Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google-executive-turned-revolutionary, is everywhere. TIME Magazine voted him the most influential person in the world, US President Obama, according to a recent New York Times article, wants „the Google guy to become president“ and this Monday, Ghonim was awarded the prestigeous John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.
What triggered the sudden hype?
In the summer of 2010, Egyptian blogger Abdel Rahman Mansour and Ghonim together started a Facebook page named “We are all Khalid Said“. It was dedicated to a 28 year-old Internet café owner from Alexandria who had just been brutally tortured to death by two policemen. Pictures of his mutilated corpse spread rapidly on the Internet and let Egyptian fury against the Mubarak regime reach unprecedented heights. Ghonim (or Mansour – there are conflicting narratives) suggested in mid-January to declare 25 January the „day of revolt“ and to call for large-scale protests on the Khalid Said page. Ghonim was afterwards taken into custody and spent much of the 18-day revolution in jail.
From prison to instant fame
After his release, Ghonim quickly became a hero. He spent the next days giving speeches on Tahrir Square and soon started negotiating on behalf of the Egyptian revolt. Almost with desastrous consequences: Just before Mubarak’s resignation, Ghonim presented a „deal“ to the Egyptian people according to which the despised dictator could have remained in Cairo „in a symbolic role“ until democratic elections would take place. His fauxpas was followed by an emotional denial on Al Arabiya TV. Perhaps more shockingly, he proclaimed loudly on air: “I am stronger than Hosni Mubarak. I am stronger than Omar Sulaiman.“ At this stage, Ghonim was increasingly losing touch with reality.
Nowadays he is traveling the world, giving interviews about his glorious Facebook revolution, talking to CNN, BBC and CBS about the future of Egypt, and incessantly promoting his yet-to-be-written book about Internet revolutions.
Doubts remain about the genesis of the now infamous Facebook page, and these doubts can only be remedied by Ghonim himself. Abdel Rahman Mansour was drafted into military service just days before the start of the revolution; he cannot, for obvious reasons, comment on the matter at this stage. However, there is no doubt about the fact that the revolution was based on the unparalleled courage of countless Egyptians who took to the streets to protest against social injustice and the decades-long tyranny of the Mubarak regime. Many of them paid with their lives for the end of dictatorship.
Their sacrifices were preceded by a number of events that crucially changed the conditions for a successful revolt: The ouster of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was arguably the most important psychological prerequisite for the Egyptian revolution. The Tunisian revolution, in turn, was caused by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi. That atrocious act of desperation is widely considered the pivotal moment that triggered the Arab Spring.
The myth of the lone hero
Thus, the hype remains questionable. It would appear that after the spectacular developments, international media could not resist the temptation to cultivate the myth of that single young man who defeated Mubarak. They have by now gotten used to the interview partner who can explain his own revolution in fluent English (he calls it “Revolution 2.0“). As for the jurors at TIME Magazine, notoriously divided over Julian Assange’s legacy and left with no major developments in the Lady Gaga camp, the sudden appearance of Wael Ghonim on the world stage was doubtlessly a blessing.
It is worth noting that Ghonim himself does not deny that this was a revolution with many protagonists, incessantly re-affirming that he is not a hero. The Egyptian people are the heroes! But there is no contradiction here, because in the eyes of many, this is the most heroic, the grandest thing he could do: Crediting the Egyptian nation with the revolution.
Sometimes selflessness can be a particularly aggressive type of self-centeredness in disguise.
The idea that Ghonim, on some sunny afternoon, saved Egypt from decades of tyranny through a few tweaks on his laptop, is not just a myth, but an insult to the courageous Egyptian people. One can only hope that history will correct this mistake.