enrique:
Khalid Sayid, tell me about that.

Wael:
When Khalid died and his photo was all over the Internet, I looked at the photo and I was very frustrated. I thought you can be killed just like this guy and the police will not be held accountable.

Enrique:
Tell me about him, who was he.

Wael:
He was just a young Egyptian, 28 years old at the time. He was at an Internet Cafe, sitting down with his friends, and then reports that two policemen came and started brutally beating him up, and he died while he was beaten up. And the problem in Egypt is that he was not the only or the first case. We all know that many Egyptians die in prisons because of torture, many Egyptians because of the security, they will get kidnapped and abducted and arrested for many months without any, you know, without any reason other than that the police think that you are dangerous.

Enrique:
And that you subversive. Have you been writing things on the Internet?

Wael:
No, not really.

Enrique:
They just picked them out.

Wael:
There are different stories bit. One of them is that he hacked into a police officer's bluetooth and he got videos and he started distributing them. But the essence of Khalid Sayid was not the person, it was the cause. The cause was that this has got to stop. And the practices of police in Egypt should, you know, be more respectful of human rights. And the reason why I created the page is that I thought the worst thing for a dictator is that you expose their practices. They do want to keep going while using propaganda to tell people, you know, that everything is all right, everything is okay. And I was trying with this page, one, to expose the bad practices. And two, to get everyone engaged. I'm not an activist. I never thought of myself as one. I thought I'm part of the mainstream, everyday Egyptian, who probably has a lot to lose. And my language was not as aggressive, it's very mainstream. You know, I talked a lot about this in the book because I think this is something we are sort of missing. And I've learned, on my journey, I tried and shared the whole experiences I went through. So, for example, the way I would communicate on the page, what should I say, and what shouldn't I say, and how to make sure that, you know, that activism is not as important as engaging. Engaging everyone is very important. The page was sort of a conversion tool to make sure that people from the, I don't care, it's their country status, to I do care and it's my country, and I have to act upon what was going on, and I have to do something. And that lasted for days and months and it was very collaborative, democratic. I used to run a lot of surveys and other administrator was helping me. And a lot of surveys to ask people what should we do next, should we protest or not? Should we talk about this or not? Are you happy with the style, how the page was managed or not? So people were empowered, engaged, taking part of the activities online and offline, until the, you know, what happened in Tunisia. And at the time, the page had 365,000 members.

Enrique:
You were working as a Google executive. I guess you're still with Google, but you're on a sabbatical as we speak right now and talking about your book, traveling. Being involved politically or being an activist of any sort, was it something that you'd never imagined you'd end up being a part of?

Wael:
Yeah. Just, it happened. It happened because I love my country. And I want to see it in a better place. And I was not happy that I have, I'm not doing something for it. And with the Internet, things are easier, behind the keyboard, decisions are much easier to make. And it just spontaneously, you get into one thing, and you find it developing, going into a bigger thing, and a bigger thing, and a bigger thing. This is how we just got into it. And that's also something you will find in the book. I'm just a very ordinary person. And nothing is special about my story other than the experiences and what I went through. And this is why I believe that the next, the next era is going to be very interesting to see. We've empowered, you know, the tools are empowering, and allows people to communicate with the masses, it allows a guy like me now and other administrators to talk to 1.9 million Egyptians at the moment. And it also provided a democratic way where no one is basically decided on, no gates decide on what should go and what should not, which I call like the decentralization of mainstream media. I hope this eventually will bring more good and will make sure that many of us are inspired, and priorities are set according to what people want.

Enrique:
I heard you say that the regime was actually quite stupid, maybe it's an age difference too as well. But the fact that they didn't really get the power of social media in prompting the people, and the people power.

Wael:
Yeah. They had been doing their job for 30 years or probably more, and they were always thinking, okay, we get it all. Sometimes experience is the worst thing that happens. You know, when people tell me, oh, from my experience, this could never happen. I always answer back, well, there's always a first time. And pretty much what they have done in the country, the fear they have ignited in the hearts and soul of every Egyptian, made them think that this is, nothing is gonna happen. Yet the younger generation has surprised them because they don't know how to speak to the younger people, they have completely ignored us for so many years. And also, they underestimated what happened in Tunisia. I remember all of them were saying oh, no, no, Egypt is not Tunisia, this is not happening, and Egypt is completely different. And they were taken by surprise. And when that happened, they started becoming active, for the first time in their life, more than the time they create the actions and they control the scene, and they know what happens next. And we are just there watching. And for the first time, we were not watching, we are the actors. And they are the ones who are working actively, so there were so many mistakes among them, including the Internet, the battle camel. Mubarak's speeches, using violence against the protestors on the night of January 25th, and using massive violence on January 28th, resulting in the death of so many Egyptians, all of this had basically, did nothing But make more people thinking that this regime has got to go.

Enrique:
Today in Egypt, the effort for democracy continues. Is it struggling?

Wael:
Of course, of course. This country is recovering from 60 years of military rule, and 30 years of, you know, being managed by a dictator. So it's not going to be easy. It's going to be very hard, and we're gonna struggle. We have no politics, we have no democracy. And we are just starting. And it's very, I would say, I used to think that everything is gonna be all great all of a sudden, and that hasn't happened in any revolution. And I believe that revolution is a process, it's not just an event. Probably we had it until after February. But the fact is we have to remain optimistic. We have to keep doing the impossible. And we have to be passionate and very patient. This is going to take long time. We have to make sure that we are on top of it, spreading the positive energy, we've achieved a lot. And it's about time, while we are celebrating our achievements, remember those who died, and make sure that their dreams become true. And finally, make sure that we never become skeptical. No bright future comes at the hand of those who think they are doomed. It's always the optimistic, the people who are forward looking, the believers in the impossible, those who are going to dream are the ones who make history. So this is what I keep reminding myself every time I wake up frustrated, and this is what I keep reminding all the Egyptians that I have seen. You know, in a skeptical mood. And if you allow, you know, if you allow me then to tell you few days ago, when I got one of my friends calling me, a third friend who was one of the top contributors of the page, got shot in his left eye. He's a designer. So he lost his left eye. He had the operation on the same day, just to make sure that his eye looks okay. But now he can't see with it. And the next day, he comes and sends me a message on Facebook saying I lost my left eye, I can still design with my right eye, tell me what design should we do next. I don't think people like this will, you know, you cannot beat an army of people like this.

Enrique:
There's a saying in this country that democracy is messy. So I suppose the Egyptians and others in the middle east in trying to find some sense of democracy and hope, have to kind of keep that in mind. And you in your future. You are on a sabbatical right now with Google. But are you planning to go back? Politics, activism, anything in your future, or what?

Wael:
I'm currently involved with many activists and establishing a political lobbying group, we have now about 27,000 members. And it's basically a group of Egyptians, Islamists, liberals, coming from different backgrounds, male and females, that are trying to say that Egypt's future is in our hand now, and we have to work with the government, the parliament, the president, on setting the priorities, working with the people, telling them what should happen in the country next for the demands of the revolution to happen. I also started an NGO, which all the proceeds of this book are going to be directed to, parts of the money is going to the families of the martyrs and the injured people. And I would hope that I would help in solving, you know, doing anything to help solving the problems of poverty and also fostering education in my country. When I will be back or not, this is the future that I can't see at the moment. But for now, I love my country and I want to see it in the right direction.

Enrique:
Wael Ghonim, thank you very much for your time.

Wael:
Thanks for hosting.

Enrique:
Best of luck.

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