Wael Ghonim: A Facebook Activist
Wael has advocated freedom and democracy in Egypt and, in spite of all the threats against him, kept on pushing for democracy. For his work and efforts, he has received prestigious awards, such as the Press Freedom Prize, the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, and had the honour of being part of TIME Magazine’s 100 list as one of the most influential people of 2011.
Aside from being popular for his democratic efforts, Wael is also a successful entrepreneur and social engineer, having worked as a manager for two leading Arabic website companies and as a Regional Marketing Manager for Google Middle East and North Africa. His Facebook pages have received over a million members, not only from his country but also from foreign nations.
Early Life in Egypt
Wael Ghonim was born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1980, just a year before Hosni Mubarak took power. His parents were middle-class entrepreneurs who engaged in different trades. When Wael was only one year old, his parents took him with them when they left Egypt for Saudi Arabia. Wael grew up in Abha, a town in the southwestern portion of Saudi Arabia, and spent 13 years there.
Living in a more peaceful environment compared to his home country, Wael learned to value freedom and democracy. His parents were instrumental in instilling these values in Wael. In some of his interviews, Wael would often declare how his parents’ kindness and love for him fuelled his desire to help others.
At a young age, Wael became fascinated with computers that he would spend a lot of time visiting computer shops in their neighbourhood. Upon their return to Egypt in 1993, Wael applied in several computer companies to further his interest. By 1999, Wael attended Cairo University to study computer engineering. While at school, Wael demonstrated his skills and intellect, which impressed many of his professors. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 2004 and went to work at Gawab, a well-known Arab language website, where his ability and talent in computers led him to becoming a manager in the company.
In 2005, Wael resigned from Gawab to help establish Mubasher.info, the first financial portal in the region. Wael was among those who wrote the programs and developed the hardware to be used for the server. Upon its opening, Mubasher became one of the most successful business portals in the region that is still up today.
In 2008, Wael Ghonim joined Google Middle East and North Africa as its Regional Marketing Manager. His work at the company impressed many of Google’s high ranking officials that two years later, he was invited to live in Dubai and work as the Head of Marketing. In January 2010, Wael left Egypt and settled in Dubai Internet City. While working there, he made contact with Mohamed ElBaradei, one of Egypt’s opposition leaders and offered to set up a website for him, which Mohamed readily accepted.
Wael’s life in Egypt exposed him to the harshness of Mubarak’s dictatorial regime. Although he became successful and well-to-do as an individual, the suffering of his fellow countrymen convinced him to do something about it. Even after he left Egypt for Dubai, Wael continued to support the pro-democracy groups in Egypt, and even made contact with a few of their leaders.
Wael Ghonim’s Answer to Tyranny: The “We Are All Khaled Saeed” Facebook Page
In the middle of 2010, Wael co-founded a Facebook page, which he called "We Are All Khaled Saeed" as a show of support to Khaled Saeed, an Egyptian teenager who died after being tortured and beaten to death by police. Khaled was in an internet shop when two police officers dragged him out, beating him and hitting him along the way. When his family visited him in the morgue, his brother took a picture of Khaled and scattered it online, showing the cruelty of the police.
Using Videos and Photos to Mobilize Fellow Egyptians
Wael used the picture as the primary photo of the page to wake many of his countrymen into action. He also posted several more pictures of police brutality in Egypt, and actively posted news, blogs, and photos of supporters all over the world. Within a few months of its establishment, the Facebook page "We Are All Khaled Saeed" gained more than a million members, from both Egypt and other countries. As a result, mass demonstrations began to erupt in numerous cities in Egypt and other parts of the world, protesting against the dictatorial regime of the then reigning President Hosni Mubarak.
Wael’s Facebook page is said to have been a major factor that started the Egyptian Revolution in 2011. The Egyptian citizens, finally awakened by such show of brutality, gathered and marched in the streets to call for the stepping down of Mubarak. This was due to Wael’s announcement on January 14, calling all Egyptians to take to the streets and do a peaceful demonstration on January 25.
In his announcement, he asked the members of the page if they were going to plan on taking the streets on the 25th of January just like what Tunisia did, and in the next two hours he published an event which he named, "January 25: Revolution against Torture, Corruption, Unemployment and Injustice" to which numerous members followed. Wael also collaborated with many activists in Egypt anonymously, citing the locations where the protests were going to be held.
Wael’s Detention in Egypt
Not wanting to stay put while his countrymen were standing for their rights, Wael decided to go back to Egypt and join the revolution. He gained permission from his Google superiors to return to Egypt after reasoning out that he had to take care of a "personal problem." He arrived in Egypt and joined the nationwide unrest, but by the 27th of January, his family declared him missing through Al-Arabiya (a large news network in Egypt) and other international media personnel present. Some witnesses claimed to have seen him being dragged by the police in the middle of the street away from the protest.
Wael’s disappearance sparked international unrest. Google issued a statement that confirmed Wael’s disappearance and called people to help in the search, and numerous bloggers, such as Habib Haddad and Chris DiBona organized campaigns to try and locate Wael’s whereabouts. On February 5, 2011, a report was released by Mostafa Alnagar, one of Egypt’s major opposition figures, stating that Wael Ghonim was alive and was imprisoned by the government authorities, scheduled to be released in hours. By the morning of February 6, more than a day after Alnagar’s statement was made, Amnesty International made demands regarding the disclosure of Wael’s location and his release by the authorities.
After 11 days in detention, Wael was finally released on February 7. As he was being released to the public, Wael was greeted by the crowd with applause and cheers. He stated:
"We will not abandon our demand and that is the departure of the regime."
Wael Praises Protesters in His Interview for Egyptian Channel DreamTV
That same day, Wael appeared on the 10:00PM programme which was hosted by Mona El-Shazly shown by the Egyptian Channel DreamTV. In the interview, Wael kept on praising and promoting the protesters for their forbearance and fortitude in the peaceful revolution. As the host read the names of those who died under the brutality of the dictatorial regime of Mubarak, Wael became overwhelmed with such grief that he walked off camera.
Wael Ghonim’s Quotes on Egyptian Revolution
After being followed by the host, Wael stated that it was the protesters in the streets that deserved more attention than him. He also asserted his allegiance to his country, stating that he would never move to the United States—which is his wife’s homeland—even if it was for his protection, being ready to die for the cause. He also called for Hosni Mubarak to step down, constantly referring to his regime as "rubbish." By the end of the interview, Wael declared:
"I want to tell every mother and every father who lost a child, I am sorry, but this is not our mistake. I swear to God, it’s not our mistake. It’s the mistake of every one of those in power who doesn’t want to let go of it."
On February 9, 2011, two days after his release, Wael spoke to the crowds in Tahrir Square and stated:
"This is not the time for individuals, or parties, or movements. It's a time for all of us to say just one thing: Egypt above all."
The speech moved everyone in the square, and soon after the crowds cheered for Wael. Within a few days he was being hailed as a national hero and the voice of the public, both of which Wael continually denies to be. In many of his interviews, Wael kept on emphasizing that the revolution was not about lifting up a single individual, as it would only repeat history; rather, it was about the entire nation of Egypt.
In the same year, Wael attended the International Monetary Fund’s 2011 meeting. Prior to coming, he received numerous criticisms from his fellow countrymen, because it was perceived in Egypt that the IMF was a part of the problem, helping regimes such as Mubarak’s survive and putting countries such as Egypt into debt. Upon his arrival, Wael claimed that he felt like the American activist “Joe the Plumber," but pointed out that he came to the IMF meeting to represent people like him who did not understand economics, prompting Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the IMF chief to say, “Wael, you understand a lot more than you say."
What Wael Has to Say about IMF
In an interview made with Wael after attending the IMF meeting, he stated that the macroeconomic discussions that were made at the panel were far different from the mindset of the protesters during the revolution in Tahrir Square. He stated:
"Honestly we were just thinking of how to get rid of the nightmare, not to start dreaming. I went to the street because of two things: I hate it when I see people eating from the trash. I work for a corporation, I'm well paid, and a lot of us just sympathized with those people, but they're not willing to pay the price of really helping them out. It's not just me; it's thousands of Egyptians. One of my friends who lost his eye [during the protests] actually drives a Ferrari. He went on the day of 25th. The second was dignity. We wanted our dignity back. And dignity does have an economic aspect."
In the interview, Wael also criticized the IMF director Strauss-Kahn’s way of characterizing the Mubarak regime’s actions as "mistakes." Wael stated that "to say that the Mubarak regime was a mistake is an understatement. It was a crime, and the way that the international community dealt with the dictatorial rule and injustice in Egypt was also a crime—partners in crime." Wael also expressed his hope that in the future, Egypt would learn to rely lesser on international aid and focus more on being a prosperous nation itself.
In spite of the popularity that he gained for having created the page that sparked the revolution and becoming one of its leaders, Wael remained humble, always giving credit to everyone who joined the protests. He often denies what many claim that he is the face of the revolution, stating that the revolution is not about a single person; it is about the people and their right to choose whoever they want to govern them.
Because of his statements and social media feeds, he has garnered quite a number of criticisms. One of them came out just a few days after President Mubarak resigned from office, stating that Wael presented a deal to have Mubarak remain in Cairo with an honorary status. In response to this, Wael immediately appeared to Al-Arabiya and denied such claims, stating: "I am stronger than Hosni Mubarak. I am stronger than Omar Sulaiman."
One of the 100 in TIME’s Most Influential People
In April of 2011, Wael announced that he was going to take a long term hiatus from his work in Google Middle East and North Africa. This was so he could focus his efforts on helping to start a technology oriented non-governmental organization that would help fight poverty and foster education in Egypt. That same month, he went to New York and was honoured at the TIME 100 Gala as the most influential person in the world. A week later, he was awarded the Press Freedom prize during the World Press Freedom Day.
Wael Ghonim Reviews His Motives for Writing Revolution 2.0
The following month, he declared that he has signed a book deal named "Revolution 2.0." In one of the interviews made with him regarding this book, Wael stated:
"Our revolution is like Wikipedia, okay? Everyone is contributing content, [but] you don't know the names of the people contributing the content. This is exactly what happened. Revolution 2.0 in Egypt was exactly the same. Everyone is contributing small pieces, bits and pieces. We drew this whole picture of a revolution. And no one is the hero in that picture."
Wael has stated that all the proceeds from the book will go to the NGO that he helped establish.
Despite his successes in both the business world and as an activist, Wael has also received quite a number of controversial criticisms against him. Aside from the "said" claim he made after the ousting of Mubarak, there were also some who criticized him for his "exaggerated" focus on Egypt’s economy and failing to publicly dissolve the doubts regarding the beginnings of his Facebook page, "We are all Khaled Saeed." In spite of all these criticisms and controversies made against him, Wael has kept himself focused on his work; never letting statements such as these get into his head and discourage him.
Regarding his personal life, Wael is married to Ilka Johannson, an American Muslim whom he met in Facebook. They have two children, namely: Israa and Adam Ghonim. In some of his interviews, Wael often states how the revolution helped save their family; a few weeks prior to the revolution, Ilka declared her intentions in leaving Wael due to him not spending enough time with his family. After the experience of being kidnapped during the revolution, Wael realized the importance of spending time with his family and how they should be his ultimate focus. Since then, he has decided to spend more time with his family and devote more of his energies to them.
Wael Ghonim: Inside the Egyptian revolution TED Video
In this video, Wael Ghonim is shown speaking at TEDxCairo about the Egyptian uprising. According to the video description provided in the website, Wael "helped jumpstart Egypt's democratic revolution ... with a Facebook page memorializing a victim of the regime's violence. Speaking at TEDxCairo, he tells the inside story of the past two months, when everyday Egyptians showed that "the power of the people is stronger than the people in power."
Currently, Wael is still involved with his work in Google Middle East and North Africa as its Head for Marketing as well as with the NGO he started in Egypt. He still moderates several Facebook pages that constantly monitors and participates in the development and improvement of life in Egypt.
Awards and Achievements
- 2011: Included in TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people
- 2011: Won the Press Freedom Prize from Reporters without Borders (Swedish Division)
- 2011: Received the JFK Profile in Courage Award
- 2011: Ranked 2nd in Arabian Business’ Power 500 most influential Arabs