Wael Ghonim is not a fiery speaker. He doesn’t wave flags or throw stones, literally or metaphorically. Ghonim is a geek, the kind that met his wife online. “I always believed in the power of the Internet,” the quiet Egyptian said tonight, in a talk presented by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. Yet he’s perhaps the only person I’ve heard speak in public that I could honestly, without hyperbole, say helped lead a revolution.
And he did it through Facebook. Ghonim is the former Google executive whose call for a demonstration on an anonymous Facebook page brought out hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, a movement of Jah’s people that ended the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, and changed the world as part of what’s been called the Arab Spring. “You shouldn’t be wasting your time on Facebook; you should be out on the streets,” political activists told him. But Ghonim understood the power of free speech granted by the Internet, while admitting street protests scared him. “We are brave behind the keyboards,” he said tonight. “I always believed the Internet was going to change politics in Egypt.”
Ghonim, who’s on a book tour for his memoir Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater than the People in Power, spoke quietly, thoughtfully, but forcefully. He assertively deflected interviewer Reza Aslan’s negative descriptions of the current state of Egypt while also admitting that the poverty faced by many of its people is the greatest human rights issue of all. For digital scholars who knew Malcolm Gladwell was a total git when he tried to say social media could never bring social change, Ghonim is the Paul Revere of civic engagement. “Media is more decentralized,” he said. “This is one of the best trends in the world we live in.”
Ghonim can be funnily self-deprecating. Discussing the silent protests that were the first public display of dissidence in Egypt, like political flash mobs, he joked,”this time we’re on silent, next time we’re going to be on vibration.”
Dressed in a blue-and-white oxford and blue jeans, Ghonim is the unassuming face of what he calls a leaderless movement. “The wisdom of the crowd first made most of us brave,” he said, quoting James Surowiecki. The power, as he says in his subtitle, is in the people. People like Wael Ghonim, who I was honored to stand in a room with this evening.