Google Executive Emerges as Key Figure in Revolt

The Wall Street Journal

More than a week after his mysterious disappearance in Egypt, Google executive and political activist Wael Ghonim will be released from government detention on Monday, according to his family and a prominent businessman.

Wael Ghonim

During his disappearance, Mr. Ghonim, a father of two who is in his 30s, emerged as a central symbol of the antigovernment protests, cast as the face of a movement and hero in the cause of democracy. Protest organizers in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square adopted him as a symbolic leader. Suspecting his arrest-but having no proof-they declared in speeches that they wouldn’t leave the square until he was freed. Marchers carried homemade signs emblazoned with his name. At the same time, some local media suggested the political activities of Mr. Ghonim, who is Google’s head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa, make him a traitor to his nation.

On Sunday, Egyptian authorities broke the silence on Mr. Ghonim’s fate, according to his brother, Hazem Ghonim. “They told us they’ll probably bring him to us, and that he will likely be escorted by security,” he said from Cairo.

Billionaire businessman Naguib Sawiris also said on Sunday that Egypt’s vice president told him Mr. Ghonim would be released. “The boy is a hero,” Mr. Sawiris said. “When he is released he will become the living hero of this revolution.”

Mr. Ghonim is counted among a small group of political activists in Egypt whose social-media savvy over the past year helped spark the massive demonstrations threatening Egypt’s ruling regime. “I said one year ago that the Internet will change the political scene in Egypt and some Friends made fun of me :),” Mr. Ghonim wrote on his personal Facebook profile for friends after two days of swelling protests in Cairo. The next day, Jan. 28, he disappeared.

It remains unclear what role, if any, Mr. Ghonim played in organizing the Jan. 25 protest movement itself, the largest Egypt has seen in more than 30 years. However, he played a prominent role in online activism in the months ahead of the historic protests.

Last year, Mr. Ghonim was one of four administrators running the first of the major Facebook pages that became a virtual headquarters for the protest movement, according to a collaborator in the political opposition, and also according to an Internet activist familiar with the situation. Mr. Ghonim also set up the official campaign website for opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei and volunteered as a tech consultant for other opposition groups, according to Ziad Al-Alimi, a senior aide to Mr. ElBaradei.

Protesters sit outside a Cairo shop marked with the word ‘Facebook.’ The social media site’s pages, including one run by Wael Ghonim, were a virtual headquarters for the protest movement.

Egyptian authorities have publicly released no information about Mr. Ghonim. Phone calls to the prime minister’s office and the Interior Ministry, which houses Egypt’s security agencies, went unanswered last week and again on Sunday, a work day in Egypt.

The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights estimates that at least 1,275 people have been detained by police since the protests began. Most have been released, lawyers at the center and other human-rights groups say.

Since Mr. Ghonim’s Jan. 28 disappearance, eight other members of the tech-savvy group that worked closely with Mr. ElBaradei were also arrested, according to one of their colleagues. Seven were arrested while eating dinner at a restaurant near Mr. ElBaradei’s headquarters in Cairo, according to Mr. al-Alimi of Mr. ElBaradei’s organization in Cairo. Those seven have been released from custody, according to Heba Morayef, the Egypt researcher for Human Rights Watch.

The other person arrested is a lawyer affiliated with the group; his status is unknown.

U.S. officials declined to say whether they raised the question of Mr. Ghonim’s disappearance with Egyptian authorities. A Google official, asked whether Mr. Ghonim may have violated any company policies, declined to comment, saying someone would first have to talk to him.

Online activists including Mr. Ghonim have played a central role in electronically sowing the seeds of the current protests. Mr. Ghonim joined Mr. ElBaradei’s political campaign as a volunteer about a month before Mr. ElBaradei, winner of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize and former head of the International Atomic Energy Commission, made a dramatic return to Egypt last February amid speculation he was seeking a wider political role.

Mr. Ghonim’s Facebook profile, which he updated often, lists Mr. ElBaradei as someone he admires along with Microsoft founder Bill Gates, billionaire investor Warren Buffett and Apple founder Steve Jobs.

Mr. Ghonim went to work setting up Mr. ElBaradei’s official web page,, which in Arabic reads “hamla,” or “campaign.” Mr. Ghonim also set up a Facebook page for Mr. ElBaradei, according to Mr. al-Alimi, who helped oversee Mr. Ghonim and the project.

On Mr. Ghonim’s Facebook profile, a photo dated April 10 shows him smiling broadly next to Mr. ElBaradei. “My name is Wael Ghonim and I publicly support ElBaradei,” the caption reads.

Mr. ElBaradei didn’t reply to emailed questions seeking comment. Mr. ElBaradei’s brother, who works as his aide, declined to comment.

In early 2010, Mr. Ghonim, who had been based in Cairo for Google, relocated with his wife and children to Dubai, where Google has another office. But he continued to travel widely in the region, including frequent trips to Egypt for business.

Mr. ElBaradei’s campaign made a splash in Egypt with its sharp criticism of president Hosni Mubarak. But when Mr. ElBaradei returned to Vienna, where he lives much of the year, the activists around him searched for new ways to keep up the momentum. They found one on June 6, when a 28-year-old Egyptian man named Khaled Said died after allegedly being beaten by police. The family of the dead man say the officers were angered because Mr. Said posted on YouTube a video of the officers dividing up a bag of what appeared to be confiscated marijuana.

The case stirred outrage across Egypt. About a month after Mr. Said’s death, Mr. Ghonim was among a handful of activists who created a Facebook page called “Ana Esmi Khaled Said,” or “My Name is Khaled Said,” according to people familiar with the group. According to Ali Kissam, Mr. Said’s uncle and the family representative as it pursues charges against the officers, Mr. Ghonim was in regular contact about the case. “Every time there was a hearing or any activity on the case, [Mr. Ghonim] would call me about it,” said the 65-year-old dentist.

Mr. Ghonim’s page dedicated to Mr. Said was popular, but a short time later it was closed down by Facebook. A Facebook spokeswoman said, “The page was removed because of a violation of our terms and not because of contact from any government.” She declined to describe the nature of the violation.

A new Facebook page, “Kalluna Khaled Said,” or “We are All Khaled Said,” was formed separately from Mr. Ghonim’s and gained popularity after posting gruesome photos of Mr. Khaled’s battered body from the morgue in Alexandria. Soon, an English-language Facebook page also popped up, aimed at drawing international attention.

It’s unclear whether Mr. Ghonim was involved in the later pages dedicated to Mr. Said. But Mr. Sawiris, the businessman, said on Sunday that protesters widely assumed his involvement, and that it had led to his arrest. “He was not taken because of a parking ticket. He was taken because he was a threat,” Mr. Sawiris said, describing Mr. Ghonim as a vital symbol of the protest for his “critical role” in helping organize it.

As the Kalluna page gained followers, it played a key role in organizing protests in several cities where demonstrators denounced police brutality, a widespread problem in Egypt. Gradually the page became a wider forum for criticisms of Egypt’s government. Over the months, the page gathered hundreds of thousands of members.

On Jan. 15, the Arabic version of the We Are Khaled Said page announced a rally would occur on Jan. 25. Quickly, the English language page listed an announcement as well, according to the administrator of the page. Soon, other political movements jumped on the bandwagon.

As the first of the protests in Egypt approached, Mr. Ghonim wrote on his personal Facebook profile, “Anyone going to attend the protests on Jan. 25 in Muhandseen?” a neighborhood in central Cairo. And by the 25th, Mr. Ghonim used his Twitter account to let his followers know, “Despite all the warnings I got from my relatives and friends, I’ll be there on #Jan25.”

The protests began, and his faith in online activism continued. “Revolution can be a #Facebook event that is liked, shared and tweeted,” he wrote on Twitter. But as Friday, Jan. 28, approached-and it became clear it would become the biggest protest yet-Mr. Ghonim’s tweeted messages began reflecting an increasingly ominous tone. “Pray for #Egypt,” he said. “We are all ready to die.”

He went to the main square in Cairo that morning, talking with a friend on the mobile phone before both Internet and cellphone networks were cut off by Egyptian authorities in the morning. That day, he vanished.


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