Internet activist Wael Ghonim, Part 2

Tavis concludes his two-part conversation with the Egyptian new media activist and former Google exec.

A longtime Internet activist, Wael Ghonim helped mobilize protesters in Egypt, through technology and social media. He was held by authorities for his efforts, but also named to the Time 100 list and received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award on behalf of the Egyptian people. The computer engineer was born in Cairo and raised in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He joined Google in 2008, rising to become head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa, and is on sabbatical while he creates a technology–inspired NGO in Egypt. Ghonim recounts lessons of the Arab Spring in his text Revolution 2.0.


Tavis: Back now with more of our conversation with Wael Ghonim. The new book is called “Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People is Greater than the People in Power.” Wael, thanks for sticking around for another show.

Wael Ghonim: Thanks.

Tavis: We left this conversation last night with your statement that the Egyptian people have a – and I’m paraphrasing here – have a distrust of American foreign policy, and you made the joke and I laughed because it was funny, but also there was some truth there – that we Americans don’t always trust our foreign policy.

Ghonim: I said “probably.”

Tavis: Yeah, no, well, let me just – there’s no probably to it; it’s a fact. At least some of us feel this way. We love our country, but we have issues with foreign policy because we bounce around.

One day you’re our friend and the next day we hate you. You’re our friend as long as we get what we need, and then we’ll turn on you in a heartbeat if that’s what it takes to advance our strategic interest. That’s just the truth, whether folk want to hear that or not. But that’s another conversation for another show.

What we’re talking about now is your assessment that the Egyptian people, by and large, don’t trust U.S. foreign policy. Tell me more.

Ghonim: Well, there is, as I mentioned yesterday, there is a long history of taking decisions based on interests and not based on values, and this is crucial in the trust-building process.

If I know who you are, if I know what you stand for, and I see you acting in a completely different way than who you are and who you stand for and the people who represent you, then I have a problem with you, and this problem is basically I don’t trust your actions. I cannot see your actions.

This is why I was saying that, for example, we did not really care that much about what the U.S. is going to say about the revolution and about us taking to the streets. We just believed in ourselves and our ability, and we thought that the ones who will care about the interests of the Egyptian people and the values of the Egyptian people are the Egyptian people.

So I believe just to be progressive and look at what should happen, I believe that in the next few years, as – democracy is a process. It’s going to take time, we’re going to pay a lot of prices, we’re going to see a lot of challenges, but in that way there should be a shift in the way relationships are established. I quote here Thomas Friedman; I read one of his articles, when he said that the time of solving problems in this region using phone calls is over.

Because we are talking about a region where the people who are elected first care about those voters who gave them their votes, which never have happened before. Mubarak would have taken any decisions he want and know how to basically tell the people that’s it.

The second is that those people are the true representatives of the masses, of the majority of Egypt, for example, so the time for solving problems using phone calls are no longer going to be there.

So I hope that in the next few years, we establish a more solid relationship based on interests and values and not just interests. I know probably I could be dreamy and thinking too much of being idealistic, but hey, the revolution was very idealistic at the very beginning, and no one believed in it.

Tavis: How annoying is it – and that’s my word, not yours – how annoying is it to see on the part of some Americans, some in the media, some so-called “experts,” who appear to be awfully impatient with the Egyptian people where this thing called democracy concerned.

We’re still working on this a couple hundred years later, we’re still trying to get it right here in the United States, but I’ve heard people – I have a friend of mine named Bill Maher who hosts a big show on HBO, and he and I famously got into a big fight about this.

Ghonim: I know him.

Tavis: You know Bill. It went all over the Internet, we were arguing about the treatment or maltreatment of women in Egypt, and I tried to make the point that hey, we’re still working on patriarchy here in our own country.

We got into a huge fight that went viral, just thousands and thousands of hits watching this fight that Bill and I got into about this very issue. But anyway, the point is –

Ghonim: But you’re still friends, right?

Tavis: We’re still friends, absolutely, we’ll still be friends. Hi, Bill. (Laughter) I think we’re still friends. I haven’t been back on his show since then, but I think we’re still friends. (Laughter)

Anyway, the question is how annoying is it, with the impatience of some of our leaders, that the violence is ongoing and you guys aren’t going about this the right way, and et cetera, et cetera?

Ghonim: Well, again I’m speaking on my behalf, on behalf of myself, not on behalf of the Egyptian people. I just think that recovering from 60 years of military rule and 30 years of pure dictatorship is not going to happen in months, and I always liked this concept of the helicopter view, where when I get frustrated – I get frustrated just like everyone else, and disappointed with the pace of change.

But then I like to rest and look back and see the big picture. There have been lots of achievements in the past 12 months. We never have thought it would happen in years. It’s good to be dreamy and to keep seeking the right way to go, yet it’s also important while you’re doing that to be kind of realistic and celebrate successes.

We have a success such as that for the first time in Egypt history, 27 million took to the streets, in 60 years, in Egypt history in 60 years, took to the street. Almost 50 percent of the voter – more than 50 percent of the voters to vote for a parliament member.

We are having presidential elections coming in very soon. So the Egyptian people are finally having a say on democracy. I think a lot of the frustration in the West happens because probably that’s not what they have envisioned as the people’s choice, and to me, I took to the street not to tell Egyptians who they should choose or replacing a dictator with another one but who is much better.

I went to the street because Egyptians were denied the right to choose, and it’s about time that they get that right to choose. Based on the opinion of the majority, we have to all respect.

I was disappointed that George W. Bush was reelected in the U.S. presidential election for a second term after what happened in Iraq, as an Arab who was not really happy or appreciate what he did, yet for the American people that’s the choice where everyone have followed and everyone have respected, because this is democracy.

Pretty much the same thing should happen everywhere in the world, and I think again, let’s go back to any country you’re covering from a dictatorship to democracy. It’s a process, it will take time, there will be price. We will all sometimes be disappointed.

For me, I want to remain optimistic, passionate and a believer that those who woke up the critical mass that now cares a lot about this country are no longer scared, are going to take this country in the right direction despite all the hard time we might be facing.

Tavis: One slight addendum – not everybody respected that decision about Mr. Bush’s second time around, or the first time around, but that’s another show for another time as well. I digress on that for the moment.

Ghonim: You’re getting me into American politics.

Tavis: No, you’ll get me in trouble, I told you. I’m not kidding you; you’d get me in trouble.

But since you raised George W. Bush, let’s talk about the guy who followed George W. Bush that many Americans and many Egyptians and others in the Middle East were very happy about – the election of Barack Hussein Obama.

Obama, after being elected, as you well know, famously goes to the region and gives this speech that everybody celebrates about the new way we’re going to do business in the Middle East, the new way we’re going to do business with Egypt and other countries in that part of the world.

Then when the real test comes, where we stand on Mubarak versus the people, the people versus the power, then we get really shaky. We get really shaky; we get weak at the knees at that very moment.

So assess for me – I know you said last night that in the end the Egyptian people were happy with where Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton ultimately came down, but there were some rocky days in there, so let’s talk about Mr. Obama specifically.

Tavis: Well, I think they were happy. They appreciated the fact that they took the stand. Yet we thought it was not the reason why this was succeeding, and even if they didn’t take, that wouldn’t have made us, for example, okay, let’s go back home, the U.S. is not supporting us. We did not even have that in the back of our minds during the revolution time.

But at the end of the day, as I said, the problem of mistrust requires actions. In order to rebuild trust, it’s not speeches, it’s not lectures, it’s not media. It’s actions on the ground. People want to see a change, a real change, in the way foreign policy towards our part of the region is made.

Again, this will require work, and I understand it’s very hard. The U.S. is basically institution-based, and it’s not just the president who will make the key decisions. You have to work with the team and so on.

After all, I just hope as an Egyptian that the new form of relationship that will happen after we have a president, an elected president, is based on the mutual respect – real one, not the one that we used to have in the past, and not just of the government but of the people of Egypt, and that the policies reflect the values of the U.S. and not just the interests.

Tavis: So tell me how much of this you were thinking about during those 11 days when you were on lockdown, having been arrested, blindfolded the entire time.

You talk in the book about the fact that the psychological torture for you was much worse than the physical torture that others had to endure, but how much of this were you processing during that 11 days?

Ghonim: Well, the hardest part, as I talked about, was that you don’t know when are you going to go out, and you are taken in a very critical moment, which basically I was asking myself if this is going to fail, am I going to be dead? Because no one knows where I am.

I was taken out of the street, kidnapped at 1:00 a.m. on the night of the 27th. I just didn’t know – days were passing and I wasn’t communicating, I didn’t know anything that was going out, and I did not communicate, talk to anyone, because the interrogations ended after the third day. So I was waiting for the unknown.

Then the second hardest thing is that your family – at least you know where you are, but your family doesn’t know where you are, and my wife was living in Dubai and my kids, I kept trying not to think about them, because if I think about them I will definitely get more, like, broken tears and get more frustrated, which happened one time.

Because what is she telling them, and when I’m going to go out, will I be able to see them again? This is what happened in my – when they put me in the car and put my head down and covered my eye. I was asking myself, “Will I see my kids again?”

Tavis: How’d you survive that 11-day torturous process?

Ghonim: I don’t know. Time just passed. It was very slow. Hours seemed like days and days seemed like years, and I was trying to – I’m a Muslim, so I prayed. Five times a day, I was – that was such a relief, every day I was able to do the prayers. They wouldn’t prevent me from doing the prayers.

Definitely during the time I was just trying to tell myself that at the end of the day something big is happening outside and I have to pay sort of a price. I was part of it, I believed in it, and it’s time to pay the price.

I’m very thankful to everyone who helped me, including my family members and Google as a company. They did amazing work. And the pressure that happened from the different colleagues coming from – a lot of even activists that didn’t know me were pressuring to get me released.

Tavis: How much of what was happening on the outside were you aware of while you were on the inside?

Ghonim: Zero, nothing.

Tavis: Nothing at all?

Ghonim: Nothing, and that was very hard. I had moments where I was thinking probably they are keeping me because everything is going on, it’s strong outside, and they don’t want me out. Sometimes, I have the opposite feeling that probably they managed to basically stop it and I’m left here because no one cares anymore. It’s just let him pay the price of doing that.

Tavis: You referenced a moment ago the company Google, who, as you say in the book, worked really hard to raise their voice to get you out. Thankfully, you got out.

But tell me more about this relationship, and whether or not they at times were disappointed, were they frustrated? Again, you’re a Google executive and you’re doing the right thing in many respects; on the other hand, companies don’t like to get involved in controversies. So tell me about Google.

Ghonim: Well, I didn’t really tell my managers about my level of involvement, even before the 25th. I didn’t tell them that I’m going to the protests. I said I have a personal reason, I need to be in Cairo for a few days, and I had my time off balance that would allow me to do so.

Yet as soon as they discovered that I was not there and I disappeared, they made a great job, I have to say – a job that typically, many companies would, as you mentioned, would want to stay out of, because they don’t know to what extend there what did I exactly do, why did I disappear, who’s capturing me?

It was a very brave action from the company, very unexpected. I have to say unexpected in general, but when I was in jail, I was expecting it. I know that’s how Google thinks of its employees, and they will definitely try and help me out.

The company hired security companies, try and locate me, they went to every morgue and hospital and police station, they asked about me in prisons and they released a campaign to call for if anyone knows any information about me they would call a number.

That was, I would say, very personal, and this is what I like about the company, and this is actually what I like about the revolution. It was very personal. I have a lot of people who don’t know me and I don’t know them, and I feel very connected to them, as if we were brothers and sisters.

The Tahrir Square experience, which I detailed in the book, was very personal indeed. People – there’s this bond, unity bond that were developed among the people during the 18 days, because all of us, all of a sudden, dreamed of something big to happen, and that was so big that it required all of us to unite, which is something I hope will happen again in the next – I’m confident it will happen again in the next few months, but this time about the future of the country.

Tavis: So tell me, as you discuss in the book, about when and how you got out.

Ghonim: On the tenth day, the guard told me, “The interrogator wants you,” and he, without any further notice, said, “I have good news for you. We found that you’re not guilty, you’re not part of a plot to destabilize the country,” as they said at the very beginning, “and you’re going to be out.”

And he talked with me for hours about, which I talk about in the book, about what should I say when I go out. He told me that you’re going to be a very high-profile person, your words are accountable. He tried to convince me that Mubarak had basically done everything possible for the Egyptians and whatever you are dreaming of, which is pretty much true, whatever you are dreaming of now is, to a large extent is happening.

He’s no longer going to reelect himself, his son is out of the politics, they’re changing the party, and he kept telling me all those stuff. Plus the stories about the presence, the chaos that happened in the street, and then I spent hours with him and his other colleagues, still blindfolded, until I was taken out of the prison and going back home.

Tavis: So when you got out, what did you say?

Ghonim: Well, it was a very happy feeling. My mental status completely changed from being very desperate and annoyed and frustrated and worried and afraid, to feeling proud and happy and finally I’m smelling the breath of freedom. It was such a big feeling.

It felt like I was out for years, and I have to say I shouldn’t make myself a hero out of this, because there have been a lot of Egyptians who were in jail for months, years, some of them were tortured severely. I was not really tortured, at the end of the day. I was just blindfolded and handcuffed, and yeah, there’s psychological torture.

But there are others who get – they are tortured with tools that you probably thing we are in the 18th century, not in the 21st century. Or they would stay in prison for years.

Yet I think because I never had this experience and I never thought I would have it, that had a very hard impact on me, and I was very proud of what the people did when I heard the stories, when I came out. I was very proud of what the people did. I met the new minister of interior affairs, and I say that story.

He asked me, “What irritates you?” I said, “The photo above you,” because in Egypt, in most of the places, we had Hosni Mubarak photos almost everywhere. His name was also on universities, government agencies, schools, hospitals.

He said, “Okay, why do you hate that man so much?” I said, “I don’t hate him, but he’s not God, he’s not pharaoh. Why do you have his picture everywhere? You are employed by the people and not by him. He’s just a servant for the public.”

Tavis: So you went to jail and you still didn’t learn your lesson. You still came out talking trash. (Laughter)

Ghonim: Well, I have to say I thought it wouldn’t be that risky anyway, and I didn’t calculate the risk at the time. I thought we have to kind of change this culture of being silent to a culture being outspoken and saying exactly what we believe in.

This was the core value of the revolution. People were outspoken. They said exactly what they believed in.

Tavis: Since we’re talking about Mubarak, let me jump ahead. So we’re just days, weeks away from presidential elections in your country. What’s going to happen, and are you going to endorse anybody?

Ghonim: Well, first we need to make sure that the elections will take place, because that is the core. By having the election and having a new president, then you, practically speaking, taking away the executive power.

We’ve taken away the legal stuff power from the military and now by having a president, you take away the executive power from them. So we need to make sure that it happens as soon as possible, not for anything but for the stability of the country. For the better of the army, because the army is being now in a very weak position, in fact, and we don’t want to see our army dissolved or we don’t want to see our army having such issues.

So as soon as the presidential elections take place I will be one of the – I will think this is one of the moments that is equivalent to the moment of 11th of February, as important, as critical. No matter whomever was elected as far as the election is fair and democratic and that this is a true representative of most of the Egyptians.

I think I will endorse someone. I don’t want to discuss that at the moment, and I’m not sure if my endorsement will actually be good or bad at the end of the day for the candidate.

Tavis: Let me ask it this way – is the person that you want to endorse in the race at the moment, or is this someone who you are trying to talk into getting into the race?

Ghonim: I’m not going to get into this. (Laughs) No, I think it’s better – by the way, in the previous elections a lot of people were asking me, “Whom are you going to vote,” and I did not want to say. It’s just the fact that at the end of the day we want to see a real democracy.

Go do your job. Go start researching everyone. Do not pick someone because X or Y or Z have picked them.

Tavis: That’s fair.

Ghonim: You need to pick whomever you believe is right, and probably are we going to do a mistake? This is possible. So many countries had democracies and they thought they picked up the wrong candidate.

Tavis: But for you, as long as the person is democratically elected, then you’re okay with this?

Ghonim: Yeah, and as far as he is going to – I want to help anyone who’s democratically elected. I think at the end of the day what matters for this country, as I mentioned earlier, we want to help the poor people first. We want to improve the education.

We want to get people their basic needs that they want, and we want to make sure that what happened in the old regime when it comes to violations of human rights, are no longer going to be there.

We’re talking about a nation that was so strong and so proud of a nation in the past, and the Egyptians were so proud of being related to the country, to a nation now where people go in the lottery and try to get different country citizenships, or escape through the sea, the (unintelligible) trying to go to Europe, or travel to the Gulf or for the sake of money.

This needs to be changed, and this is not going to be changed with an Egypt versus Egypt mentality. “Oh, no, I don’t like you; I’m not going to work with you.” So no, I am going to work with anyone who is democratically elected and to make sure that the revolution demands are going to happen.

Tavis: I was going to close our program, Wael, by asking you about your thoughts about the future of your country and what you hope for the future of your country. You’ve just kind of given me some of that now, but I think I want to close with a quote – and I’ve edited this to get to the essence of it for television.

One of my favorite artists is a genius named Stevie Wonder, and Stevie Wonder has a song, one of his more famous songs, called, “I Wish.” It’s a great song. And this piece written by you is called, “I Wish,” and I want to just put it up on the screen and read it as we close our conversation with you tonight.

“Personally, I wish I had a real voice in my country. I wish for true democracy, not a sham of democracy. I wish we could stand up against corruption. I wish teachers would establish in the hearts and minds of students a genuine love for knowledge and learning. I wish police officers would be the way they were depicted long ago in the movies.

“I wish the government would stop treating people as though they were children who could be lied to. I wish people would treat one another without classism. I wish we could rid ourselves of the negativity and the passivity. I wish we could learn to differ in opinion without insulting one another.

“I wish we could love one another – really love one another. By the way, it is my right to dream and to pursue my dream, and it is your right to dream. And seriously, if we stopped dreaming, we would die.”

Ghonim: I wrote that five days before the revolution.

Tavis: Yeah. It’s a powerful piece.

Ghonim: Thanks.

Tavis: And not just for Egyptians, I might add – for Americans. We are honored to have you on this American television network called PBS. His name is Wael Ghonim. The book is called “Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People is Greater than the People in Power.”

It is his memoir. Wael, an honor to have you on this program. Thanks for your time and for the book.

Ghonim: Thanks, and I appreciate your hosting me.

Tavis: Good to have you here. That’s our show for tonight. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith

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Last modified: February 9, 2012 at 4:38 pm