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Anti-Government Protests Roil Egypt
Thu February 9, 2012
Wael Ghonim: Creating A 'Revolution 2.0' In Egypt
Originally published on Thu February 9, 2012 11:32 am
The protests that led to the Egyptian revolution last year were organized in part by an anonymous Facebook page administrator. When the police found out who he was, they arrested and interrogated him. After his release, Wael Ghonim became the public face of the Egyptian revolution.
In Revolution 2.0, Ghonim traces the planning that took place in the days before Jan. 25, 2011, when thousands of Egyptians gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square in preparation for the uprising. He also gives an insider's account of what he experienced during the protests — when Egyptian security authorities locked him in a basement jail cell — and then what it was like after the departure of President Hosni Mubarak.
Ghonim launched his Facebook group, called Kullena Khaled Said ("We Are All Khaled Said"), after graphic pictures of a 28-year-old man who had been killed by Egyptian security officials began to emerge on the Internet.
"Looking at Khaled's photo after his death, basically, I just felt that we are all Khaled Said. That was a feeling," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "It wasn't just a brand name. It was a feeling. We were all of these young Egyptians who could die, and no one [would be] held accountable. So at the time, I thought, 'I have to do something.' And I believed that bringing Khaled's case to a public case would be helpful."
Ghonim's Facebook page anonymously called for accountability for Khaled's death and an end to corruption within the Egyptian government.
"We [wanted] to expose the bad practices of the Egyptian police," he says. "Because the last thing a dictator wants is that you expose their bad practices to its people."
The page engaged users, solicited ideas from Egyptians, and also proposed a Jan. 25 mass protest date. The Facebook group was set up through a proxy program in order to keep Ghonim's identity a secret.
"I basically thought that my anonymity was my power, was the reason this page was so powerful," he says. "A lot of people believed in what was there."
Right before the protests started, security officials in Egypt learned Ghonim's identity. They captured him early in the morning on Jan. 28.
"I was walking out at night after having dinner with some colleagues, and I was on Twitter, walking, and all of a sudden I found three people surrounding me, one covering my mouth and the other taking my phone," he says. "I was looking around, trying to grasp what was going on, and I heard one of them say, 'OK, we're done, send the car.' So I knew I was getting kidnapped."
For 11 days, Ghonim was held blindfolded in a cell and repeatedly interrogated. Egyptian security officials told him that they suspected he was working with foreign officials and called him a traitor.
"It was a very hard moment for me," he says. "I would accept being seen as someone who is the opposition, who is creating problems for them — but the fact that they called me a traitor was very hard on me. I told them, 'You can torture me as much as you want, but you're not going to get this out of me because this is not true. I would prefer to die than to admit something I've never done, that I think is completely wrong.' "
Meanwhile, news began to circulate on the Internet about his disappearance. Activists on Twitter and Facebook began to coordinate efforts to find Ghonim. As he languished — unaware of the protests or what his fate would be — Google, his employer, started working behind the scenes to publicize his disappearance. His release on Feb. 8 was seen as a key moment in the revolution.
Since then, Ghonim has been hailed for his energizing use of social media while planning the pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt. He says sites like Facebook are tools that can help connect people and disseminate information to the masses, but cannot create social changes on their own.
"We used all the available tools in order to communicate with each other, collaborate and agree on a date, a time and a location for the start of the revolution," he says. "Yet, starting Jan. 28, the revolution was on the streets. It was not on Facebook, it was not on Twitter. Those were tools to relay information, to tell people the truth about what's happening on the ground."
On the voice he used in his Facebook postings
"I was writing with my heart, not my keyboard. I was writing what I felt should be written."
On the Jan. 25 protest
"On the 14th of Jan, when Ben Ali left Tunisia — when he escaped practically to Saudi Arabia — the whole Internet webosphere was talking about it. Egyptians were saying, 'We are worse than Tunisia. We have to do something. This is our moment.' And a lot of people had this belief. Being influenced by those people, I just wrote on the page, 'Today is the 14th of January. In 10 days, we have a police day. If 100,000 of us take to the street, no one is going to stop us.' And that was the beginning."
On how the Egyptian government spun the protests
"The regime labeled it as the Muslim Brotherhood revolution and said it was a revolution of extremists ... All of this didn't really work because people saw what was happening in Tahrir. And so, every political, social groups — males and females, Muslims and Christians — were taking to the streets and all demanding one thing: That this regime has to go."
On realizing that the Egyptian government was going to use violence
"I could see things going in the wrong direction and thought that the regime would use violence to get everyone back to their homes. On the 25th of January, they forced everyone out of the square. They used rubber bullets, water hoses, tear gas. They were using it excessively despite the fact that protesters were so peaceful. At that time, everyone was very peaceful and civilized. They were all chanting and singing and calling for the regime to end, and planning to spend the night with no violence. And the regime used violence against them."
On an emotional interview he gave to an Egyptian television station after his release
"I was happy to see people saying, 'We were against this, and then after seeing you, we are with the revolution.' A page was created for me afterwards calling on me to speak on behalf of the Egyptian people, and a quarter-million people joined after that interview. But, as you might have noticed, I did not agree to do that. I do not agree that we personalize a revolution. If I was against personalizing a cause, I would definitely be against personalizing a revolution. I would definitely say this was leaderless and it should continue leaderless, and no one should be taking the lead after all these people sacrificed their lives."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The Egyptian revolution one year ago was often called the Facebook revolution. My guest, Wael Ghonim, was the anonymous administrator of the now-famous Facebook page that called people to protest in Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011, the protest that kept escalating until President Mubarak stepped down.
Ghonim missed some of the revolution because on January 28, after the police figured out who he was, Ghonim was arrested and held blindfolded for 11 days. He's written a new memoir called "Revolution 2.0." Its publication has brought him to the U.S.
Ghonim was born in Egypt and grew up in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Obsessed with computers and networking, his dream was to work for Google. He was hired by Google in 2008 and later became the head of marketing for Google Middle East and North Africa. He's currently on leave from that position.
Wael Ghonim, welcome to FRESH AIR. You used Facebook to help start the Egyptian revolution and then Twitter once it was underway. How do you see the role both Facebook and Twitter played in the revolution? What was each best suited for?
WAEL GHONIM: Well, first, I just think that the role of social media in the revolution need to kind of - to be, you know, completely reviewed. It's basically the power of the people that made this revolution happen, not the power of Facebook or the power of Twitter or social media.
These are tools of communications, and people have, in the past, in any revolution, have searched for any tool available and used it to reach the masses, whether it would be - sometimes it would be even, you know, the churches, the mosques. People would go there and communicate with those who visit the church or the mosque and tell them exactly what should happen in this country to go under change.
Facebook played a great role in the revolution by promoting Jan. 25. And if we want to give credit, the credit should go to Tunisia because the Tunisians are the ones who inspired us. We looked at what they managed to achieve, and we got inspired. And then we used all the available tools in order to communicate with each other, collaborate and agree on a day, a time and a location for the start of the revolution.
Yet starting Jan. 28, the revolution was on the streets. It was not on Facebook. It was not on Twitter. Those were tools to relay information, to tell people the truth about what's happening on the ground.
GROSS: But was there a difference between what you felt Facebook could do and what you felt Twitter could accomplish in the revolution?
GHONIM: Well, Facebook in Egypt was more mainstream than Twitter. I think at the time, probably no more than 100,000 Egyptian users were on Twitter and about four million users on Facebook. So there was a huge, you know, gap in numbers. Yet Facebook - yet Twitter was basically the place where most of the activists meet.
It's more public, open, and you can - via hashtags, you can basically follow what exactly happened. I was using Twitter on the morning of Jan. 25 to understand what's going on, to know the news and to get updated on what's happening on the ground in the different locations.
Facebook was more of a collaboration tool where, you know, ideas are disseminated to, you know, to the masses. So we agree on, for example, the event invitation was on Facebook, the one that had about one million - have reached one million people and had 100,000 of them confirming that they are going to attend Jan. 25.
GROSS: So you had organized websites and portals before. You know, right before going to college, you organized a site called Islam Way that you describe as a kind of audio YouTube, where only you and a couple of others could upload things but was a place where Muslims, you know, around the world could network.
You organized a financial portal for the Middle East. You were the head of Google's marketing in the Middle East and North Africa. You organized a Facebook page for Mohamed ElBaradei, who was for a time considered a presidential hopeful after Mubarak.
But one of the things that helped you - helped inspire you to organize demonstrations was the death of Khaled Mohamed Said, a young man who was tortured to death by the Egyptian police. You saw his photo and then started a Facebook page in his name that was called, in English, We are all Khaled Said. What was it about that photo that changed you?
GHONIM: Well, as an Egyptian, I was always frustrated, just like many young Egyptians, of the situation in the country. And to a large extent, we didn't know what could we do. And looking at Khaled's photo after his death, basically I just felt that we are all Khaled Said. That was a feeling.
It wasn't just a brand name that just came. It was a feeling. We were all of these young Egyptians who could die and no one held accountable for the death. So at the time, I thought, I have to do something. And I believed that bringing Khaled's case to a public case would be helpful.
So I wanted to do my share. I created a page, and I basically started calling people to join that page, hoping that first, we make sure that those who did this to Khaled are going to be held accountable, second that we kind of expose the bad practices of the Egyptian police because the last thing a dictator wants is that you expose their bad practices to its people.
GROSS: And then you eventually started organizing protests through that Facebook page. How did you reach the point where it wasn't just about expressing solidarity, but it was about organizing people to take action, to be at a place at the same time and protest?
GHONIM: Right after I created the page, I started doing some online campaigns, asking people to take photos of themselves holding banners that say we are all Khaled Said, which basically getting everyone engaged. I believe that engagement is very critical, and a lot of activists end up in their own isolated environment or platform, and they don't communicate with the mainstream.
And I thought maybe as someone coming from the mainstream, I'm not an activist, I was never one, and I'm just someone who cares and who hate injustice. So by starting the page, I started looking at how can I make sure that more and more people get involved.
It's not just about me telling everyone, you know, here are the information, please read it. No, it's very important to get everyone engaged. And from day one, the page was running with this title. We were soliciting ideas. I go to another administrator to help me after the third day because there is 100,000 people joined the page. His name was AbdulRahman Mansour, and we were basically looking at different options.
We were soliciting ideas, surveying people, seeing which ones they like more, and when we execute a campaign, everyone is involved, and then we take their contribution and feedback and relay it back to everyone.
GROSS: Yeah, you mention surveying the people. You actually had a program, I think through Google, that enabled you to send out, like, questionnaires to everybody who was reading the Facebook page, and they could respond, and you could actually see what the popular sentiment was among the protestors about how to proceed and what they thought was working and what didn't.
GHONIM: Yeah, there was actually - there is a product called Google Moderator, which I have used to solicit ideas and get people to vote on them. This is a public product available for everyone. And there was also (technical difficulty) service.com, which I used to conduct surveys. And that website ended up knowing that, you know, a couple of guys have done it as a small startup from probably their house because they don't have an office, I'm not sure. But that just shows you the power of technology.
In the past, 100 years ago, if you want to know the feedback of 10,000 people about a specific issue, you'll probably spend days, if not months, to get it done. And now with the power of technology, you could kind of get this done in five minutes if you are able to reach all of them.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Wael Ghonim, and he is the person who organized the Facebook page that helped launch the Egyptian revolution. Now he's written a memoir, which is called "Revolution 2.0." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Wael Ghonim, and he was the curator of the Facebook page that helped launch the Egyptian revolution. Now he's written a memoir called "Revolution 2.0." So one of the early Facebook postings that you did on the website that you created, We are all Khaled Said, was after the Tunisian vegetable cart operator set himself on fire in protest, and then the president of Tunisia apologized to the public.
And you wrote on the Facebook page: For the first time since the day I was born, I saw an Arab president pleading with his people, apologizing, saying now I understand you, I am sorry, I made a mistake. I will not amend the constitution to re-elect myself. I will lift the ban on the media.
All youth of Egypt listened so you know that no government is stronger than its people, a strong salutation of respect to the free people of Tunisia.
How did you find a voice to write these Facebook postings and...
GHONIM: I was writing with my heart, not my keyboard. I just basically was writing what I felt should be written. And that moment was a very influential moment for me personally. I never thought this would happen in Tunisia, and I never thought that this would happen in Egypt.
But watching this video - by the way, I watched that video so many times. I can't even remember. I would run it, I would replay, I would run it, I would replay. I know this might sound silly for many Americans, but...
GROSS: This is the video of the president or the video of the...
GROSS: The video of the president apologizing.
GHONIM: His speech, his second speech, yeah. I kept watching it, looking at his face, what exactly is he saying. And I know, as I said, this just might sound silly, but we have never seen that in the Arab world. We have never seen a dictator apologizing for the people. And it was always, you know, the completely opposite way.
In fact, his first speech, which was given a few days before that speech, was these are thugs, these are people who want to destabilize the country, they are funded by those who want to destroy Tunisia and all of that kind of, you know, stuff that we are used to and we are used to here.
So that was a key turning point, and at that time, I started looking and thinking we are very close. It looks like, you know, the revolution might be happening in our country.
GROSS: So the first protest that you organized through the Facebook page that you curated was a silent protest. And then you decided to organize a protest on January 25, which is National Police Day. How is National Police Day usually recognized in Egypt or celebrated in Egypt? Like what is it?
GHONIM: It's a day to pay respect to a lot of those brave Egyptians in 1952, the police officers in Ismailia, who decided on defending the city from, you know, the British army, who was attacking it.
So before, I think on 26 of December, AbdulRahman Mansour, the other admin, told me about that day and told me we should do something, it's very symbolic. We want to say that we are not happy with what the police is doing in this country. And what is the best day to do that? And the police day.
And the idea sounded really nice, and we were thinking of doing silent stands, doing wall of shame and wall of fame, and I was basically communicating with activists on the ground anonymously, trying to solicit ideas and understand what can we do.
Yet on the 14th of January, when Ben Ali left Tunisia, when he escaped, practically, to Saudi Arabia, the whole, you know, Internet websphere was talking about that. Egyptians were saying we are worse than Tunisia, we have to do something. This is our moment. And a lot of people had this belief.
So being affected, you know, being influenced by those people, I just wrote on the page: Today is the 14th. In 10 days, we have a police day. If 100,000 of us take to the street, no one is going to stop us. And that was the beginning.
GROSS: So were you in Tahrir Square?
GHONIM: Yeah, I took to the streets with everyone on 25th of January. I went to Tahrir Square, was planning to spend the night until the police force came and kicked all of us out.
GROSS: It must have felt - well, you tell us how it felt to be the person behind the Facebook page that set the time and the date for this. I mean, and it happened. It actually happened, and you were there among, you know, what, 100,000 people or however many there were. What did that feel like to you?
GHONIM: Well, I was very proud of the Egyptian people. It wasn't a moment really where I was thinking of what I personally have done because I think I took a lot of credit that I don't deserve. This was the work of so many people. This was the work of many brave Egyptians.
And on that day, it's not just about the fact that many people were there. It's about, you know, their passion, their persistence, their readiness to sacrifice. I've seen on that day amazing Egyptians. I've seen a guy who stood up in front of a tank, stopping it and putting his life at risk.
I've seen a guy who would defend, you know, his colleagues and female colleagues to make sure no one is attacking them. I've seen a guy standing up against all the police force, you know, looking at them like OK, beat me if you want to beat me.
So on that day, it was another turning point. You know, I never thought we are that brave. I never thought we are that capable of pulling off such a huge protest. And I went back home, and I wrote this is not the end, this is the start of the end, the end of the regime.
GROSS: So one of the mistakes that you made was that you accidentally sent one of the - correct me if I have this wrong. You were changing an event time, and you accidentally sent it from your personal account instead of the anonymous account. This is a nightmare that everybody has, that they're going to email the wrong person by mistake or, you know, this kind of thing, but except everything was at stake for you.
I mean, you had to be anonymous both for the sake of not taking credit for doing anything, but also you couldn't afford to have the Egyptian security know who you were.
GROSS: So what happened? Did people discover you as a result of this mistake that everybody kind of makes at some point but...
GHONIM: Well, I was fortunate enough that it happened in November and not during Jan. 25th, and I discovered it quite fast, actually. Someone emailed me saying urgent, I know who you are. It's an activist, you know, I found out who you are, please do something about it. Your name appeared in one of my notifications when you changed the event name.
And definitely that was a very scary moment for someone like me. I did not want the authorities to know my name or AbdulRahman's name. We wanted to keep going. And I, you know, I was thinking what should I do. So I disabled my whole personal Facebook account. I changed the name on it, and I disabled it so no one can access the name.
At that time, probably about 500 people knew my real name, but I don't know who are they, and I was very worried about the fact that they would be, you know, someone from state security would know that. But I guess no one found out, and I was very lucky at that time.
GROSS: Now, I thought it was interesting, you used the Facebook page to send out basically directions for people who were going to show up in Tahrir Square, and those instructions included be at the location promptly at the determined time. When leaving your house, don't carry anything you don't need, such as membership cards or licenses or credit cards. Please carry the Egyptian flag and refrain from carrying any signs of a political party, movement, group, organization or religious sect. The chants are unified and agreed-upon. Please refrain from profanity. Try as much as possible not to disturb traffic.
You were clearly trying to set a tone here of peacefulness, of cooperation, of a united, a united people, not, you know, like people divided by ethnic group or by religion or by class or by political group. Do you feel like that was effective?
GHONIM: Very effective. Those instructions were also the work of not just me, many people who were - you know, I've seen a lot of people coming up with suggestions, and also I learned a lot from the Tunisian revolution. One great thing about the Tunisian revolution is that all what you see is the Tunisian flag. That just sends the right message to those who are not in the square, those who are not in action.
It's very important in a popular revolution that the masses, at least, would take a neutral stand if not support you. And the message of unity is very strong message you send to everyone in their houses or in their offices. They will look and say wow, this is the real Egyptians.
The regime tried to label this as the Muslim Brotherhood revolution or, you know, saying that it's a revolution of extremists, or look what they're doing, or they're financed, you know, the liberals are financed from abroad. All of this didn't really work because people saw what's happening in Tahrir and so that every, you know, all sort of political, social groups, males and females, Muslims and Christians, we're all taking to the streets, we're all demanding on thing: that this regime has to go.
GROSS: So in those early days, before you were imprisoned, and there were a couple of days of protest before you were kidnapped and arrested, did you think at some point is this going to turn into Tiananmen Square, where, like, the Chinese authorities brought in the tanks, and, you know, it was a catastrophe for the protestors. How much was that in back of your mind?
GHONIM: It was there. Few minutes before I got kidnapped from the street, I tweeted: Pray for Egypt. The government is planning to cut the communications. I think they are planning a massacre out there tomorrow.
It seemed to me that they were very worried. They did not really care about the protestors, they just wanted to make sure that this ends as soon as possible. And it was very obvious that something was going to happen.
GROSS: Wael Ghonim will be back in the second half of the show. His new memoir is called "Revolution 2.0." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest was the curator of the now famous Facebook page that called people to protest in Tahrir Square on January 25th last year, launching the Egyptian revolution. His anonymity didn't last long. His name, Wael Ghonim, was uncovered by the Egyptian security forces. And on January 28th last year, he was arrested, interrogated and held blindfolded for 11 days, forcing him to miss some of the revolution he helped ignite. Ghonim has written a new memoir called "Revolution 2.0."
How were you arrested?
GHONIM: I was walking out at night after having dinner with some colleagues, and I just, you know, I was on Twitter, walking on Twitter, while, you know, while tweeting, and all of a sudden I found three people surrounding me, pushing me on the, you know, you know, pushing me down, and then one covering my mouth, others taking my phone. And there were like basically I was looking around, you know, like no, no, trying to, you know, trying to grasp what was going on, and basically, I heard one of them like, OK, we're done, send the car. So I knew I was getting kidnapped.
GROSS: Were you expecting this?
GHONIM: I was worried about it. I was trying not to see this happen. And this is why, for example, I do strongly my Egyptian SIM card, and I changed my location from the hotel to one of my friend's, you know, to a friend's office where in which I stayed. I was hoping that it wouldn't happen but it just happened.
GROSS: So you were arrested by the Egyptian authorities at about 1 a.m. on January 28th of last year. And then you were interrogated. You were blindfolded for the 11 days that you were held prisoner. You were interrogated many times, right?
GHONIM: Three times.
GROSS: Three times. OK. Thank you. What did they want to know?
GHONIM: Well, I believe that one thing is that they didn't believe that Egyptians can pull this out. They thought that there must have been foreign interference that, you know, CIA or, you know, foreign intelligence agents are, you know, basically planning this sort or making it happen. They did not really trust that Egyptian young people are capable of being that brave. So they wanted to kind of understand my links.
I come, you know, for a lot of these people I'm very, you know, you can build conspiracies around me. I'm married to an American. I work for a company that is, you know, its headquarters in the U.S. I travel...
GROSS: This is Google? Yeah.
GHONIM: Yeah, Google. I travel a lot. And they were just thinking probably, you know, this guy is a traitor. And I was trying to tell them that I love my country. The last thing I would do to this country is to even put my personal interests about the country's interest. I have never done that in my life and I will never do it because I, you know, I was brought up as a very patriotic Egyptian and this is not just going to happen. And they were not convinced, you know, why would you, why would someone like me would put himself in such a huge risk without having a huge personal return, such as money or whatever?
So it was a very hard moment for me because I would accept being, you know, seen as someone who is, you know, in the opposition, who is creating problems for them - but the fact that they called me a traitor was very hard on me. And I told them, you know, listen, you know, you can torture me as much as you want, but you're not going to get this out of me because this is not true. I would prefer to die than to admit something I have never done that I think is completely wrong.
GROSS: Now you tweeted right before you were arrested that you were ready to die for Egypt. But there is a difference between saying that and then facing interrogation and possible torture. And from the way you describe it in the book, the Egyptian authorities in the prison kind of made it clear to you that you could talk and get off easy or not talk or not tell the truth, in which case there'd be consequences, implying torture. You knew people who had been tortured and you were, I mean you were afraid of that. Who wouldn't be? So how did that affect what you are willing to tell them when they asked information about the organizing or about other organizers?
GHONIM: Well, the thing is they were very smart in their interrogations and they would, because of - I was blindfolded so I can't see their faces, but they were basically repeating that they pretty much know everything and all they want is me saying it. It was very hard because I was kidnapped from the street so obviously they were, you know, after me. And I'm sure that they, the activists I was communicating with - despite the fact that one of them doesn't know who I am - but at the end of the day he is someone, Ahmed Maher from 6 of April, he someone that they must be monitoring at the moment. So it was very hard.
I just decided on I'll tell them the truth, yet not the complete truth. I will not put anyone's life at risk. So I never mentioned the other admin, AbdulRahman Mansour, who happens to be in the army doing his obligatory army service starting 17th of January that could put him in a lot of trouble. I only mentioned a couple of names that I'm sure they know of, they probably have interrogated or arrested before so that I don't put anyone else at risk. And this kind of worked. I, you know, they were OK. I wasn't tortured physically.
There are many Egyptians who were brought to state security, tortured, a lot of them would die through the torture process, and thank God that this didn't happen to me. But definitely, as you just mentioned, saying is something an action is something else. And I have to say dying is something and going through torture is something else.
GROSS: Yeah. I would think it would be much easier to just think I'm going to die than like oh, I'm going to be tortured for hours or days or months and it's going to hurt a lot. I'm just - like suffering and dying seem to register differently...
GROSS: ...I think. In a lot of ways suffering seems far worse, like torture kind of suffering. So were you able to contain your fear? Being there in this cold cell, breaking out into this rash that's spreading, and thinking maybe I'll be tortured, you know, no one knows where you are, pretty scared, I'd imagine. So were you able to contain the fear?
GHONIM: It's hard. No, I was always, you know, scared and in fear. The hardest part of it is that you know you are kidnapped late at night. My family doesn't know where I am. My wife and kids doesn't know where I am. I'm waiting for the unknown. I'm blindfolded, handcuffed - even when I was eating or, you know, using the bathroom, and I was just sitting there waiting for nothing. I don't know what's happening outside and hoping one day some person is going to knock on the doors and tell me it's about time you're leaving. And over time I started to lose my patience.
I kept trying to remind myself that probably, you know, I was part of something that is really big and it's about time to pay the price for it. Or, you know, just saying that one's life is meaningless if, you know, it doesn't matter really if you live 60 or 70 or 80 years and then just end up dying like everyone else. What matters is what you try and do, even if you die at 30.
I was trying to, you know, I was praying five times a day, just like how I, you know, normally do. That was, you know, trying to build a connection with God and hoping for, you know, getting out of this. I just wanted to get out of this as soon as I can or at least die, or at least know what exactly going to happen. I want someone to tell me you are going to be jailed for three years. OK. Now I know and I can, you know, live with it. But just the whole, you know, the whole, you know, experience, the worst thing in it was that you were waiting for the unknown.
GROSS: So you were released after 11 days. I imagine that was in part because you had become very well-known and I think Amnesty International was petitioning for your release.
GROSS: Google was working behind the scenes from what I know. I don't know what else was going on but I'm sure there was more...
GHONIM: No. Actually Google started a huge search campaign online that did...
GROSS: Oh, OK.
GHONIM: ...did a lot of - gave me a lot of media exposure and made a lot of people talked about me. Unfortunately, you know, this is the case. The regime doesn't really care about the human being. They do care about their reputation, their image, what the people think of them and the pressure that is being put on them. So if I happen to be someone who comes from a poor family, probably I would have been dead by now, which is really bad. This is exactly the Egypt that we don't want to see.
GROSS: So one of the things that kind of amazed me about the book, you're told after 11 days that you're free to go, and on your way out you hug some of the guards. Why did you want to hug them?
GHONIM: I don't know. It was a very emotional human being feeling. I mean people would argue this is probably Stockholm syndrome but, I don't know. I just felt, from even before the whole revolution, I always thought that those are not my enemies. I always thought that these are tools, those are victims just as much as I am. And I mentioned the story of the guy who told me that pray for me that I find another job and get out of this place. And I, to a large extent, I felt that he is imprisoned just like how I am in - was in prison - how I was imprisoned. I just think that, you know, those are victims and it's about time that we change the whole system so such people would find a, you know, a better job, would find a, you know, would find a new meaning to human rights and they do not violate it.
GROSS: My guest is Wael Ghonim, the curator of the Facebook page that helped launch the Egyptian revolution. His new memoir is called "Revolution 2.0." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Wael Ghonim, and he is the person who curated the Facebook page that helped organize the Egyptian revolution. Now he's written a memoir called "Revolution 2.0."
So just hours after you came out of prison you did an interview on something called Dream TV in Egypt. And this is just an amazing piece of video. You're hardly being interviewed. You're basically just talking. I mean you're so emotionally vulnerable at this point. You've just gotten out of like interrogations, 11 days of being blindfolded and in prison, not knowing what your future is going to be, and you're just talking about how, that you wish the best for Egypt. That you're not going to apologize because you never meant anyone harm. And then toward the end of the interview she shows you photos of some of the people who were killed in Tahrir Square, and at this point you totally lose it. You've been tearing up throughout the interview, but at this point you're just like sobbing.
And what you say is, and I'm reading the English translation: I want to tell every mother and every father who lost a child, I'm sorry but this is not our mistake. I swear to God, it's not our mistake. It's the mistake of everyone of those in power who doesn't want to let go of it.
Then you said, I can't stay and you walked off the set. And watching it, I feel like you feeling such grief. But I'd like to hear what you were feeling. I mean I imagine it's grief and also a sense of responsibility - even though you say you're not, you don't feel guilty. But I'd love to hear what was going through your mind and what you were feeling then.
GHONIM: Well, I always didn't want to expose anyone's - any Egyptian, to any sort of risk by an activity that I called for or I encouraged people to join. And seeing the photos of the people who died, every time they showed a picture I felt like this is either me or my brother or my friend. I just, you know, I felt that that could've been easily me if I was not in prison. I could've been killed during one of these protests.
And I could not just, you know, connect with this mentality that you kill these people. And a lot of them, you know, sounded like, you know, looked like they were young and they had their own dreams. And those who had been in power, you know, Mubarak is like 80-something years old and he has nothing. You know, he probably doesn't have more 10 years to live and he killed someone who's, you know...
...or he, you know, orders to kill someone who's 15 or 18 or 20 or 30. It just — it was just devastating. And when I saw one – there was the first photo that, you know, just made me cry was a guy called Amad Dehap(ph) and I didn't know until after the interview that this guy was married just two months before the revolution.
And despite all that, he put his life at risk and he decides on going to – taking to the streets and basically making it happen. You know, making his, you know, fighting for his dream.
GROSS: What impact has that...
GHONIM: It was a very hard moment.
GROSS: What impact did that interview have?
GHONIM: Well, I think because I missed a lot of events that took place, I was not as angry as most of the people, you know, most of the revolutionaries who appeared on the square. I had the 25th of January spirit, basically. And I was talking to the masses, addressing those who are at homes, and I think that to a large extent people connected.
I received about 2,000 emails on Facebook, Facebook messages, after the interview and I've read some and I was very happy to see many people saying, you know, we were against this and after seeing you we are all with the revolution. And a page was created afterwards, calling for me to speak on behalf of the Egyptian people and, you know, it has a quarter million people after a couple of days from that interview.
But of course, you know, as you might have noticed, I decided not to do that and I did not agree with the fact that you – we personalize the revolution. If I was against personalizing a cause, I would definitely be against personalizing a revolution. I would definitely say that this was leadership and it should continue leaderless and no one should just be taking lead on, you know, after all these people sacrificed their lives and made it happen.
GROSS: So you wanted a leaderless revolution where it was just like the people expressing their collective voice. But then the revolution part is over, the dictator is toppled, and then there's a vacuum that people try to fill. And, you know, right now there's still arguments about when the election will be and the constitution will take affect and the Muslim Brotherhood has half the seats in the new parliament.
A lot of people are concerned that there will be an Islamist agenda in parliament. What would that mean for women's rights? For Christians? And for Muslims who have a different interpretation of the Quran than the Islamists do. Do you feel that Egypt is now at a different turning point and a turning point that's going to be much more difficult in a way?
GHONIM: Well, the transition from dictatorship to democracy is always very difficult and if you read a history of any country that went through this, it wasn't easy. And, you know, you don't end dictatorship one day and next day you have fully fledged democracy. And the fact is I believe that the revolution isn't over. I believe that the revolution is a process.
It's not an event. It's not 18 days. It'll take years for, you know, for the objectives of the revolution to happen. And I kind of – you know, I kind of look at all these, you know, discussions and I understand how people are worried. I mean, change is always worrying to many people who lived their lives in a certain style for so many years.
Yet I'm very optimistic. I look at, you know, what is happening in Egypt. We are talking about a critical mass of Egyptians, a lot of them are young, who broke their fear. Who basically are no longer afraid to speak up and say exactly what they think, who are interested in seeing a brighter future in their country. Who stopped saying this is their country and are now saying this is our country, this is everyone's country.
And also, we are noticing a large number of Egyptians engaging politically. In the past, any elections would not have, you know, a couple of millions, three millions max, participating because people, you know, did not really believe in democracy. It wasn't democracy; it was dictatorship. But now 27 million Egyptians took to the streets. And we have to respect their choice.
At the end of the day, we did not take to the street on 25th of January to replace a dictator with another dictator or that we think is better for the country. We took to the streets because people should be empowered to choose, for the first time in 60 years, who should be representing them. And all of us have to respect that. And only through democratic ways if we are not happy we can help, you know, work on changing this.
Otherwise, if someone disagrees with this argument, then probably he is, you know, or she is indirectly admitting that Mubarak was right because that is exactly the same argument Mubarak is saying. I'm very optimistic about this country's future. I know it's going to be very tough. We're going to go through a very hard time.
There's still, you know, as you've mentioned, there are debates but at least we have debates, something we have never had before.
GROSS: Well, good luck to you and thank you so much for talking with us.
GHONIM: Thanks and I really enjoyed the interview.
GROSS: Wael Ghonim's new memoir is called "Revolution 2.0." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org where you'll also find a link to the TV interview we talked about that was recorded shortly after he was released from prison. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new novel about a girl left to fend for herself in a Reno trailer park. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.