The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power: A Memoir
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 308 pp., $26
Wael Ghonim is an unlikely rebel. Born in Egypt in 1980, he began working his first Web job while studying at Cairo University, then moved to the U.S. (where he married an American) and eventually became Google’s top marketing representative for the Middle East, based in Dubai. His opposition to Hosni Mubarak’s regime was far down on his personal list of interests. But it was there. Waiting.
And when the tide began rising in 2010, Ghonim found himself leading and being propelled by it, a role that earned him 11 days of detention and torture by the Mubarak regime, and hero status among the legions agitating for Mubarak’s fall.
Ghonim’s emergence as an accidental insurrectionist forms the heart of his memoir, “Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power,” which could just as easily have been subtitled “What I Saw When I Helped Start a Rebellion.” It’s an engaging read, and it offers a sharply detailed look from the inside of an uprising that owed almost as much to social media connections as it did to anti-Mubarak passions. (Ghonim discusses the book on Feb. 6 with author Reza Aslan as part of the ALOUD Series at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.)
One of the book’s more remarkable elements is Ghonim’s depiction of how quickly timidity and resignation morphed into a mass movement — one that toppled a dictator and whose end has yet to be determined as doubts grow that the Egyptian military (whose neutrality during the uprising helped propel Mubarak’s fall) will cede control to the people.
If there is a weakness to “Revolution 2.0,” it lies in the narrow focus. These were days of sweeping change across North Africa and the Middle East, and while Ghonim cites the Tunisian uprising as a spark to the Egyptians’ sense of hope, the book doesn’t offer much in the way of step-back analysis.
But that is also a strength — Ghonim doesn’t overreach in this deeply personal account. His words ring with an authentic tone, and other than a few broad comments about the character of his fellow Egyptians, Ghonim avoids sweeping generalizations during those heady and tumultuous days.
Ghonim, frustrated with life under the Mubarak regime, entered politics by launching a Facebook page supporting Nobel Peace Prize-winning nuclear-proliferation expert Mohamed El Baradei, who in 2009 began criticizing the Mubarak regime and intimating he might run for president. Ghonim then launched another page — anonymously — responding to the beating death of Khaled Mohamed Said, a fellow young Egyptian, at the hands of two Egyptian State Security officers.
Ghonim’s first posting on the new “We Are All Khaled Said” page was distilled anguish: “Today they killed Khaled. If I don’t act for his sake, tomorrow they will kill me.” Within two minutes, the page had 300 members, and it continued to grow at a rapid pace, eventually reaching 350,000. It turned into an online gathering spot to discuss and debate conditions under Mubarak, alternatives to his rule and strategies.
Through this page, frustrations coalesced into a movement. Small protests emerged and then grew into the Jan. 25, 2011, mass demonstration that started with a tone of irony — it was in “celebration” of Egypt’s National Police Day. Ghonim and a handful of other activists picked the time and location, and then they posted the details a few hours before it was to start, hoping to keep the government off stride. Tens of thousands of people showed up.
Ghonim was doing all of this from Dubai, and in secret. Only a handful of people knew his identity, and he lived in fear that the National Security police would find him. He began shirking his duties at Google, spending days and nights in his home office managing (with a co-administrator) the Facebook page, much to the frustration of his long-suffering wife and neglected children. He finally returned to Cairo in time for the first big demonstration, which dissolved into massive pitched battles with police as tens of thousands marched to Tahrir Square.
“This was no longer just about a Facebook page or the Internet as a whole,” Ghonim writes. “It had gotten much bigger than that. The people on the streets had begun to move at a faster pace than the political activists. The mob was now in charge, whether it was rational or not.”
Two days later, as plans for even bigger protests were being made, Ghonim was swept up by security officers, tortured and interrogated — events he writes about with a sense of immediacy but also of detachment that is almost journalistic in nature. His connection with the protest was made public, and Ghonim’s friends obtained his release. His teary appearance on Egyptian television became yet another rallying point for the opposition.
Mubarak stepped down, a celebrated moment. But Ghonim recognizes that real change remains elusive.
“Revolutions are processes and not events, and the next chapter of this story is only beginning to be written,” he says in his epilogue. Then, later, he raises another point: “Thanks to modern technology, participatory democracy is becoming a reality.… Slowly, but surely, the weapons of mass oppression are becoming extinct.”
One can only hope.
Martelle is the author of the forthcoming book “Detroit: A Biography.”