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Wael Ghonim: Revolution 2.0

‘Leaderless’ and ‘apolitical’ were the words repeated by Wael Ghonim in his account of the progressions during the course of 2010 which led to Egypt’s revolution - progressions in which he, Google employee, had played a causal role. Throughout the public discussion with Wael, held last month at the LSE on his recently published social biography ‘Revolution 2.0’, it was especially interesting how he resisted any framing of his actions which led to cataclysmic results in early 2011 as a sudden, intentional ‘politicisation’.

The story

Wael, explaining that he was never the activist type since he was always intimidated by the police, said that his use of social media as a ‘public space’ for talking about the severe lack of value for human rights in his society was never intended to incite protest. Responding to the incident of young Khaled Said’s murder by police in broad daylight (June 2010), it started by creating a Facebook webpage called ‘We are all Khaled Said’, an individual act of spontaneity Wael made clear (not unlike all of our daily emotive sharing through the social networking medium). In this he never explicitly used the term ‘we’ or terms such as ‘the regime’ that might indicate a political motivation against the authorities. Even after attracting many of his young generation to this Facebook webpage, his ambition remained according to what he saw himself and most of his generation as - representing the non-confrontational, fearful majority formed by the people, the public. This made them ‘apolitical’.

Criticised by some of his peers for not being ‘revolutionary’ enough, Wael’s reservation was that provoking violent reaction from the authorities by demonstratively protesting would simply cement the fear of the people; this would ruin any chance of sustaining a public awareness of injustice. So how to convey the moral depression of utter helplessness that ran deep in the tired souls of these people of Egypt? Wael supported an early proposal put forward by another through his Facebook webpage that called for everyone to simply line up in a silent stand across the seafront, dressed in black with backs facing the street and town: a powerful but peaceful image of discontent. It seems such a poignantly defeatist response to oppression was, anyway, made more dramatically, by the self-immolation of the young Tunisian vendor Bouazizi (December 2010).

With another incident of violence bringing in the new year in Egypt, the gregarious discontent precipitated quickly into events beyond Wael’s control. 25th and 28th January witnessed the proper activism of what were now many thousands associated with the webpage taking to the streets in protest. There had been a ‘psychological shift’ as Wael put it, from helplessness and hopelessness to an anger and antagonism willing to forsake life. By February 2011, some one million were associated with the webpage. If now ‘politicised’, the motion Wael had inspired was nevertheless fast dispersing into many hands without check (whilst he in fact was taken captive by the security authorities). The course of becoming ‘political’ was thus conversely unpredictable and decentralised, as many young individuals and groups took ownership of the invitation of Wael’s webpage to congregate on the streets. A demonstrative campaign for political change fast ensued as the regime’s blocking of Facebook and Twitter backfired and gave the motion the realisation of its strength. It was then the active role of media Al Jazeera, noticing the uprising and significantly assisting its spread and cohesion through a wide coverage, which mobilised many more millions across all quarters of society (who were not least encouraged by economic grievances).

Wael never revealed his true identity behind the Facebook existence; in fact he expected to preserve his anonymity indefinitely. It was therefore a leaderless, decentralised process of action - what Wael termed the ‘DNA’ of the movement – that was able to give voice to the ‘apolitical’ majority called the people. In place of any political centre or figure, all participants were truly equal in the moment, freed from supporting any individual or group’s self-emanating ideology. As night fell on the first day of major protesting, no one was discussing who personally should be appointed to take charge of negotiations with the authorities (of course many enthusiastically claimed leadership, though there was no ideology), but mostly ‘shall we sleep overnight in Tahrir square?’

The meaning of ‘Revolution’?

The idea of ‘revolution’ that came out of Wael’s account was about today’s exposure and interconnection of the personal ‘I’ through social media technology, which can trigger a new confidence in many individuals as they feel mutually strengthened, allowing the growth of an impersonalised ‘We’. What therefore appears truly ‘revolutionary’ is a revolution in politics, whereby the ‘I’ – any leading individual or central grouping representing the social movement - becomes altogether non-existent in an overwhelming ‘We’. This ‘apolitical DNA’ is at the very expense of ‘political’ direction. This is clearer now, given Egypt’s six-month delay in constructing a governing programme to transfer and institute the power won back by the people into an Egyptian presidency. But there was certainly the sense from Wael that this is a small cost in the greater good of having achieved the people’s power, which must, above all, follow through into the channelling of governance, however stretched the process may be (the six-month wait was actually brought down from a year by further protests of the people).

To summarise: 

the power of the people is greater than the people in power’ (Wael).

More broadly considering, I think the case of ‘apolitical’ revolution clarified by Wael is further appreciated against a larger re-imagining of ‘politics’ in the Middle East. This in fact through the idea of Islam and its implication of a ‘meta’ critique. In Islam, authority in a leadership rests according to the democratic will of the people, but there is no clear explanation or agreement on the process of instituting that authority. That authority will always be ultimately and wholly God’s – and thus its true anonymity. ‘The power of the people’ defends this, highlighting the reality of the self-driven aspect internal to any representative ‘I’ in democracy (‘the people in power’). Thus the very fact of any political rule essentially endangers a true stasis of equality before God. The corrupt dictatorship of the Middle East’s past takes this danger to the extreme (and one could argue that the political history of Islamic contexts, South Asia being a strong example, underlines the problem). Taking a larger step back, one sees that the purpose of any government (as I was incidentally reminded yesterday in a lecture on British policy-making) is, above all else, to get elected and maintain its popularity in the polls – which can often be a barrier to a broader equality across society. In the anonymity of ‘We’ that embodies the perfect state of Islamic equality, Wael and his companions were freed from this paradox. They were unified not in the appeal to any living body competing over votes and constituencies with their remedies for the future, but in the appeal to a cause of justice in fact depoliticised and eternalised by being identified with the deceased (i.e. ‘We are all Khalid Said’). Such an implicit ‘meta’ critique of the political reality is not entirely new in itself if we consider a socio-historical schism in Islam, made strong by the Shi’a Islamic cause for the Prophet’s grandson Husain. This emphasises how Husain was politically disadvantaged and martyred at the hands of a tyrannical and politically advantaged Umayyad Caliph. (This Shi’a narrative became the moral inspiration driving Iran’s revolution in 1979, an explicitly ‘Islamic’ one against the ‘I’ of a westernising monarchy).

The now

In light of the above, ‘Revolution 2.0’ continues a greater ‘meta’ political critique (second in line after Egypt’s first), a story that reclaims the power of the people, the power of anonymity so to speak. It has now been aided by an advancing technological and cosmopolitan world, with perhaps more revolutions yet to come if need be (says Wael). Necessary in readdressing the balance of justice, it is however a destructive and not constructive force from the point of view of political establishment. It would seem the breaking of such a cycle depends on the inclusiveness and plurality of Egypt’s constitution making, which would defend against the concentration of power in any representative ‘I’.  

Seeing the ‘meta’ as broadly theological, it is tempting to then relate it to the revolution’s consecration and moral support in the very religious Muslim Brotherhood – tellingly, ‘the most enduring and effective political force in the Arab world’ (Ed Husain). At least so-called ‘politics’ and ‘religion’ appear closely tied in the larger story of the Muslim Middle East. Commenting on the present popularity of this ‘Islamist’ force for the future governance of Egypt, it so happened that Wael expressed his surprise at the notion held by some that the power and freedom won by the people has been ‘hijacked’ by the Islamists. His view was that as the choice of the people, their election is only right and positively continues the revolution.

. . .

Wael Ghonim was born in 1980 in Cairo, and lived in Saudi Arabia for most of his childhood until moving back to Egypt at the age of 13. A prominent internet entrepreneur, by his mid-twenties Wael was a key member or founder of three of the Arab world's most popular websites, and in 2008 he was hired by Google as Regional Product Manager for the Middle East and North Africa. A passionate and committed individual, Wael's knowledge of technology and his dedication to the cause of democracy in Egypt came together in 2011 when he set up a Facebook page that facilitated the protests that would lead to the departure of Hosni Mubarak.                 

Varun Verma is currently an intern at the Muslim Institute with an MA from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.