Internet activist Wael Ghonim, Part 1

Tavis talks with the former Google executive who helped spark the 2011 Egyptian revolution.

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: In the summer of 2010 Wael Ghonim decided to create a Facebook page in response to the violent death of an Egyptian blogger at the hands of the country’s security forces. No one could have imagined that this seemingly simple act of defiance would spark a wave of protest that has now swept through the Middle East.

Wael Ghonim’s truly remarkable story is now told in the pages of a new book. It’s called “Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People is Greater than the People in Power.” Wael, good to have you on this program.

Wael Ghonim: Thanks for hosting me, Tavis.

Tavis: Glad to have you. Let me start by asking whether or not you think these protests, specifically in Egypt and then for that matter around the Middle East, whether or not this would have happened, could have happened, despite or absent social media, and I ask that because there have been so many revolutions around the world in history that got off the ground and were indeed successful, having nothing to do with social media. So could this have happened without social media?

Ghonim: I think you’ve answered the question, and that’s my answer to the question – would this have happened without social media? A hundred years ago there was not even a fax, and revolutions still happened. The thing is people, oppressed people, oppressed nations, will always find ways to communicate, whether they are phones, mosques, churches, and just going out in public and speaking and screaming to people just to get their message reached out.

So we just did the same thing in Egypt and in other parts of the Arab world. We used the Internet as a large number of Egyptians, a large number of Arabs online, and they pretty much share the same frustration. Yet the revolution was more on the street, not online, and the power there was the power of the people, not the power of social media.

Tavis: When you say the protest was more in the street than it was on social media, what role, then, do you think that social media played?

Ghonim: So before the revolution, the social media did help a lot, and basically one uniting those who have a common goal. So if you go through the book, I explain – I talk about the story of how this whole thing started, even before (unintelligible) page that I created, even before that (unintelligible) comes to Egypt. The first strike that took place in Egypt, general strike, was in April 2008, and the young Egyptian activists were supporting it online.

So first it united a lot of the Egyptians, and this has a very strong impact. Probably you don’t – you here probably don’t feel that. When people are scared and have this fear, speaking up even online is something that would definitely help.

The second is it’s such a great collaboration tool. In the past, in order to know the opinion or the feedback of 3,000 people, you probably would spend days, if not months, to get this done, while online it can be a matter of a few minutes.

So that was before the revolution. The invitation to Jan. 25th started on the 14th online. It was taken offline by many people and Jan. 25th protest happened on the streets. I say that because if people kept liking and cheering and clicking and commenting about the regime, it would have never left. We would still have had the regime.

Yet we cannot just underestimate or overestimate the role that the Internet played as a communication tool in the revolution.

Tavis: So what happens, then – and I’m going to jump around for a second here – what happens, then, in the midst of this uprising when the government shuts down access to social media?

Ghonim: When they did it, they started shutting down access to social media, and then they ended up shutting down the whole Internet and the whole phone network, and I think that was one of their mistakes.

We were fortunate to have a regime that is basically helping us achieve our goals. That was a message, that was the very good message that we needed. Why? Because if you are scared, if people took to the street and they were still afraid and had this fear about the regime and then all of a sudden see the regime react by blocking access, that was the best message.

It made us feel that we are stronger than what we thought we are, and the second, it made a larger number of Egyptians frustrated and thinking, okay, these people are of the limits and we have to participate.

Many Egyptians, I know some, who went to the street on Jan. 28th because the Internet and phones were cut off.

Tavis: Dr. King once said that the time is always ripe, R-I-P-E, the time is always ripe to do right, R-I-G-H-T. I come to that Kingian quote because I’m curious as to what you think, with or without social media, what made this moment so ripe for this right protest in Egypt?

Ghonim: There was a growing anger, a huge momentum of anger growing in this country for the past few years. When it comes to politics, when it comes to economy, people were very frustrated.

Yet because of the tools of mass oppression, as I like to call them, the use of security forces spreading fear, using propaganda, corruption, people were scared to speak.

So that moment, which is very personal to me and to many other Egyptians, that moment when Ben Ali, the Tunisian president, came on TV for the first time in my whole life I see an Arab dictator say, “I’m sorry, I was wrong, I understood you now,” and he seemed so weak versus his first speech that was few days before.

That was a moment of listen, this is the power of the people. Look at what the Tunisians did. They did not have – it was a nonviolent movement, they went and protested. Why don’t we have the same thing?

Next day, when he escaped from Tunisia, it just became like this is the thing that we should all do. Even the invitation was very spontaneous. I wrote, “Today’s the 14th; in 10 days, police day is approaching. If 100,000 of us go to the street, no one is going to stop us.”

Tavis: How does a guy, in this case Mubarak, amass that kind of power? How does the fear amongst the people become so palpable? And I ask that, as you well know, because there are two or three generations of Egyptians who have only known one leader.

You have parents, kids and grandkids now who have only known one leader for their entire lives, or most of their lives. How does one guy, in this case Mr. Mubarak, how did he amass so much power? Why were people so afraid?

Ghonim: We had this comic before Jan. 25th showing Mubarak and the American presidents. Mubarak have been there as Egypt’s president while six American presidents were there.

It was basically the fear, the use of fear. Most of the Egyptians first lacked – feared something will happen and then lacked the alternative. The regime was always teaching us there is no hope. We get this message. What is the alternative? What’s going to happen?

What we know is better than what we don’t know. The evil we know is better than the evil we don’t know, or that’s as Americans say. So that was part of the culture that started from the military rule in 1952. There was no democracy.

In the second chapter of the book I talk about that to try and give a little bit of a perspective of what happens in the country. We did not have presidential elections. It was basically a referendum where you go and say whether you like the president or not, and it’s one president. You don’t have the fortune to choose.

It ended up definitely with starting 99.9 percent during (unintelligible) time until it reached Mubarak, where he wasn’t as good as a performer. It was 93 percent.

So the older generations were more risk-averse, were more subtly, okay, that’s it, we should live our lives. There is a common saying in Egypt that says, “Walk on the sidewalk,” which means don’t walk in the street, don’t get yourself in trouble.

But the younger generations, because one, they’re more exposed, and the second is generally the younger you are the more willing to take risks. So the younger generation was different, and that was part of the surprise that surprised the regime on the 25th. They never expected 25th of January to be that big.

Tavis: There are so many parts of your story that are just amazing to read. Those of us who even had a cursory understanding of you came to know you in part as a Google executive. I’ve been thinking for the last few days, while going through your book, thinking, trying to come up with a comparable example of a United States executive who would put himself or herself on the line for this kind of revolution.

I’m thinking now of our Occupy movement, and I’m trying to think of a similar executive at a high level at a major multinational, U.S. multinational, who would do what you have done.

Now, in fairness, when you started doing what you were doing, you did it anonymously. You didn’t put your name out there.

Ghonim: I was going to say, maybe he is anonymous.

Tavis: Yeah, maybe he is anonymous, yeah. (Laughter) So you started out doing this anonymously, but the reality is you were and still are, you’re on leave at the moment, but you’re a Google executive. So what mental process did you go through?

What happened inside of Wael that made you decide that even anonymously I know that as a Google executive this really is out of the realm of what I should be doing, but I’m going to do it anyway?

Ghonim: One reason I wrote the book is that part of the telling the story, I hope that people will learn the experience I went through and will use it in a way to do good. I think it just all happened because I hate injustice, and I don’t think I should get credit for that. Every human being should hate injustice, and every human being should use whatever tools and knowledge and experience they have to fight that and make sure that the world we’re living in is a better place.

Tavis: But I can imagine, though, there are a lot of executives who, if you would ask them, like your question about Mubarak, a referendum, yes or no, you like the – you know, yes or no. You ask an executive, any executive in this country, “Do you like injustice,” they’re all going to say no, but so many people become well adjusted to injustice.

Ghonim: So the second thing is actually the passion and courage to change the situation. I wrote on Twitter in my bio, “I love changing status quo,” and I do love that. I think it’s important for the world to become a better place that we work for making it a better place.

It’s not going to happen automatically. I was becoming more and more frustrated for the future of the country. I was very annoyed to see people eating from the trash, poor people eating from the trash, and knowing that one out of every two Egyptians living under the poverty line.

We’ve got to have something. We were fortunate by our education and our wealth, and we’ve got to pay something back for the poor people who need our help, and this is where it came from.

Tavis: You’re married to an American woman. You have two kids.

Ghonim: From California.

Tavis: From California, exactly. Married to a Californian. You have two kids. You were living for a number of years here in the United States and – you talk about this in the book – you decided to go back. You didn’t have to go back; you decided to go back. Why go back?

Ghonim: Well, one, I only stayed six months in the second visit (unintelligible) visit. It was mainly after 9/11. I wanted to continue my education in the U.S. I was impressed, as many young people coming from the world to here and seeing the level of education, especially in universities, and schools and the graduate schools.

After 9/11 I felt singled out. So felt my wife, because she is a Muslim and she is wearing the Muslim veil. So I decided to go back. Eventually I was going to go back anyway. I love my country and I feel that for some reason, as I told the interrogators when he asked me “Why do you love it,” I said, “I don’t know, I just love my country.”

I miss it every time I leave, even for a few weeks or a few days. I do think about back home and I do love the culture, the Egyptian culture and the Egyptian people.

So that was also very critical in the way I decided on putting myself at risk for a change that may or may not have happened.

Tavis: When you say that you and your wife felt “singled out” after 9/11, what do you mean by singled out?

Ghonim: I mean you see the looks of people. Right after the events of 9/11 the media focused a lot on Islam, Arabs, as well as Egyptians, because there was an Egyptian in one of the attacks. So I was a perfect case – I fit the three conditions.

It’s just the looks of the people and how you feel they treat you. Probably I was getting oversensitive, but I don’t like the fact to be singled out, and I think the media have played a big role in trying to generalize the bad acts of a minority of people into a whole nation that is huge and there’s over 1 billion Muslims.

So one of the reasons this book is written is to change that perception. We are people who love freedom, who love democracy, who want to see our country as a better place, who love peace. We want to live in peace, and we are ready to be united under – if there is a goal that would unite us, we are more than happy to take it.

I hope that just sends the right message, because now we’re talking about the masses. Now we’re talking about most of the people, not a minority that would do something such as 9/11.

Tavis: Since you mentioned the U.S. media, let me ask your assessment – again, I mentioned earlier I’m going to bounce around, because there’s so many things to talk to Wael about, about his life and his involvement at the start of these uprisings in Egypt, and thankfully we’ve got tonight and tomorrow night’s show to get to some of these issues.

But since you mentioned the American media, which obviously I’m a part of, let me ask your assessment of the U.S. media on two different issues, and I suspect – I could be wrong – that the answer may be different on both, but I’m curious.

Your assessment of the U.S. media after 9/11, and you’ve just started to give some of that now, but give me in more detail your assessment of the U.S. media after 9/11 vis-à-vis this particular issue of Muslims and et cetera.

Then I want your assessment of how the U.S. media covered the Egyptian uprising. I got a whole lot of questions to ask about the Obama administration and about our government and Hillary Clinton and what you think of them and how they handled this, but just talk about the media for a moment.

So assess how they covered 9/11 and assess how they covered the uprisings in Egypt.

Ghonim: I think at the end of the day the media, intentionally or unintentionally, played sort of – you know the self-fulfilling prophecy. You play sort of a role and what happens next.

So after 9/11, by framing that Islam and Muslims are responsible for what happened, and I understand there had been some people saying, “Okay, that’s not Islam, those are some extremists,” but the overall sentiment and the focus on the religion of those who did the attacks did definitely bias a lot of the people, a lot of the public, against Islam and Muslims, which I hope that wouldn’t have happened.

During the uprising time, I think the media took a much better stance than the government, and they were in Tahrir Square covering the events. Unfortunately, we have a regime that doesn’t mind killing people as far as it’s off the record and no one is going to know about it. It doesn’t mind kidnapping people, as far as they are not high profile and no one is going to know about it.

Part of the reasons why I created that page was to expose the regime. I believe that any dictator – the worst nightmare for any dictator is to expose them, to let people know the bad things they are doing. I think the American media, as well as international media in general, have done a good job in Tahrir, and they did help in protecting the lives of people.

Tavis: I thought there might be two responses, and there were – two different views of the U.S. media on one issue versus the other, so thanks for answering that.

So back to what you said a moment ago. You think the media did a far better job on covering the uprisings than the government did in handling or mishandling, and that doesn’t surprise me, because as an American who’s in the media, from one day to the next I didn’t know where we stood.

I didn’t know if we were with Mubarak or with the protestors. On any given day it seemed that that storyline was changing from the White House, from the State Department, so I didn’t get it, either. But that’s me.

You were inside of Egypt. For 11 days, of course, you were on lockdown, arrested.

Ghonim: I wasn’t there.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, exactly, you were missing for 11 days on lockdown. But let’s go to your point, though, about the U.S. What did you make – and you talk about it, again, in the book – of the way, politically, we handled or mishandled this uprising?

Ghonim: Well, I think that the foreign policy of the U.S. and many other countries in the West are mainly based on the interests, regardless of the values.

Tavis: Surprise, surprise. (Laughter)

Ghonim: Yeah.

Tavis: What are our strategic interests here, yeah.

Ghonim: Yeah, it’s after the interests and not – even if the interests come at the expense of the values, the values of the people. If the revolution did one thing, it did show that this is very short-sighted, because okay, you can last such a relationship for months, years, probably 20 years, 30 years, but it’s not going to be the very long-term relationship, because eventually people are going to win. This is exactly what happened in Egypt.

Now with the change in position, as you’ve mentioned, there had been a change in position and they were trying to kind of take sides and see – at the very beginning they took the side of Mubarak and –

Tavis: I assume on the ground you all were aware of this. The people in Egypt were aware that the U.S. was bouncing back and forth, trying to figure this out?

Ghonim: Well, to be very honest, we didn’t think of it. At the end of the day, what I loved about the Egypt Revolution, it was purely Egyptian. It was driven by Egyptians. Egyptians were on the street. They were the ones deciding on what should happen, and they sort of like won over everything – the regime, the foreign interests – because at the end of the day, we understand and we grasp it very well that the Western world wanted Mubarak to stay, not for anything but for the sake of the stability.

They want to see Egypt stable, even at the expense that half of the Egyptians are poor, or at the expense that we don’t have real democracy, and it’s just like monarchy or dictatorship that looks like as if it’s documentary.

So we didn’t really care that much about what was going. We appreciated the fact at the end that Obama did support the revolution, but was it the reason why Mubarak stepped down? I don’t think so, because there had been a lot of people there ready to sacrifice their lives for this to happen, and they were not listening to anyone who would tell them anything else.

Tavis: I take your point, and I think the viewers do as well. We take your point about values versus interests, and I couldn’t agree with you more on that. But to your point about the fact that the U.S. and other countries, for that matter, wanted Mubarak to stay if only for stability, is there any legitimacy to that argument?

This is a very, very volatile region. This is a hotbed of an area. Whatever you think of Mubarak, there was, to use your word, some stability over the course of these six U.S. presidents that you referenced earlier. So what about the argument that hey, the U.S. is imperfect, but we tried to support a guy and push a guy where we could, but we wanted stability in the region?

Ghonim: Well, as I said, if the stability comes at the expense of our own – basically what the regime did was killing the passion and hope for many generations, and I think this is their biggest crime.

I remember meeting a lot of Egyptians after the revolution who would tell me, “For the first time in my life I am proud to be Egyptian. For the first time in my life I feel that this country is mine.”

Tavis: But look how – and I’m just playing devil’s advocate here – look how unstable, though, the region is. We’re, like, walking on eggshells now. We don’t know what’s going to happen, first of all, inside of Egypt – we’ll come to that in a minute, about the violence ongoing. We don’t know what’s going to happen in Egypt, much less the region, so –

Ghonim: So if that question was asked before America becomes a democracy, what would you have said? What would you have answered? At the end of the day, the right way to go, the long-term plan, the way to real stability and not fake one – because by the way, if this regime was stable it wouldn’t have been taken down in 18 days. This is not a stable regime. This is not –

Tavis: There are four decades here, though, Wael. It’s four decades of this regime. There’s some stability there.

Ghonim: Yeah, but if those – it’s just because people were scared, nothing else. But if that regime was a strong regime, they would never have lasted – they would never have been thrown away in 18 days. Of course I’m not talking about the whole regime; I’m just talking about Mubarak and his people.

So the real question is do you really want a long-term strategy on how can we tackle the region problems, or do we want just a short-term strategy that comes at the expense of losing trust between all the different players of the relationship?

So for example, in Egypt, if you go and ask most of the Egyptians, they will tell you that they don’t trust American foreign policy. Probably if you ask the Americans, they will probably tell you the same thing, I don’t know. (Laughter)

Tavis: Hold that thought, I want to pick up on that tomorrow night. Do we trust our own foreign policy, and what do the Egyptian people think about our foreign policy? I’m really, in some ways, just getting started here in our conversation with Wael.

There’s so much more to get to tomorrow night that we didn’t get to tonight. I want to talk about that, I want to talk about what the Google executives had to say, really, about his involvement in this once it became public. We haven’t got to talk about his 11 days on lockdown. We haven’t talked about the ongoing violence, and most importantly about the future in Egypt and the region.

We’ll do all that tomorrow night in part two of this conversation with Wael Ghonim, author of the new book, “Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People is Greater than the People in Power.” It’s his memoir. More tomorrow night. Wael, good to have you on the program.

Ghonim: Thanks.

Tavis: Until tomorrow night, thanks for tuning in, and keep the faith.

[Footage of Egyptian Revolution in Tahrir Square]

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Last modified: February 8, 2012 at 9:54 pm