Wael Ghonim on the Arab Spring and social media

Molly Wood Feb 6, 2012

Wael Ghonim‘s memoir, “Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People is Greater than the People In Power,” arrives about a year after the uprisings in Egypt. Those protests forced longtime Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak from power. 

In the summer of 2010, Ghonim started a Facebook page called “We Are All Khaled Said” to draw attention to the case of a young man who died after being arrested by Egyptian police. Facebook is popular in Egypt and among people concerned about its fate and membership on the page skyrocketed to over 350,000 members. They began to talk about what could be done in their country.

By early January of 2011, the ruler of Tunisia had been thrown out after widespread protests against the government. Ghonim says that’s when he began to realize that something bigger was possible in Egypt. “So, I just posted that today is January 14th. In 10 days, Police Day is coming. If 100,000 of us goes to streets, no one is going to stop us,” says Ghonim. “And that started to go virally everywhere, and people liked the idea, I created an event, called it Revolution. At the time, many activists were laughing saying ‘wow, a pre-announced revolution, you put the date, time and location and you expect it to happen,’ and the fact is that it happened. And this is exactly what we did as the Internet guys by first speaking online and then taking to the streets on 25th. Right after that, the revolution was on the street, it’s not tweeted. The power is to the people and not social media.”

Ghonim was arrested and spent 11 days in police custody during the protests, even as fellow protesters and Amnesty International called for his release. When he got out, he took to the airwaves the same day, calling for an end to the Mubarak regime. Ghonim insists that he didn’t start the revolution. “The regime did,” he says. “The way they were dealing with people years ago.” He says credit for overthrowing Mubarak goes to the people who had fighting the government for years and to the Tunisian revolutionaries who inspired the Egyptians. 

“I just wanted to write the book and tell people it was very simple,” Ghonim says. “It wasn’t very complex to start a page or talk to millions of people or to talk to hundreds of thousands or to engage thousands in ideas. It was fairly easy, and I wanted everyone to read and hopefully learn from what I have personally learned over last year and do something good for their community with the use of technology.”

I asked Ghonim about some of the protests that have started online in the United States in the past few months, against things like the Stop Online Piracy Act or the Komen Foundation dropping its support of Planned Parenthood. Those are obviously very different situations than the one in Egypt, but have situations like the Arab Spring emboldened the idea of online protest as an effective agent for change?

He says, “I believe that a lot of people were inspired by what happened in Egypt and how the invitation was initiated online. The invitation to Jan 25th started online and it reached one million people before Jan 25th. So I’m happy to see that kind of thing but it would have happened anyway. At the end of the day, we are human beings. We try to communicate as much as we can. We send our messages. People a couple hundred years ago were using mosques or churches to get their messages out and to call for change. You always will have a platform, and you will use it to the maximum. It’s more about the people using the tools, not the tools used by the people.”

Also in this program, shipments of smartphones surpassed shipments of PCs last year. That’s the first time that’s ever happened. We explore the emotions behind the changing of the guard in the latest edition of Tech Report Theater.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.