A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Wael Ghonim: 15 Minutes of Fame, or Something More?

If you live on this planet and do not spend all your time reading only celebrity gossip and watching misnamed "reality" TV shows — and I assume all my blog readers would by definition fall within a Venn diagram of those two conditions — you probably heard about Wael Ghonim yesterday or Monday. If you follow Egypt closely you probably heard about him sooner.

Wael Ghonim is Google's Middle East marketing manager, based in Dubai. He's an Internet geek (after all, he works for Google) and he's Egyptian. He went back to Egypt for the revolt. On January 27 he posted from his active Twitter (#Ghonim) account the post:
"Pray for #Egypt. Very worried as it seems that government is planning a war crime tomorrow against people. We are all ready to die #Jan25
Then he went silent. He became a cause celèbre for many of the Facebook and Twitter folks in Tahrir. He was finally released on Monday, after 11 days in captivity. At that point it was revealed that he was actually the mysterious ElShaheed who set up the "We Are All Khaled Said" site on Facebook, which became the forum for organizing the revolt. The English version has 55,000 Facebook friends. The Arabic version has 600,000. Khaled Said is the young Aleandrian who died last year after being arrested leaving an Internet cafe, and later turned up beaten to death.

His Facebook page lists "People Who Inspire Wael" as Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs and Mohamed ElBaradei. As revolutionaries go, well, I don't think Lenin or Mao listed three of the richest men in the world as three of their four role models. But then, 21st century revolutions may not be 20th century revolutions.

He himself has been very modest in his public pronouncements. Yet somehow, Wael Ghonim is being touted by the international media as the new face of the Egyptian revolution, which has lacked an identifiable face so far. I've seen reports on him on CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, ABC, and NBC. Sorry, I haven't watched CBS or Fox, but it looks like he's the flavor of the week. This Time article is typical of the genre.

I can see three possible interpretations of this sudden fame:
  1. He is emerging as a real revolutionary leader.
  2. He's proving Andy Warhol's forecast that in the future, everyone will have 15 minutes of fame.
  3. He's proof that Google is planning to take over the world. (They have pictures of your house!)
While I personally lean towards number 3, in the interest of not sounding like a conspiracy theorist, I think we should discuss one and two.

One reason he's under the spotlight is that both his Twitter followers and Google (guess which has more money?) worked hard to figure out where he went when he disappeared. But when he came out he gave a moving press conference in which he choked up when he learned the (official, no doubt far too low) death toll. He also insisted over and over that he wasn't a hero; the demonstrators were. Tuesday he showed up in Tahrir Square and spoke to the crowds, and posed with Khaled Said's mother, in the symbolic photo of the day. (Left.)

Is he real, or just having his 15 minutes? We'll see. He's urging Egyptians abroad to come home, as he did. (He said earlier that if he wasn't serious he'd be back at his swimming pool in his house in Dubai.) But is he just a computer geek or can he rally the crowds? We don't know yet. He was a big hit in Tahrir yesterday. But he's young, lives outside Egypt, and while I think he had the fire of a revolutionary, I can't speak for his public charisma. The media keeps looking for faces: ElBaradei has capitalized a bit on this, he's not charismatic enough for the young rebels. Is Ghonim? He's shrewd, a media guy and a social networking guy, and the center of attention. But does anyone really know him yet? Even I could write the government propaganda against him: he lives in Dubai (gross and offensive wealth: mentioned himself that he has a swimming pool: do you?), is an expatriate who came home for the revolt (not really one of us/possible foreign agent), is a master of social media (subversive, helping the outside world undermine Egypt with online lies), and some reports say he has an American wife (horrors). But if he's got a good enough media presence — that's still not clear — he could have a real role to play. But he's already played a major one with his "We Are All Khaled Said" post.

Here's Ghonim's first interview on Egypt's Dream TV. If you don't know Arabic and don't see a "CC" on the lower tray, click through to YouTube and watch it there, since the "CC" button (lower right, on the left) brings up the English closed-captioning, and while the translation's a bit rough, it's available.

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