A year ago–on January 25, 2011–a revolution broke out in Egypt. The world watched tens of thousands of protestors gathering in Tahrir Square demanding political and economic reforms and ultimately toppling longtime Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.
The date of January 25 was initially suggested on a Facebook page called “We are all Khaled Said.” The page drew its inspiration from the case of a young man by that name who had apparently committed no crime, yet was pulled out of a cybercafé by Mubarak’s police force and viciously beaten to death. The images of his beaten face sparked outrage among Egyptians at the level of political repression and corruption within the government and police force. Khaled Said inspired Egyptians to take their destiny into their own hands and overthrow the Mubarak dictatorship. Although the moderator of that fateful Facebook page was anonymous at the time, the world soon learned that it was the work of Wael Ghonim, a 30-year-old Egyptian-born marketing executive for Google, who was based out of Dubai.
As the revolution began, Ghonim was imprisoned by Egyptian state security. It wasn’t until he was released that his identity as the Facebook page moderator was revealed. Overnight, he became an Egyptian hero. Internationally he became the symbol of the “Facebook Revolution” and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. A Mideast business magazine named him the second most powerful Arab in the world.
In Wael Ghonim’s new book, Revolution 2.0, he maintains that the January 25 movement in Egypt was a leaderless revolution. He details his experiences leading up to and during the Egyptian Revolution, and lays out the way revolutions might look in the future. Several weeks ago he started a political movement called “Our Egypt” aimed at getting the revolution “back on track.” We spoke with Ghonim via phone from Cairo where a year later, he remains hard at work trying to improve the future for his people and his country.
Fast Company: You have said Facebook was an important tool in organizing the protests in Tahrir Square, yet you also said that something was going to happen in Egypt regardless. What would the revolution have looked like without Facebook?
Wael Ghonim: In 2010, there were strikes and sit-ins by workers who were asking for improvement of their economic conditions. We were expecting a revolution to come about eventually. We thought it would be mainly by the poor, because they were angry with how the country was being run, and their difficulties in getting even their most basic needs met. But the 25th of January revolution had quite an interesting mix of those people, seeking to improve their economic condition, as well as many middle class and even some upper class Egyptians who were not happy with the state of freedom and democracy in Egypt. Without Facebook, people would have had to find another a way to broadcast the initiation call. That is basically what Facebook and social media did. People initiated the call and promoted it online before it went offline. It even went offline before the 25th of January. The snowball effect started online right after Tunisia happened, then it went offline before the 25th of January.
Can you describe the role of the different tools and technologies in bringing about the revolution?
I think that social networking definitely played an important role at the very beginning to create that snowball effect. Then social media as well as blogs played a major role in telling people the truth. The nature of the Internet makes it possible for media to be decentralized. People are empowered to post their version of the story and everyone can see. In the past, that was not possible. This was a big help to the revolution. Phones were definitely important as well. As I jokingly say, “Why is everyone asking me what the role of the Internet was in the revolution, and not asking me what the role of phones was in the revolution?” Any collaboration or communication tool does help because it connects people. On the other hand, we need to remember that at the end of the day, technology just provides the tools that people can use.
One of the interesting things in Revolution 2.0 is that you show the number of likes and comments on key posts in the Facebook group. Why is that important?
I think one of the great things about social media is that you get instant feedback on whatever you say or post. People do respond quickly, and in a few minutes you can actually see the response to whatever you’ve said. People can agree and disagree with you quickly enough for you to realize you are doing the right thing or the wrong thing. Seeing the increased number of fans, likes, and comments, really gives you a sense that you have the majority on your side. Coming from a marketing background, it was very important to me that I write in a way that connected with mainstream Egyptians. I was not looking to communicate with those who were already convinced of the cause and actively working for it. My own mandate was to communicate with those who might not be interested, but who could eventually start getting interested in the cause.
You detail in the book the way you collaborated with people online. Tens of thousands of people collaborating on Google documents, plans formed from comment streams. How did you manage all of that?
The other administrator, Abdel Rahman, and I acted as editors-in-chief, and the fans of the page were the contributors. We would set a direction. For example, I would say, “We want to do this campaign,” and then based on that, people would contribute to that campaign. Then we’d look at the output and decide what went on the page and what didn’t. I also believe a lot in collective wisdom, and I was always impressed whenever we would do something collective, people would present all different angles. We’d look at the overall picture and think, “Wow this never would have happened with just a few people doing this.” A lot of great ideas come from collaboration versus the very old-school model of broadcasting everything to people and just focus on their feedback.
Moderators of message boards and social media groups are becoming extremely important. What’s the key to being a good moderator?
It really depends on the cause. But I think one of the reasons for the success of the We Are All Khaled Said page was that it respected its members and their contributions. It continuously surveyed them every time there was an activity. Before we covered the Tunisian events on 13th of January, although I thought that was the right thing to do, I had to ask the members because I wanted to make sure that I was representing the majority of the people on the page and their passions. If I’m not, then as the admin, I’ll write something and most of the people will disagree and the message will just die in the air. It’s important to collaborate, to use tools to collect feedback, survey the users, and to make sure they are with you. I’ve always created surveys asking people what they think of the page. Do they agree with most of what’s being said on the page or not? I always want to know, to make sure we’re not losing their confidence and to make sure that we’re still mainstream. Because once you lose your mainstream edge and you are just communicating with the 10% of the page who will fully believe in what you say, the page’s ability to contribute to change is going to be much weaker.
I know you have said the revolution was leaderless and unplanned. But there was some organization in the lead-up to it, right?
There was no discussion. I did not discuss anything with anyone about going to the streets on the 25th of January. It was just a very spontaneous action. And because of the nature of the Internet, people started to subscribe. And because I was anonymous at that time, no one felt someone was taking credit for this or was benefiting from this. It was just a random post in the cloud. Pretty much the same thing happened in every other country. Someone happened to set a date and people subscribed.
You’ve said repeatedly that you don’t feel that you were a leader, that this was leaderless revolution.
There was no leader in this revolution. There was no one making decisions on behalf of the masses in the streets. Everyone who decided to negotiate on behalf of people got discredited and didn’t manage to continue the negotiation process.
But you did do political organizing calling for the protests …
Yes before the protests, but not once they started. That was the “anonymous administrator,” not me, if you know what I mean.
How do you continue to keep people empowered and included in the governing process?
I believe that many of the young Egyptians who took to the streets are not going to suddenly disappear. We are now in a phase of building democratic organizations, such as parties, political groups, and movements. These institutions will make a big difference in the coming months and the coming years. As Egyptians, we see this happening now. A lot of new groups are forming, a lot of existing member-based groups are increasing their ranks. We also are seeing a lot of Egyptians taking social responsibility in their cities, streets, and districts. It’s happening. Democracy is evolving in this country–people can’t just be empowered one day and the next day they aren’t empowered. People are going to remain empowered, especially after they have seen their ability and power to make change.
Given your experiences, what role does anonymity play in online political protest movements?
It’s a double-edged sword. It takes away from credibility in one sense. People would like to know who’s talking to them, if they should trust them, and if they should act upon what they say. But on the other hand, anonymity gives a lot of freedom to the discussion. It means the focus will be more on the ideas, less about the person. So you don’t really personalize the cause. And when you don’t personalize the cause, the cause is much harder to attack. Most of those who attack causes, attack those causes by attacking the people. In our case I think it helped a lot to be anonymous. If the invitation had come with my real name on it, I’m not sure that people would have gone to the streets. I think it was very important that the people behind the cause were anonymous. It made it easier for everyone to connect.
In many cases, including in Egypt, when people start using Web 2.0 tools to protest, governments try shutting down the technology.
I think it would be pretty challenging for governments in the future to shut down technology services and I actually don’t think shutting down Internet services would help them. All those who are in power have to realize the mainstream media that they used to control is becoming decentralized. Now there are other ways for people to educate themselves about issues in their society. When they shut down the phones in Egypt it was a big boost for the revolution. People saw that as a sign that the regime was very weak and not able to legitimize itself, so it took an illegitimate action.
What needs to happen next in Egypt to restore its economic position?
A complete democratic transition is the most important thing. Most investors would like to invest in a stabilized political environment. Until Egypt has its own president, it’s going to be a tough sell for anyone to invest.
What will it take to create a culture of entrepreneurship in Egypt?
I think a lot of Egyptians are entrepreneurs. There are a lot of small businesses in the country focused on trade. But that is actually something we want to change direction on. We want to put more focus on agriculture, manufacturing, and services. I think the guy who stood up and stopped the police tank from moving forward is an entrepreneur because he is someone who put his life at risk.
Obviously there are a lot of challenges still in Egypt. Looking back, do you think that Web 2.0 can help sustain movements like the Arab Spring or can it only launch them?
What I believe is that this is going to be the nature of the new era. Businesses are becoming more and more decentralized, media is becoming decentralized… As we progress, we are maturing in a way that is good for the people. But I think what matters is actually not the tools, but the people. There are a lot of youth empowered, more educated, more willing to take risks. These young people have shown bravery and passion and have managed to achieve what was thought to be impossible for years. I think it’s very important to focus on the human element.
Note: This interview has been edited for content, clarity, and length.
[Photo by Sam Christmas]