Wael Ghonim is the 30-year-old revolutionary who helped harness the power of social media to mobilize Egyptians and hasten the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.
Addressing Muslims in the San Francisco Bay Area on a recent visit, Ghonim reflected on his experience and on the unfinished revolutions currently sweeping the Arab Middle East.
“While a small fraction of Egyptians was living the good life, most Egyptians were living without dignity for decades,” said Ghonim, currently on leave as a Google Middle East marketing manager. “That’s what finally forced the Tahrir Square revolution on 25th January. For years, Mubarak and his family and cronies kept stealing the country’s assets while torturing dissidents. Many Egyptians were surviving by eating out of street-corner trash.”
But Ghonim’s message was one of hope and optimism. He believes that the new Egypt will be fundamentally different from the old. But it will require patience, vigilance and more sacrifice, because the battle for a life of dignity and freedom for Egyptians is far from over.
“We need to shock the world one more times,” he said, “by showing that the fall of a dictator can be followed by a government of transparency, accountability and the rule of law. Even if it takes Egypt 2-3 years to succeed, it will send a strong signal to dictators and oppressors everywhere that they can be overthrown by people power.”
The striking thing about the Tahrir revolution was that there was no hero and no leader to lead the masses. Egyptians led themselves. “People often look to leaders to tell them what to do. If the recent events in Egypt have taught us anything, it is that we don’t need leaders for revolutions to succeed.”
In Tahrir Square, Ghonim did not see anyone engaging in self-promotion. Young Egyptians used the Web to harness the wisdom of the people, even as Mubarak’s regime tried to block Internet access. Physicians treated the wounded. Volunteers cleaned the streets. People kept vigil against government goons. Women fed the hungry and cared for the sick. Christians and Muslims joined hands. There was a unity of purpose.
Until the revolution, Egyptians were fatalistic. They were resigned to the Mubarak clan ruling Egypt forever. It all changed in January when, inspired by Tunisians, Egyptians threw away the yoke of fear and took charge of their own destiny.
There is now the urgent need for Muslims in the West to help Egypt move forward. One way, suggested Ghonim. would be for us to sponsor rural areas. “Economy is the priority now. If a laborer, farmer or taxi-driver begins to feel that the revolution has not brought any change to his life, if he still has difficulty feeding his family, he will say, ‘This has done nothing for me. We might as well go back to the old way.’ If you can teach, contribute money, donate useful and usable tools, offer healthcare, if you can help modernize 10-15 Egyptian rural villages through focused effort, that will make a big difference.”
Tourism is another area where Muslims can contribute. There will be fairs and celebrations throughout Egypt in June. Ghonim appealed to Muslims to visit Egypt in the summer and see firsthand the country’s transformation. It is the kind of economic stimulus Egypt urgently needs. One out of 9 Egyptians depends on tourism for livelihood. Over 1 million Egyptians have lost their jobs during the revolution. “We cannot let the unemployed channel their frustration into anti-revolutionary activities.”
To Washington, Ghonim had this to say: You have to align your interest with your values. Dictators dangled stability in front of you while denying people their rights and freedom. You went along with this. Unless there is a fundamental change in your policy, you will lose us. There are signs that changes are occurring but they have to be long-term and based on respect and justice.
“I believe in people, not governments,” said Ghonim. Governments don’t want to change but people do. The Internet is a powerful catalyst for change and people must learn to leverage its tools to bring about the changes they seek.
The military may yet complicate the transition to democracy in Egypt. As the young activist sees it, as long as people are engaged, are not distracted by frivolous pursuits or consumed by partisan politics, those in power will have to respond to the wishes of the people. Otherwise the leaders will turn into tyrants and society will atrophy.
It is important for people to take responsibility instead of waiting to be told what to do, Ghonim said. “Many of you asked me how you can help Egypt and other countries. I have given you some ideas but you can use the Internet to figure this out yourself. Do your homework. Don’t ask for guidelines. I am just 1 of 10 million Egyptians. I don’t consider myself a leader. I don’t believe I have done anything remarkable. It’s the people, all of us, united by a common purpose, who made the revolution possible. We have a long way to go but what we have shown is that each one of us can be an agent for change.”
While Tunisians, Egyptians, Yemenis and others have been brave, the bravest so far, according to Ghonim, have been the ragtag Libyan rebels. Without heavy weapons and with hardly any training, they have taken on the army of a mad and ruthless despot and gaining ground every day, inch by inch.
Ghonim is not motivated by revenge or retribution but he is insistent that the main perpetrators responsible for Egypt’s economic, political and social decline be brought to justice, starting with Hosni Mubarak. “We have to set an example so that future leaders will think twice before abusing the law and doing whatever they please.”
Ghonim asked Muslims not to suffer from “conference syndrome.” This is where Muslims attend well-meaning seminars and conferences, listen to speakers flush with oratorical exuberance, feel inspired, then go home and … do nothing. “Let’s reduce the volume of talk and increase the amount of action. We don’t have to tolerate tyranny and we don’t have to wait for leaders. We can change our own conditions if we have the courage to believe in ourselves.”