Currently, the news is saturated with reports of mounting death tolls as clashes between protestors and the military reach new heights in Egypt. As the world awaits the outcome in Egypt, the revolution that took the country by storm three years ago is being viewed, more and more, as problematic. The events unfolding now do not represent a sudden rupture, but rather a mounting surge of unrest that has been building during Mubarak’s rule but especially – and noticeably – since 2010.
Despite the democratic election of Mohammed Morsi, in 2012, after the thirty-year reign of Hosni Mubarak, online activist Wael Ghonim, author of Revolution 2.0, was one of the voices demanding Morsi’s resignation for broken promises and the assignment of unlimited state powers. Reading Ghonim’s book today holds up a mirror to the events from three years ago and offers a retrospective lens to the tumult that Egypt finds itself now.
Published in 2012, Revolution 2.0 relates the astonishing story of Ghonim’s vital role leading up to the protests of January 2011. The insider story takes the reader into the centre of a protest that spanned both the real world and the virtual – from Facebook to the streets of Cairo. Ghonim’s autobiographical account poignantly details three revolutions – of the self, of the digital age and of the Egyptian people against Mubarak’s regime. While Revolution 2.0 does not offer a comprehensive account of Egyptian political history, it does provide a unique insight into why the people wanted change and have fought so hard for it
Born and educated in Egypt, Ghonim joined Google in 2008, seduced by the company’s acclaimed democratic staff model in which creativity and individual growth is nurtured. Arguably, Google represented a microcosm for how Ghonim wanted Egypt to be. Ghonim moved to Dubai in 2010 to work as an executive for Google with his American wife and their children. He states numerous times that he is no politician (or even politically minded) but felt an extreme drive to help free Egypt from oppression. He depicts himself as a simple Egyptian man with a technological background who wanted to make a difference.
The internet has always been, as Ghonim confesses, a major part of his life – shaping and informing it. Moreover, Ghonim’s extensive background in computational technologies enabled him to successfully create online spaces for the uprising by using anonymous profiles and programmes strategically employed to protect his identity from State Security. Much of Ghonim’s activist work was done during his employment with Google. Initially, he speaks of his anti-regime sentiment alongside frustrating feelings of powerlessness against the system – a sentiment he felt was present in most Egyptian youth.
He narrates harrowing tales of State Security and Mubarak’s oppressive rule throughout his account, making the reader acutely aware of how State Security routinely arrested without warrant and conducted surveillance operations on unsuspecting and innocent Egyptians. The state was primarily concerned with eradicating opposition and focused heavily on monitoring activity including the appointment of teachers without activist backgrounds. Ghonim presents two compelling accounts of injustice – the manslaughter of Khaled Mohamed Said, a young student killed during a dispute with two police officers; and the eleven day imprisonment of Ghonim by State Security where he was blindfolded, beaten and humiliated for his activist activities.
Ghonim graphically describes the disturbing act of police brutality which resulted in Said’s death to highlight the terror of the regime: “His face was extremely disfigured and bloodied; his lower lip had been ripped in half, and his jaw was seemingly dislocated. His front teeth appeared to be missing, and it looked as if they had been beaten right out of his mouth. The image was so gruesome that I wondered if he had been wounded in war.” This attack provoked Ghonim to create the extremely influential Facebook page “Kullena Khaled Said” (We Are All Khaled Said) in which he raged, “Today they killed Khaled. If I don’t act for his sake, tomorrow they will kill me.” Armed only with a laptop and supported by anonymous digital colleagues, Ghonim boldly typed a new model of revolution, which galvanised hundreds of thousands online to take to the streets in 2011.
While contemporary developments significantly alter the experience of reading this book, it remains crucial for understanding the role social networking played in these revolutionary events. The author is right when he claims that something fundamental has changed for the Egyptian people – they have found a voice. The internet, he claims, has enabled “participatory democracy.”
The account of how the youth of Egypt became more informed and exposed to greater choices through access to “global media” is fascinating. State Security, so unprepared for the “digital revolution,” underestimated the internet and initially ignored the threat it presented. Not only did the internet allow access to the global community, it forged links between Egyptians all over the world who sought change– essentially creating a network of activism that silently gained strength outside the careful watch of the regime. While Ghonim stresses that the true hero of the story is the human behind the avatar (“History made on the streets, not on the internet”), the Web was pivotal to disseminating information - “this is how ideas spread like viruses.”
However, in light of recent events, Revolution 2.0 perhaps feels light and a little too optimistic. Ghonim’s concluding thoughts regarding Mubarak’s removal from power as “paving the way for opportunity and hope” may seem a little naïve today. He wrote that he does not have a “crystal ball that can foretell Egypt’s future” and it does seem that the optimistic Google executive did not see the present day events unfolding as they have. Maybe Ghonim would say that this is just part of the struggle for a better future, the darkest moment before the dawn. I would remind the reader that Ghonim’s epilogue has become a prologue, for the story of Egypt’s uprising has only just begun.
Grace Halden is a PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London.