Social Media Advances 'Revolution' In Egypt

Egyptian cyber activist and former Google executive Wael Ghonim talks to Steve Inskeep about his new book Revolution 2.0, which chronicles his role, and that of social media, in toppling the regime of Hosni Mubarak.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

About one year ago, a crowd in Cairo's Tahrir Square chanted the people want to bring down the regime. Egyptian protestors forced President Hosni Mubarak out of his job. Many factors sparked that revolution, not least an uprising in nearby Tunisia. But activists had been working against Mubarak's regime for years. And some of the work came online, coordinated by the Google executive Wael Ghonim, who spoke from Cairo on CNN the day Mubarak resigned.

WAEL GHONIM: I want to meet Mark Zuckerberg one day and thank him, actually. This revolution started - well, a lot of this revolution started on Facebook. If you want to liberate a society, just give them the Internet. If you want to have a free society, just give them Internet.

INSKEEP: I want to meet Mark Zuckerberg one day, he said. One year later, Wael Ghonim has written a memoir of his experiences called "Revolution 2.0." It's a dramatic story, though when he came to NPR's Cairo bureau, the revolution's legacy was uncertain. The military is reluctant to surrender full power, while Islamist parties dominated recent parliamentary elections.

What do you think has gone wrong?

GHONIM: So, actually I think that there are a lot of achievements. Among them - and I think the most important one - is that for the first time in Egypt modern history after 1952, Egyptians went, you know, 30 million took to the streets to vote. And the result was a reflection of the people's choice. So we have a parliament that is democratically elected.

And there are lots of good things that we have achieved in the past few months. There are also many challenges, which is expected, because revolutions, they are processes, not events, and it will take time. And we have to have a vision of where we want to go, to me and to many other revolutionaries.

We will say we're happy with the democratic development. When there is a complete power transfer through democratic transition by electing a president and having all authorities with elected parliament and president.

INSKEEP: Although, haven't more secular or liberal forces in Egypt lost ground in the last several months compared to where they seemed to be at the beginning of this revolution?

GHONIM: I really think that this doesn't matter. What matters is that there is democracy, and that people are empowered to make their own choices. You know, for the Egyptian people, most of them have selected their candidates based on the history and, you know, their reputation, I would say. In five years, people will vote based on their performance.

INSKEEP: Now that's a very interesting point, because not long ago on this program we had the Egyptian writer Alaa Al-Aswany, who is very well known around the world and I'm sure familiar to you. And he argued that it would be just fine to have Islamists in power in Egypt because they would be compelled to wrestle with real-world problems and deliver, or they would lose credibility. Is that what you're saying?

GHONIM: I can't agree more, with the exception of losing credibility. To me, I don't want anybody to lose credibility. I want all the Egyptians to unite and fix their own issues, because the issues are much bigger than a party or an ideology to solve. And this revolution has no leader, has no face to it. And the collective effort of all the Egyptians is what mattered at the end of the day.

INSKEEP: Now, it's interesting you say that this revolution has no leader. Many people, of course, have said that. But reading your memoir here, "Revolution 2.0," I wonder if you're not giving yourself enough credit, because you describe yourself putting up Facebook pages, sending out statements, writing quite dramatically on behalf of causes, doing things that leaders do, and organizing protests, getting this revolution going.

GHONIM: I think this is not leadership. When I say a leader, it means that directs the revolution, where it should be going. Before the revolution came, what we were doing is increasing the awareness and calling people to action. What we did was calling for, you know, massive process that turns into the revolution on the 25th.

That doesn't, you know, give me the title of leadership, because at the end of the day I don't - you know, I did not - and I would have not been able to take charge and tell people what to do and negotiate on behalf of them.

The fact that there is no leader is evident on the floor. There are so many people that have done extraordinary efforts and that have sacrificed. There are so many people that have died, but there was no clear leadership that made decisions on behalf of the people.

INSKEEP: I wonder if I could get you to read from page 24 of your book, where you describe your views, your feelings about cyberspace.

GHONIM: Sure. (Reading) I'm not a people person in the typical sense, meaning that I would rather communicate with people online than spend a lot of time visiting them or going out to places in a group. I much prefer using email to the telephone. In short, I'm a real-life introvert, yet an Internet extravert. And thanks for making me look like a nerd.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Well, you wrote it. You told the truth.

GHONIM: Well, I wrote about 500 pages.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Are you a different person online than in person?

GHONIM: I think so, yeah. I'm more calm - a lot on - in real life. And I think probably that's the very common thing you experience with everyone, because life behind a keyboard makes you more free, versus when you have to communicate and talk to the people. And this is exactly how things work online, and the beauty of it is that it's instantaneous.

INSKEEP: In one of the most dramatic moments leading up to the Egyptian revolution, you started a Facebook page on behalf of a guy named Khaled Said, who had been tortured and killed by the security forces. And you quote a number of really quite eloquent and very strong posts that you put up there. I'm wondering if you were put in person in front of an audience of a thousand people, or 100,000 people, or a million people and given an opportunity just to say those things, would you not have been able to say them the way you were able to write them?

GHONIM: I think so, yeah. I think I'm more convincing writing than speaking. And I think that the best thing was the anonymity, which gives you the ultimate freedom and gives the people a belief in the idea rather than the person, because if the idea is personalized, the person can be attacked and his intentions can be questioned. So I think writing would be more and stronger - had a more and stronger impact than speaking.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask you, though, about something people commonly say about Facebook activists or Twitter activists, whatever you want to call them. They will say, well, the liberals or secular forces are just talking to each other on Facebook, and meanwhile the Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood and so forth have been out on the streets meeting with people face to face, getting engaged with people directly, and look how much better they've done in the elections.

GHONIM: OK. Perfect. Then the rest of the forces should learn from them and go to the streets. No one has said that the Internet is everything. I mean, there is about 50 million Egyptians online and - according to the, you know, statistics by the Ministry of Communications. So there are about 35 million other people who can vote who are not online. And I think online is just a tool to communicate. It's not the end.

INSKEEP: Wael Ghonim is the author of "Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power." Thanks very much.

GHONIM: Thanks.

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