In his first interview with English-language media, Wael Ghonim, the senior Google executive released Monday after 12 days in Egyptian custody, confirmed that he was the anonymous force behind the Facebook page that sparked Egypt’s revolt.
Ghonim, noticeably exhausted, stressed repeatedly that he did not consider himself a leader of the swelling pro-democracy movement.
“Actually, I did the easiest thing, which was writing,” said Ghonim, a 30-year-old father of two, the day he was released from Egyptian detention. “At the end of the day, it was about the power of the people.”
Named in honor of a blogger beaten to death by police last summer, the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said” became a rallying point for last week’s demonstrations. It was run anonymously by Ghonim, who referred to himself simply as “El Shaheed,” which in Arabic means “the martyr.” Ghonim also created the Web page for Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize winner who has returned to Egypt to become one of the main leaders of the opposition.
After Ghonim’s disappearance two weeks ago, friends, family, and Google officials frantically tried to track him down, fearing for his safety.
“A lot of people died,” Ghonim said on Monday, trying to downplay his own role; he was unhappy, he said, that he had become such a prominent face of the movement. “That was not my plan, and I hate it, but it was out of my hands,” he said.
Ghonim was detained by Egyptian authorities on the morning of Jan. 28. His arrest was noteworthy because his Facebook page played a key role in inspiring the protests, and associates feared he had become a political prisoner of an increasingly unstable regime. Family members were reportedly bombarded with anonymous calls saying Ghonim was being “taught a lesson.”
“His wife is really scared for his safety,” one of Ghonim’s friends told NEWSWEEK/The Daily Beast last week. “She’s really emotional about this. She’s really tired. She hasn’t slept for a long time. She’s praying for his safe return.”
Last week two people with inside knowledge of the movement confirmed to NEWSWEEK/The Daily Beast that ElShaheed was actually Ghonim. His wife, however, requested that the story not be published. “I feel that [it] will put his life in danger,” she said.
The Facebook page that Ghonim ran sounded the call for the initial protest on Jan. 25. As the page’s following approached 400,000 people, and word of the event spread, it hosted a constant stream of news, photos, and videos, downloadable fliers, and emotional entreaties for all Egyptians to join the push.
Ghonim is Egyptian but lived in Dubai, where one of Google's Middle Eastern offices is based. Friends describe him as passionate about both technology and his country. “If you see him, you think he’s your average Joe, but he’s extremely smart,” said one associate.
Ghonim’s Facebook page started as a small campaign against police brutality but quickly mushroomed into an all-out effort against human-rights abuses in Egypt. Using crowdsourcing, it even documented the fraudulent November parliamentary elections.
As pro-democracy protests got under way, President Hosni Mubarak’s regime cracked down hard on Egyptian and international journalists and bloggers, beating some, arresting others, and prompting protests from Washington. “There is a concerted campaign to intimidate international journalists in Cairo,” State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley said Friday on Twitter. “We condemn such actions.”
Esraa Abdel Fatah, a cofounder of the pro-democracy April 6 Youth Movement, which has also played a crucial role in organizing the protests, sounded frantic in a phone call last week. “All the activists, all our friends are arrested now,” she said. “The police and the Army arrested all the journalists, and [took] all the cameras and everything … I am OK, but I don’t know what will happen.”
Fatah often collaborated with ElShaheeed not knowing his identity. The two even met in Qatar on Jan. 20 during a conference on cyberactivism. She last saw Ghonim five days later in Tahrir Square, as he joined the protest he had done so much to arrange.
“It was a dream come true,” Ghonim said in the interview Monday. “We were dreaming for a better future.”
At the time, a Google spokeswoman declined to comment on the executive’s political involvement but confirmed that he was missing. “Right now our focus is on finding out where he is,” she said.
In an interview a week before the protest, Ghonim, posing as ElShaheeed in a Gmail chat, said the Tunisian revolution had inspired him to challenge Egypt’s longstanding authoritarian rule, but he refused to delve into personal details, or even speak over the phone, saying he feared arrest. He did, however, admit to keeping a breakneck schedule, getting little sleep as he tried to juggle his activism with a demanding day job. “I’m a workaholic,” he said.
Ghonim described himself as an amateur activist who was inspired to create the page after seeing photos of how the blogger, Khaled Said, had been brutally beaten to death and his maimed body left in the street. “That killed me. I felt in pain. And I wanted to do something,” he said. “It happened that I created this page, and it happened that 375,000 people [are] on it. So I'm using it to reveal the truth that the government is trying to hide.”
Just before he disappeared, Ghonim said anonymity suited his purpose. “This isn’t about me,” he said. “It’s about Egypt.” Other activists said his anonymity lent the page credibility and made the protest push more appealing to regular Egyptians.
In fact, Ghonim seemed eager to disappear among the swelling crowds. "I am mobilizing people,” he said. “Getting them to know their rights. And everyone then does what they want.”
This article originally appeared on The Daily Beast.