The Facebook Freedom Fighter

By Giglio, Mike | Newsweek, February 21, 2011 | Go to article overview
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The Facebook Freedom Fighter

Giglio, Mike, Newsweek

Byline: Mike Giglio

Wael Ghonim's day job was at Google. But at night he was organizing a revolution.

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 emigre 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 cafe by local police.

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The Facebook Freedom Fighter


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