With the Fight in Egypt Failing, Wael Ghonim Is Out of Sight

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At a celebrity-studded conference in Zurich last month, the latest in the line of high-flying affairs he has headlined since becoming the face of the Arab Spring, Wael Ghonim didn’t quite seem to fit in. An array of glossy people were on hand: beautiful singer Joss Stone, Norway’s crown prince, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Then there was the diminutive Ghonim. Hair tousled, the penultimate button of his dress shirt pressed hard against his neck, splaying out his collar flaps, he hunched over his iPad at a table in the green room.

As the event buzzed around him, Ghonim quietly lectured a budding activist on how to use Facebook to promote his cause. (The conference, called One Young World, was billed as a global forum for young do-gooding achievers.) “You can target different groups of people,” Ghonim said, his fingers sliding across the iPad screen.

Using the handle El Shaheed, or “the martyr,” Ghonim anonymously ran a Facebook page that was the lightning rod for Egypt’s revolution. Since getting arrested and outed in dramatic fashion, then emerging—with Hosni Mubarak’s regime about to topple—as an international sensation, he has been elevated to the status of a geeky god, revered by protest movements from Syria to Wall Street. He’s been bombarded by media requests, awards, and speaking engagements. Literary agents have pleaded desperately for his attention. “I am hoping so deeply that we can correspond even briefly,” reads one entreaty from an agent in New York. Ghonim netted a rumored $2 million advance to publish his story, Revolution 2.0. (He plans to donate the proceeds to charity and to the families of protesters who were injured or killed.) The book is set to be released in January 2012, one year after Ghonim scheduled the revolution on his Facebook page.

Ghonim was well-suited to the role of anonymous agitator. Even in casual situations, he can’t help but be provocative. In the green room in Zurich, he playfully pressed a Jewish kid on the Israeli-Palestine conflict and badgered a Scottish woman about her country’s tepid bid for independence. The knack for mass marketing that made him a rising star at Google helped him draw Egyptians of all stripes to the cause. He harped on subjects with broad and immediate appeal, such as poverty and police abuse, and his entreaties to protest were simultaneously combative and inclusive. “I saw you who love Egypt—conscientious, respectful, educated youth,” read one of his Facebook posts after the first wave of protests. “Youth are dreaming, and they want the chance. And we will have our dream. I swear to God it’s very close. If only we would unite.”

But Ghonim, an introverted techie at heart, has had an uneasy time in the spotlight. (“I’m still trying to figure that guy out,” said another headliner in Zurich, describing how Ghonim had mostly kept to himself, fiddling with his iPad, at a luminaries-only dinner on the previous night.) As El Shaheed, Ghonim was so intent on message control that he obsessed over every post. Since stepping out from behind his persona, he has found that his image is getting out of his control. Ghonim came across poorly in his first round of interviews with the Western press, and even as his Facebook fans (some 376,000 on his personal page) and Twitter followers (226,000) have skyrocketed, his high profile opened him up to a tide of verbal attacks in Egypt. “Wael has been vilified a lot,” says Wael Khalil, a veteran activist who worked closely with Ghonim during the revolution, adding that the criticism has had “a reeling effect” on Ghonim. Counterrevolutionary forces and even regular Egyptians have disparaged him on all sorts of contradictory charges—he’s a freemason, an American infiltrator (Ghonim’s wife is a U.S. citizen), an Israeli spy, an Islamist, a traitor. “Everything people say affects him,” says a friend.

Ghonim has even become estranged from many in the revolutionary crowd who named him their symbolic leader. Some think Ghonim took too much credit, while others slam him for not doing enough to oppose the military regime that has taken charge in Mubarak’s place. “Wael is not present in any of this,” says an activist who worked with Ghonim. “He’s a TV personality who disappeared.” Even during the revolution, activists sometimes criticized Ghonim for not being harsh enough in his anti-Mubarak rhetoric, but he felt that the more moderate tone helped bring regular people into the fold. Now, at the helm of a Facebook page with close to 2 million followers, he often draws ire for what he doesn’t say as well as what he does. “People [have] expected him to say exactly the things they wanted,” says Khalil.

In the eight months since Mubarak fell, Ghonim has stepped back from the forefront of the revolutionary scene, preferring to operate “in the background.” He refuses to speak on the record with foreign journalists, and even his dealings with Egyptian media are sparing and tightly controlled. At times Ghonim seems to want to avoid the spotlight altogether. He was rumored to be up for the Nobel Peace Prize recently but, according to a fellow activist, hoped he didn’t win. “The last thing I need is to be more isolated,” he told the activist.

Ghonim’s Facebook page, too, has moved to the sidelines, seldom throwing its weight behind the various protests that have continued, with fading momentum, to occupy Tahrir Square. “It went from being instigator to spectator. Why?” says Adel Iskandar, a visiting researcher at Georgetown who was engaged with the page in its early days.

On any given week, Cairo now sees protests, counterprotests, and arguments over whether or not to protest at all—“I’ve been to three protests this week,” one activist says. Splinter groups take to the streets to agitate for their own causes, and activists worry that the revolution is losing ground to established groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and to remnants of Mubarak’s disbanded political party, who are busy gearing up for the first round of parliamentary elections next month. They’re also increasingly wary that the military council that took charge after Mubarak’s ouster is moving to consolidate its power. “I think the Tahrir Square influence has expired,” says Dalia Ziada, a well-known activist, who cofounded a political party with a group of fellow revolutionaries and plans to run for Parliament.

As the revolution tries to press on, its highest-profile figure seems as unsure as anyone about what comes next.

“He doesn’t know what’s expected of him,” says the friend. “And it’s sad. He has this platform now that people would kill for. And it’s going to go away, you know? News stories die.”

In the days before the Jan. 25 protest, when he was still unsure whether anyone would turn up, Ghonim vowed to stay anonymous no matter what happened. He didn’t want glory, he said over Google chat, posing as El Shaheed. “I just want to tell my son that your dad did this amazing thing.” He kept that mindset even after protesters had taken over Cairo’s streets. “I want to go back to my real life,” he said.

Ghonim also felt that anonymity was the great strength of his page. “That’s why people believe me and trust me,” he said. El Shaheed was more of a cause than a person. If he were unmasked, people would focus on the man behind the message, not the message itself—and perhaps turn on both in the process. Ghonim seemed to worry that any personal publicity would be corrupting for the movement, and even for himself. “Everyone starts somewhere with good intentions,” he said. “Then eventually they get corrupted, because of people like you introducing them to the world. So I’m not interested.”

Ghonim didn’t think the revolutionary movement should have a true leader, anonymous or otherwise. “For God’s sake, please don’t put [Mohamed] ElBaradei’s photo on the article,” he said, referring to the Egyptian politician and Nobel laureate, seen as a potential opposition force at the time. Even when Ghonim’s Facebook page was helping to bring hundreds of thousands to the streets, he denied that he was a leader at all. Of the activists organizing the protests on the ground and on the Web, he insisted that no one was really in charge. “It’s a protest without a leader,” he said on Jan. 26. “We argue for a long time. Because none of us is a leader.” (Ghonim, in fact, has never claimed to be the only person behind the page. In the lead-up to and during the revolution, it had other administrators, and it continues to be jointly managed today.)

Even now, everyone from grassroots activists to top intellectuals continues to insist that no leader is necessary. “No, no, no, no. Not one person,” says Alaa Al Aswany, Egypt’s most acclaimed novelist, who has been aligned with the protest movement from the start. “We’re not asking for a hero, you see?”

This notion is in keeping with the decentralized ethos of Internet organizing. And as Aswany points out, it made the movement a perfect foil to Mubarak’s entrenched and suffocating authority—“because the revolution was leaderless. That’s why the Mubarak regime couldn’t control it, right?” But it’s also a reflection of an animosity toward the very idea of a leader, stemming from a long history of corrupt autocrats. Many Egyptians hold this sentiment and share a reflexive suspicion of anyone who looks like they might be trying to take charge. “We have a bad history with central leadership,” Ziada says. “In Egypt, every time a central leader takes over, he tries to take advantage of the situation, however he can, for his own good.”

As Ghonim has discovered, that suspicion extends from autocrats to regular politicians and right down to the revolutionaries. “People are really wary of leaders—of political leaders they think will hijack the revolution for their own interest,” Khalil says. “That happened with Wael, and that happened with others. People say, ‘So who’s this person?’ No one can come up and say, ‘I want to be a leader.’ I don’t think this is how it works.”

Mubarak’s fall, after three decades of iron-fisted rule, left a void that many exhausted activists thought they had little choice but to let the military fill. When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took charge, it promised to help the country transition to democracy as quickly as it could. “In a sense, we really didn’t have an alternative to SCAF,” Khalil says. “We couldn’t choose one amongst ourselves, and we were accepting the fact, OK, let them drive. Let them drive until we get the driver’s license and get someone from our side to start driving.”

There were ominous signs early on. More than 12,000 regular citizens were tried in military courts without due process, including some protesters. A controversial blogger named Maikel Nabil was sentenced to three years in jail for criticizing the military. In one widely reported incident, the army subjected some female protesters to virginity tests. Martial law, which defined life under Mubarak, remained in place. Even so, protesters were optimistic that, when they banded together with all their strength, they could still force their will on those in power (Khalil calls it “backseat driving”). Mass protests pushed the military to sack the Mubarak-appointed prime minister, and after protesters stormed the headquarters of the hated secret police, SCAF agreed to dismantle it. “It seemed whatever the [military’s] intentions were, we were able to eventually achieve the thing if we built enough consensus,” Khalil says.

Gradually, though, the protest movement has lost steam. As leadership councils of various revolutionary players form and dissolve, it’s hard to build momentum for another big push. The myriad groups that came together behind the banner of overthrowing Mubarak, meanwhile, now use Tahrir Square to push their own agendas. “Political groups now go there on Fridays to make protests for themselves, not to address the demands of the people,” Ziada says. “And we are losing momentum.”

As the first round of elections approaches, the movement also seems to have lost its feel for the popular pulse. Even when people came together following Mubarak’s departure, the message lacked the base appeal of the original movement, which had highlighted issues such as poverty—the kind of thing very much on people’s minds in a country where, under Mubarak, most people lived on less than $180 a month (many have seen their financial status worsen in the chaos of upheaval). “Maybe it’s actually our mistake, because we were not pushing things in the right direction,” Ziada says. “We were more interested in elite demands than popular demands. And that actually made people think that we are detached from them.”

“The big protests that happened every Friday [after Mubarak’s fall], they were mostly for things that the grassroots don’t care about—emergency law, constitution. All of these things are very important, but they don’t relate to the lives of the people. At a certain point, they decided we were not there for them.”

Egypt’s democracy activists were in an uproar late last month when Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the chairman of SCAF, appeared in the streets wearing civilian clothes, in a carefully staged stunt that was featured prominently in state media. Tantawi was forced to deny that the military will field a candidate in presidential elections, but the Army has made clear that it will keep power, even after a parliament is selected, until those elections take place. With the Army insisting that a full parliament and constitutional assembly must first be formed and a new constitution be put in place, that could mean it remains in power for well over another year.

In September, police twice raided the headquarters of Al Jazeera’s channel in Egypt. The secret police, meanwhile, have simply been renamed—from Amn El Dawla to Amn el Watan (or from State Security to National Security)—and activists wonder whether they will truly change course. “The military let us break into headquarters, fiddle with some papers, and take pictures holding ‘secret documents’ like some revolutionary tourists. Then they changed the name and called it a day,” says Nadine Wahab, an activist in Cairo.

The atmosphere in Egypt is getting tenser. Last Friday, well-known TV presenter Yosri Fouda decided to indefinitely halt his popular show to protest “relentless” censorship efforts. In a statement on Facebook, Fouda said, “There are relentless efforts to maintain the core of the old system ... [and] to put direct and indirect pressure on those who still believe in the revolution’s values.”

To Ziada, the most worrying sign yet came on Oct. 9. A group of Christians—a sizable minority in the country that has been part and parcel of the revolution—took to the streets of Cairo to protest a church dismantling in Aswan. Twenty-four people were killed in clashes with the military—some shot, others run over by military vehicles, according to The New York Times. It was the worst violence the country has seen since Mubarak fell. But Ziada stresses something else: some ordinary Egyptians, inspired by reports on state television, rushed out to help the military quell the protest.

Ghonim has lately stepped up his criticism of the Army, issuing an emotional and forceful plea for democracy on his Facebook page, in the tone of his revolutionary missives, addressed straight to Tantawi. It went viral, generated more than 1,700 comments on Ghonim’s personal page, and resulted in a brief flurry of press. But it elicited no response from the military council, whose own Facebook page now has more than 1.5 million fans.

Ghonim declined an interview request, choosing instead to send over a translation of one of his Facebook posts: “As long as the security mindset is still in power, we haven’t yet finished our mission. Eventually our dreams will be realized because it’s much stronger than the nightmares they are trying to scare us with. We are not going to stop.”

In comments sent over email, meanwhile, he stuck fast to his revolutionary ideals, and to El Shaheed’s confident swagger. “The revolution is not going to die or go away,” he said. “Thought is stronger than bullets. Ideas never die.”