Reluctant Revolutionary

By Giglio, Mike | Newsweek, October 31, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Reluctant Revolutionary


Giglio, Mike, Newsweek


Byline: Mike Giglio

Google's Wael Ghonim was the face of Egypt's revolution. Now the fight is failing--and he's out of sight.

During Egypt's revolution last January, Google executive Wael Ghonim quickly became the face of the Arab Spring. Using the handle El Shaheed, or "the martyr," he anonymously ran a Facebook page that was a lightning rod for protesters. After getting arrested and outed in dramatic fashion as the regime crumbled, Ghonim became a global sensation, revered by protest movements from Syria to Wall Street.

But Ghonim, an introverted techie at heart, has had an uneasy time in the spotlight. His high profile has provoked a tide of verbal attacks in Egypt. "Wael has been vilified," says Wael Khalil, a fellow activist. Counter-revolutionary forces and even regular Egyptians disparage him on all sorts of contradictory charges: he's an American infiltrator, an Israeli spy, an Islamist, a traitor.

"Everything people say affects him," says one friend. "He doesn't know what's expected of him. It's sad."

Ghonim has even become estranged from the revolutionaries who once named him their symbolic leader. Some think he has taken too much credit, while others slam him for not doing enough to oppose the military regime that has seized power.

Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Ghonim has retreated from the forefront of the revolutionary scene. He refuses to speak on the record with foreign journalists, and even his dealings with Egyptian media are sparing and tightly controlled. 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 putting 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 has engaged with the page since its early days.

In the days before the first protests on Jan. 25, Ghonim vowed to stay anonymous no matter what happened. He knew anonymity was the great strength of his page.

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