The revolutions that swept the Middle East in 2011 surprised and captivated the world. Brutal regimes that had been in power for decades were overturned by an irrepressible mass of freedom seekers. Now, one of the figures who emerged during the Egyptian uprising tells the riveting inside story of what happened and shares the keys to unleashing the power of crowds.
Wael Ghonim was a little-known, thirty-year-old Google executive in the summer of 2010 when he anonymously launched a Facebook page to protest the death of one Egyptian man at the hands of security forces. The page’s following expanded quickly and moved from online protests to a nonconfrontational movement.
The youth of Egypt made history: they used social media to schedule a revolution. The call went out to more than a million Egyptians online, and on January 25, 2011, Cairo’s Tahrir Square resounded with calls for change. Yet just as the revolution began in earnest, Ghonim was captured and held for twelve days of brutal interrogation. After he was released, he gave a tearful speech on national television, and the protests grew more intense. Four days later, the president of Egypt was gone.
The lessons Ghonim draws will inspire each of us. He saw the road to Tahrir Square built not by any one person, but by the people. In Revolution 2.0, we can all be heroes.
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About the Author
Wael Ghonim was born in Cairo and grew up in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, earning a degree from Cairo University in 2004 and an MBA from the American University in Cairo in 2007. He joined Google in 2008, rising to become Head of Marketing for Google Middle East and North Africa. He is currently a non-resident senior fellow at Harvard's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.
Read an Excerpt
The world around me was reduced to pitch black. I could sense the deliberate use of side streets by the driver as the car traveled through Cairo at midnight. We twisted and turned many times, a technique my captors often used to disorient their victims.
On my right and left were two guards from State Security. They kept a tight grip on my handcuffed arms. I remained completely silent so as not to provoke them. They had forced my shirt up to cover my head so I could not see, and my belt was tied firmly over the shirt, around my head. One of them had pushed my head down to hide me from passing pedestrians. Everything I had been carrying had been confiscated.
Those brief moments before the car reached its destination were all too familiar. I had published the accounts of many captives of State Security. Now it was my turn. I wondered what could happen to me next, but I knew the answer: anything.
“Get out, you son of a b————,” said a loud and angry voice when we arrived. I was being pushed out of the car. My reception inside the building was harsh and mocking. I was slapped, kicked, and cursed, all accompanied by derisive laughter. It seemed as if these men enjoyed their work, or at least they did it purposefully. The laughter was part of their strategy to instill fear prior to interrogating newcomers. The most difficult thing about the slaps and kicks was their element of surprise. I had no means of anticipating any strike because I was blindfolded. When would I be hit next? From which side, on which part of me? I had no clue.
I wondered what they knew. What had I done that had given me away? Kick. Curse. My fear grew. I knew that this was what they wanted — to break me down before the interrogation. I decided to hasten things along by pretending to tremble. Yet real fear was starting to take over.
In the midst of the beating I prayed to God that he would somehow inspire my friend Najeeb, in Dubai, to change the password to the Facebook page’s e-mail account. I prayed for Najeeb to do it before the interrogation got serious. They must not know what I had done.
I wanted to see my children again.
A Regime of Fear
My 2011 arrest was not the first time I had encountered Egyptian State Security. One winter afternoon in 2007, I received a call from a man who presented himself as Captain Raafat al-Gohary, from the bureau in Giza, Egypt’s third largest city, which is part of greater Cairo. Needless to say, Rafaat al-Gohary was not his real name. State Security officers feared the potential wrath of citizens they interrogated and tortured, so they used pseudonyms. I greeted him calmly, attempting to hide the anxiety caused by the surprise. He said I needed to meet him for an important matter and I was to head to State Security in Dokki, a neighborhood in Giza, at eleven o’clock that night. My anxiety increased. I asked what was the matter. His response: “There’s nothing to worry about. We’ll just have a chat over coffee, that’s all.” This failed to comfort me. I asked if we could reschedule, saying that I was busy with work. He refused. I wanted to play for time to try to figure out why I was being summoned, but he insisted we meet at eleven. What is the worst that can happen? I wondered. My days of activism were long over. I had never before been summoned.
Immediately after hanging up, I contacted a close friend, and we agreed that I was to call him right after the meeting ended. If he never got the call, he was to find out exactly what had happened to me, since in the past, people in a situation like mine had suddenly disappeared for days or even months after their “visit.” I decided not to tell my wife or my family anything, as I didn’t want them to panic.
I arrived at the main gate at 11 P.M. sharp. The neighborhood was quite familiar to me; my high school was literally right around the corner. At reception, after confirming that I was to meet Captain Rafaat al-Gohary, I was told to sit down and wait. Around me were at least six others. Although I didn’t speak to them, it was clear that we all shared one emotion: apprehension.
Egyptian State Security reached deep into society, involving itself in every detail of life. It thrived on the emergency law, enacted in 1958 but not enforced until after the Six-Day War in 1967, and still in effect in mid-2011. That law gives executive authorities the right to arrest, interrogate, and imprison any Egyptian for up to six months without a warrant or any legal grounds or even the right to an attorney. It also empowers the authorities to ban all types of protests as well as gatherings of any group of people without a security clearance.
The dossiers of State Security were objects of fear and ridicule. Any activist of any sort, or even anyone with considerable financial or intellectual influence, had an exhaustive dossier in his or her name at State Security, containing every detail the authorities had collected that could possibly be useful in blackmailing him or her into obedience when needed. Privacy was almost meaningless to this quintessentially Machiavellian organization. Thus, phone tapping, for instance, was a very common practice of State Security officers. Word spread that tapes documenting the infidelities of famous businessmen and public figures were stored in a room at headquarters. Ironically, officers used to advise each other not to spy on their own wives’ phones, to avoid family conflicts.
Not only did the state monitor and terrorize political opposition groups and religious activists, but its oppressive reach extended to anyone engaged in public service, including charities whose field operations were limited to empowering the poor and unfortunate. With over 40 percent of Egyptians living below the poverty line, the authorities were consistently trying to curb anyone who might mobilize the masses for a future political cause.
State Security approval was obviously a prerequisite for any senior appointment in the government. Even university teaching assistants, who are supposedly selected from among the top students of the year’s graduating class, could not be hired by the university without a security clearance proving that they were innocent of any dissident activism, political or religious.
The Egyptian regime lived in fear of opposition. It sought to project a façade of democracy, giving the impression that Egypt was advancing toward political rights and civil liberties while it vanquished any dissidents who threatened to mobilize enough support to force real change.
The Ministry of Interior was one key force of coercion. Another was the state media: terrestrial and satellite television as well as newspapers and magazines, the most famous of which were Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar, and Al-Gomhouriya. The regime sought to plant fear in the hearts of Egyptians from an early age. Fear was embodied in local proverbs, such as “Walk quietly by the wall (where you cannot be noticed),” “Mind your own business and focus on your livelihood,” and “Whosoever is afraid stays unharmed.” The regime’s uncompromising control also covered workers’ unions and the nation’s legislative bodies.
This all amounted to what I came to call “weapons of mass oppression.” No matter how far down we spiraled, no matter how much corruption spread, only a few people dared to swim against the current. Those who did ended up in a prison cell after an unfriendly encounter with State Security, or were subjected to character assassination in the media, or were targeted on fraudulent charges or long-ignored violations.
“Hello, Wael. Why are you giving us a hard time? Why the troublemaking?”
This, together with a faint smile, was how Captain Raafat greeted me. His air-conditioned office contained three other investigators. The room was modestly decorated with a number of books, many of which were very obviously about religion. State Security wanted everyone to believe that it had nothing against faith.
I looked at him and smiled as I responded calmly, “I don’t make trouble at all. It is you guys who give me trouble, and I have no idea why. I’m glad you called me in, so I can figure out what the problem is. Every time I travel back to Egypt my name appears on the arrivals watch list and the airport officers transfer my passport to State Security, who pulls me aside for an inspection, including a full search of my bags.”
This problem dated back to December 2001, when I returned from the United States, three months after 9/11. As I was collecting my luggage, I heard my name over the loudspeakers. I was urgently asked to return to passport control. There was also someone calling my name in person, so I showed myself to him. He took my passport and asked me to wait in front of a lounge by State Security’s airport office. After a very nerve-racking forty minutes, a detective emerged with my passport and asked me to bring my luggage in for inspection. That day I thanked God that everything turned out well. It appeared to be nothing more than a typical post-9/11 glitch. Yet every time I entered Egypt between that day and the time the revolution began, I was pulled aside. Until this day, I had never found out the reason for that.
Captain Raafat was deliberately friendly, as if we really were just having a chat. However, he was armed with pen and paper, and he carefully documented the conversation. He took time to finish recording my responses before he resumed his questions. Almost everyone from the upper or middle class who was called in for interrogation by State Security was met with this same friendly, off-the-record manner. (Poorer people were treated far more harshly.) It was transparently illegitimate.
The captain asked for my personal information: name, age, address, marital status. I answered all his questions. He asked about my wife’s full name.
“Oh, she is not Egyptian. Where is she from?”
“America,” I responded.
He wrote her full name in Arabic as I pronounced it again and asked me to verify the spelling.
“So you married an American for the citizenship, right?”
He was surprised to discover that despite my marriage in 2001, I had never applied for a green card or U.S. citizenship. “I’m a proud Egyptian and I find no reason why I should apply for any other citizenship,” I explained.
Very cynically, he replied, “And what is it exactly that you like about Egypt?”
“I’m never able to verbally express my reasons for loving Egypt, yet love for it runs in my blood,” I replied honestly. “Even my wife asks why I love my country despite all its shortcomings. I always answer that I don’t know why. You know, Captain, when I lived in Saudi Arabia, during the first thirteen years of my life, I literally used to count the days left, on a paper on my desk, before I could return home to Egypt to spend the annual vacation. And when only a few days remained, I was too excited to fall asleep at night.” I returned his cynical smile and joked, “I love it here because life lacks routine. You wake up in the morning and have no idea what the day will be like. One morning you could receive a phone call like the one I received today, asking you to report to State Security.”
He smiled while saying, “You are certainly a troublemaker.”
I saw a copy of the Holy Qur’an lying on the captain’s desk. I assumed it was there to assure anyone who sat opposite him that the captain regularly read scripture and had nothing against faith. The ruling regime was extremely apprehensive about organized religious forces in Egypt, particularly ones that concerned themselves with public affairs. Their fears were intensified when thousands of Egyptians traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet invaders. Many of those fighters, or self-proclaimed mujahideen, returned with ideologies that rejected the Arab regimes, denouncing them as heretical and treacherous tools of the West. The new ideology, and the new militants, posed a threat to the Egyptian authorities. Although the emergency law had been suspended by President Anwar al-Sadat in 1980, it was reinstated eighteen months later, following Sadat’s 1981 assassination at the hands of radical Islamists. Sadat’s assassins were apparently motivated by his crackdown on more than 1,500 political and religious activists, and also by the fact that he signed a peace treaty with Israel and emphasized it with a visit to Tel Aviv.
The influence of religious groups in Egypt increased as time went on, and their variety expanded. These groups were never homogeneous, nor did they all necessarily share the same philosophies or even objectives. They did share one thing, however: enmity toward the regime. In turn, Hosni Mubarak’s government feared them. Mubarak knew these groups could influence the Egyptian masses more than anyone else, since Egyptians tend to be religious by nature; in a Gallup poll conducted in June 2011, 96 percent of the one thousand Egyptian respondents agreed that religion played “an important role in their daily life.” Ordinary Egyptians take religious figures as role models, symbols of nobility and sincerity, values which were thoroughly lacking in many of the the public representatives of the regime. Most of the time when the regime attacked a religious group, that group’s popularity received a boost. The fact that economic conditions were stagnant or declining only magnified the effect.
State Security kept an eye on all religious speakers and scholars and even on university students who frequented mosques, not just those who were active in Islamic movements. They were careful to summon such people to their offices to ask them about their activities and even to intervene and attempt to redirect them. Occasionally, hundreds would be arrested and thrown into jail for years without explicit accusations. Behind bars, they were brutally treated and humiliated. Once released, they either became fanatics, motivated by their bad experience, or attempted to reintegrate into society and forget the past.
This, I realized, was the real reason for my interrogation. State Security wanted to know if I had any links to religious or political activism, especially now that I regularly traveled abroad and, as a result, was becoming more exposed to real democracy. It was time to create a dossier in my name that contained the details of my life for future reference.
The story of my faith dates back to high school days. I did not pray regularly before then, although I adhered to the general ethics of religion, thanks to my parents’ encouragement and because I grew up in Saudi Arabia. That country is conservative by nature, especially in Abha, a small southern city where society and culture are assumed to be less advanced than in urban centers.
One of my closest cousins, Dalia, died in a car accident in 1997 at the age of twenty-five. Her death had an impact on me, and I was moved to explore my faith, as I didn’t want to die unprepared. I listened to sermons, attended religious lessons, and read books. I felt that life was a brief test that ended at death. I started praying five times a day, on time, and often at the mosque.
At the university, I mixed with people from many religious groups and ideologies, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and I joined many of their activities at the school. But I always made my own sense out of things. A famous sheikh whom I met with several times once said to me, “Your problem, Wael, is that you only follow your own logic and you don’t want to have a role model to follow.” It was hard for me to accept conventional wisdom. It was my nature to discuss any matter thoroughly before I could accept a conclusion with both heart and mind. This attitude in an eighteen-year-old is not always endearing. It was not just my age, however. Thanks to frequent exposure to global media and modern communication tools, many young Egyptians were slowly becoming empowered to make their own educated choices.
Table of Contents
1. A Regime of Fear 1
2. Searching for a Savior 28
3. Kullena Khaled Said 58
4. Online and on the Streets 82
5. A Preannounced Revolution 122
6. January 25, 2011 161
7. My Name Is 41 188
8. The Dungeon 218
9. A Pharaoh Falls 249
What People are Saying About This
A "fast-paced and engrossing new memoir of political awakening...Ghonim’s memoir is a welcome and cleareyed addition to a growing list of volumes that have aimed (but often failed) to meaningfully analyze social media’s impact. It’s a book about social media for people who don’t think they care about social media. It will also serve as a touchstone for future testimonials about a strengthening borderless digital movement that is set to continually disrupt powerful institutions, be they corporate enterprises or political regimes…Ghonim’s writing voice is spare and measured, and marked by the same earnest humility he has displayed in media appearances …His individual story resonates on two levels: it epitomizes the coming-of-age of a young Middle Eastern generation that has grown up in the digital era, as well as the transformation of an apolitical man from comfortable executive to prominent activist. " The New York Times Book Review
"A remarkable personal testament that will be cited by future historians of both Facebook and the Arab Spring."Kirkus
"Ghonim...brings his broad international perspective and knowledge of technology to this fascinating look at the new face of revolution."Booklist
"Revolution 2.0...is likely to be required reading for web geeks, media experts, political scientists, advertising executives, activists, anarchists, confidence men, secret policemen, dictators and corporate strategists."The Telegraph (UK)
"An articulate account of the author's middle-class upbringing under a draconian regime, and a gripping chronicle of how a fear-frozen society finally topples its oppressors with the help of social media ...That the translation reads so smoothly in English is a linguistic feat...It helps that Ghonim is a methodical thinker whose plain and logical approach evokes a thoughtful rather than radical response. He deftly renders the details of his conversations with interrogators and willingly describes personal scenes...A final suspenseful chronicle of how government officials attempted to brainwash and dupe him after his release from prison will be eye-opening for anyone who wonders about the distorted mind-set of Egypt's leaders....It's not surprising that Ghonim's commitment to the cause affected his relationship with his wife and children; it reminds one of our own historical revolutionaries - John and Abigail Adams come to mind - who required a certain obsessive determination that may seem irresponsible to those who live in a democracy." The San Francisco Chronicle
"Ghonim doesn't overreach in this deeply personal account. His words ring with an authentic tone...Ghonim avoids sweeping generalizations during those heady and tumultuous days." The Los Angeles Times
"A fascinating book...There is an energy in the book and in Ghonim's words that makes one feel it is much too soon to assume the revolution is over, or to underestimate what the rebels achieved."The Philadelphia Inquirer
"Deserve[s] to become part of the canon of classic prison literature"The Washington Post
"Revolution 2.0 excels in chronicling the roiling tension in the months before the uprising, the careful organization required and the momentum it unleashed. Ghonim … present[s] a manifesto on the capacity of social media to transform a society…Its approach — inherently plural, modern and pragmatic — augurs well for a society on the brink of an uncertain future."NPR.org
"There's no doubting that his tell-it-like-it-is memoir will be studied by historians for generations to come."Bloomberg