Revolution in the age of Internet
They called themselves Revolution 2.0.
They were film directors, protest organizers and computer whiz kids dressed in J. Crew and Ralph Lauren, men in their 20s and 30s who had come to embody Egypt’s restive, tech-savvy youth. They sat in a Cairo living room waiting for the latest news about the upheaval they had helped foment.
They had been blindsided by President Hosni Mubarak’s speech the night before. Even as victory had felt so close, the longtime dictator had announced he wasn’t going anywhere.
Now, late Friday afternoon, they were gathered near the television, their laptops clicking. There was supposed to be another speech.
“This isn’t like any revolution in history. It has two faces,” said Khalid El-Baramawy, 33, editor of masrawy.com, a popular news website that has covered corruption and police brutality. “The bad face is, we can’t control it. We don’t know the next step [after] the street.” On the positive side, he said, “Mubarak doesn’t know how to deal with us.”
Waiting with him through the afternoon was Wael Ghonim, the gaunt young Google executive who helped organize the anti-Mubarak protests through a Facebook page that drew more than 70,000 friends. Ghonim’s recent detention by security services had transformed him into a potent opposition symbol. This was his family’s home in an upscale Cairo neighborhood. His mom, wearing a traditional robe and head scarf, poked her head into the room now and then.
Alongside him was Ahmed Maher, 28, a construction engineer and protest organizer who had been active in Egypt’s opposition since 2002, enduring repeated arrests. Nearby was Ahmed Salama, a film director. They were products of an Egypt that had opened its doors to Western commerce and Internet culture, shining lights in their respective fields. But they felt they had hit a glass ceiling in an autocratic one-party state.
“We have lived 30 bad years,” Baramawy said. “We didn’t want another 30 terrible years. We wanted this to stop now.”
The news is on, someone said. People stopped typing and leaned toward the TV. The statement from Vice President Omar Suleiman was terse: Mubarak would hand over power to the armed forces.
They all jumped out of their chairs screaming with joy. “Long live Egypt,” they shouted in unison, clapping their hands. Ghonim’s mother rushed into her son’s arms and he squeezed her.
“You did it! You did it!” she shouted.
“Wael, Wael,” his friends shouted.
Ghonim ran around the room. He tapped on his keyboard. “We did it,” he said. “Praise God.”
In a way previous generations could never have imagined, the young protesters had helped nudge a dictatorship to its extinction. If previous revolutions had been hatched in mosques and smoky cafes, this one was hatched online, the spawn of computer geeks and old-fashioned protest organizers.
Or at least that was the giddy narrative embraced by the young activists. Already, there was a robust debate about how influential websites such as Facebook and Twitter actually proved in the rebellion. The most prominent skeptic, the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell, has argued that such online forms of communication did not affect the nature of the revolution.
“People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented,” he wrote last week.
But others made the case that technology amplified the protesters’ message, helping build international support for their cause.
For months, Ghonim had been telling his family the Internet would change politics in Egypt. Friends joked that he made all his major decisions online. He met his American wife online. A year ago, he moved to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for Google. His mother, Iman, saw that he would be crestfallen by the poverty when he returned for vacations.
“He wouldn’t eat for three days,” she said. “He didn’t want me to know he was depressed by what was what was happening in his country.”
Ghonim met Maher met last April at a rally for opposition politician Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate and former U.N. diplomat. Soon, both were tapped to attend a forum for activists — Ghonim for his technological savvy, Maher, part of the April 6 movement, for his experience in organizing.
For two months, the group met once a week for six hours. After a young man named Khaled Said was beaten to death, allegedly by police, in Alexandria, Ghonim made a Facebook page called “We are All Khaled Said” that served as a networking tool for the group.
Eventually, the page gained more than 70,000 friends and announced plans for the Jan. 25 protests. Other young Egyptians advertised the demonstrations on their Facebook pages. Baramawy, a former member of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party who had quit in disgust, was drafted as an advisor.
Activist groups met under the umbrella name the Youth Movement for the Revolution of Anger. They shared a control room near Tahrir Square from where they sent messages via Facebook and Twitter messages.
As they heard of Mubarak’s ouster, the activists in the Cairo living room burst into the national anthem.
Everyone hugged and shouted. Ghonim and his friends suddenly ran out. They raced down the stairs. They pumped their fists and shouted as they ran: “Mubarak stepped down!” They were on their way to Tahrir Square.
Times staff writer Matea Gold in Washington contributed to this report.Special Correspondent Doha Zohairy contributed to this report.