The telephone call from Cairo came late on Thursday, Jan. 27. “I think they’re following me,” the caller told the friend on the other end. “I’m going to destroy this phone.”
And then the line went dead.
Soon after, so did cell phones across Egypt, and then the Internet, as authorities cut communication in a last-ditch effort to halt the protests gripping the country.
The only trace the caller left was in cyberspace, where he had delivered a haunting message via Twitter: “Pray for #Egypt.”
Three days later in Washington, D.C., Nadine Wahab, an Egyptian émigré and media-relations professional, sat staring at her computer, hoping rumors of the caller’s disappearance weren’t true.
Suddenly his screen name flashed to life. She stared at the message.
“Admin 1 is missing,” it said. “This is Admin 2.”
Admin 1 was the caller, the anonymous administrator of a Facebook page that had played a crucial role in inspiring the uprising in Cairo. He had left Wahab with a contingency plan. If he disappeared, Wahab should wait until Feb. 8, two weeks from the date of the first protest, before she revealed his identity and sounded the alarm. At all costs, she was to maintain the appearance of normalcy on the page.
The contingency plan had made no mention of an Admin 2, and Wahab worried that the message might be a trap.
For the next week, Wahab and her small cadre of online associates became immersed in what seemed like a shadowy cyberthriller. At its center was a bespectacled techie named Wael Ghonim, a 30-year-old father of two, and Google’s head of marketing in the Middle East.
Months of online correspondence between Ghonim and Wahab, parts of which were provided to NEWSWEEK, as well as telephone and online conversations with the magazine, reveal a man who adopted a dead man’s identity to push for democracy, taking on a secret life that nearly consumed him.
Ghonim had received a master’s degree in marketing and finance from American University in Cairo and began working for Google in late 2008. In little more than a year, he was promoted to head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa, a position based in Dubai, where he and his family moved into a house in one of the city’s affluent suburbs.
Ghonim and Wahab met electronically last spring, after Ghonim volunteered to run the Facebook fan page of Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner who had emerged as a key opposition leader; Wahab offered to help with PR. Ghonim had a strong tech background, having already founded several successful Web ventures. But it was his marketing skills that would fuel his transformation into Egypt’s most important cyberactivist.
Under Ghonim, ElBaradei’s page, which promoted democratic reform, grew rapidly. He surveyed its fans for input, pushing ideas like crowdsourced video Q&As. “Voting is the right way to represent people in a democratic way,” he wrote Wahab in May. “We use it even inside Google internally. Even when our CEO is live, if someone posts a tough question and others vote, he must answer it.”
Ghonim thought Facebook could be the ideal revolutionary tool in Egypt’s suffocating police state. “Once you are a fan, whatever we publish gets on your wall,” he wrote. “So the government has NO way to block it later. Unless they block Facebook completely.”
As the page grew, it became increasingly consuming, and Ghonim began to feel he was leading two separate lives. “In the morning I lead a 1m budget,” he mused to Wahab in June. “At night, I am a video editor at YouTube.”
That month, a young Alexandria businessman named Khaled Said, who had posted a video on the Web showing cops pilfering pot from a drug bust, was assaulted at an Internet café by local police. They dragged him outside and beat him to death in broad daylight. Photos of his battered corpse went viral.
Ghonim was moved by the photos to start a new Facebook page called “We Are All Khaled Said,” to which he began devoting the bulk of his efforts. The page quickly became a forceful campaign against police brutality in Egypt, with a constant stream of photos, videos, and news. Ghonim’s interactive style, combined with the page’s carefully calibrated posts—emotional, apolitical, and broad in their appeal—quickly turned it into one of Egypt’s largest activist sites.
Only select people, including Wahab, who quickly signed on to help, knew of Ghonim’s involvement with the page. To run the page, Ghonim had assumed the pseudonym El Shaheed, or The Martyr, to protect himself and commemorate the dead man—creating a persona that became one of Ghonim’s most powerful tools. “My purpose,” he said in a conversation with Wahab, “is to increase the bond between the people and the group through my unknown personality. Thisway we create an army of volunteers.”
On Jan. 14, protests in Tunisia felled that country’s longstanding dictator, and Ghonim was inspired to announce, on Facebook, a revolution of Egypt’s own. Each of the page’s 350,000-plus fans was cordially invited to a protest on Jan. 25. They could click “yes,” “no,” or “maybe” to signal whether they’d like to attend.
In the space of three days, more than 50,000 people answered “yes.” Posing as El Shaheed in a Gmail chat, Ghonim was optimistic but cautioned that online support might not translate into a revolt in the streets.
“The bottom line is: I have no idea,” he said. While some commentators hyped “that the internet is making a revolution,” others proclaimed that the “revolution can’t be tweeted,” he said. “I don’t know, and I don’t give a s--t. I’m doing what it takes to make my country better.”
Ghonim implored his Facebook fans to spread word of the protest to people on the ground, and he and other activists constantly coordinated efforts, combining online savvy with the street activism long practiced by the country’s democracy movements. Ghonim seemed to view the page both as a kind of central command and a rallying point—getting people past “the psychological barrier.”
Ghonim insisted that neither he nor anyone else was in charge. The real driving force behind the protest, he predicted, would be the people he was trying to empower. “What you don’t understand, and it seems what you don’t want to understand, is that this protest doesn’t have real organizers,” he told NEWSWEEK. “It’s a protest without a leader.”
Despite his insistence on anonymity, Ghonim was far from humble. “BTW, I want my photo to be on the cover” of the magazine, he joked.
When reminded that this might compromise his still-hidden identity, he suggested using a photo of the Guy Fawkes mask worn by the protagonist in V for Vendetta, a film about a mysterious revolutionary, and insisted on being referred to as “V” in any stories, before eventually settling for El Shaheed.
An American NGO had contacted him to offer financial assistance, he claimed. “I replied with two words,” he said. “ ‘F--k You.’ ”
In another conversation, he mocked the idea that any politician could corral the growing protest push. “A virtual guy that they don’t know is telling them what to do,” he said. “I have the people on my side.”
Ghonim seemed to think the anonymous persona was an equalizer that could prevent the protest push from being hijacked—by politicians like ElBaradei, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps even by Ghonim himself. “I’ll keep my identity anonymous even if a revolution kicks in and this government is kicked,” he said. “Cause the reason why I think we are f--ked up in this country is that everyone is looking for his personal fame. Everyone starts somewhere with good intentions. Then eventually they get corrupted.”
He had already laid the groundwork for the El Shaheed persona to live on without him, acknowledging in another conversation with NEWSWEEK that the moniker of The Martyr might come to represent his own fate. It was clear, as he flew to Egypt to join the protest, that he would be under threat.
On Tuesday, Jan. 25, Ghonim joined the first demonstration, along with hundreds of thousands of people across the country. Esraa Abdel Fattah, another organizer, who knew Ghonim but didn’t realize he was El Shaheed, saw him that night in Tahrir Square, along with scores of other protesters.
In an online conversation the following day, Ghonim was ecstatic but also worried. Activists, he said, were beginning to disappear. On Thursday night, as organizers were planning another major protest the following day, Facebook began flicking in and out of service. “Facebook is blocked again. Sons of bitches. I was just announcing the locations,” Ghonim said.
A few hours later, he made the ominous phone call to his friend, saying he thought he was being followed.
The next morning, plainclothes police officers came for him.
Ghonim—Admin 1—was now missing.
Admin 2, who asked not to be named—“I’m the guy who’s the backup in case something really horrible happens,” he said in a Skype call with NEWSWEEK—had his own protocol to follow. Once he realized Ghonim was missing, he notified Google and Ghonim’s family, and then set to work changing passwords and securing things on the Web. “I wanted the page to stay alive. The most important thing is the page itself,” he said. “The page is more important than any individual.”
In fact, he worried that by changing the passwords, he could be risking greater harm for Ghonim—what if police were torturing him for access to the site? “I either protect my friend or I continue the movement,” he said, clearly haunted by the dilemma. “It turns out I am not a good friend.”
Still following Ghonim’s instructions, Admin 2 proceeded to pore through the El Shaheed inbox to find the person Ghonim had described only as the girl in the United States, whom he had been told to contact.
When Nadine Wahab got his message, she first worried that Admin 2 was Egyptian police, but she quickly saw that Admin 2 was equally frightened, and the two began posting on the Facebook page, posing as El Shaheed. (Admin 2 also gave a sealed envelope to a friend, with instructions to open it if he went missing for more than a day. The envelope contained user names, passwords, and instructions on maintaining the site.)
For more than a week, it was unclear whether Ghonim had even been arrested—an exhaustive search of local prisons and hospitals turned up nothing. Google put out a statement that Ghonim was missing, without mention of his political involvement. The company also set up a phone line and email address for any tips about his whereabouts.
As the search continued, and word of the missing Google executive spread, rumors began swirling on the streets and in the press that Ghonim was El Shaheed, which Ghonim’s family feared might put him in even greater danger. Protesters in Tahrir Square, meanwhile, announced him as their symbolic leader. Facebook pages titled “We Are All Wael Ghonim” began to emerge.
Between frantic calls to the State Department, Wahab tried desperately to quash the rumors—even emailing NEWSWEEK from the El Shaheed address in an attempt to suggest that all was well.
All the while, she felt like she was trapped in a movie plot. She put pillow feathers beneath her front door, to tell if someone sneaked into the house. (Her cat dragged them away.) “It’s been a theater of the absurd,” Wahab said recently. “How did I get myself into this?”
As Ghonim sat blindfolded in detention, trapped in the custody of Egypt’s notorious security forces, the very people he’d spent the last eight months excoriating online, his main concern, he later said in a television interview, was that his identity would be revealed to the protesters.
Ghonim spent nearly two weeks in custody with no idea of the fomenting revolution taking place outside. When he was finally released, Ghonim discovered that he had become the face of Egypt’s revolt—the exact fate he had said he wanted to avoid.
In a phone interview with NEWSWEEK hours after his release on Monday, Feb. 7, in which he finally admitted his real identity, Ghonim tried at first to distance himself from this new role. “That was not my plan, and I hate it, but it was out of my hands,” he said. “I’m not a hero. I’m just one guy. Actually I did the easiest thing, which was writing. A lot of people died.”
Yet as Mubarak clung to power, and then finally fell, protesters continued to look to Ghonim for a voice.
The anonymous persona was finally dead. But in its absence, it seemed Ghonim had been anointed a leader by the leaderless movement he’d helped to create.