"Revolution 2.0" took place in Egypt according to some sources. Not so, argues Will Heaven. He points to compelling evidence which indicates that the West may be guilty of seeing events in Egypt through a Western prism.
Wael Ghonim was a new media yuppie before he became a revolutionary hero. In mid 2010, you might have found the 30-year-old Google executive by the pool at his Dubai villa, or cruising around with his friends in what he calls “great cars”.
Fast-forward six months and the picture has changed radically. An exhausted Ghonim holds a microphone in Tahrir square, in his native Cairo, shouting Arabic slogans to tens of thousands of demonstrators – he has been released by Hosni Mubarak’s regime after 12 days in captivity. The next day, Ghonim sounds victorious. “This was an internet revolution,” he tells CNN, “I’ll call it revolution 2.0.”
What made Wael Ghonim come home? And is he right about Egypt’s revolution?
The answer to the first question begins with the brutal murder of a 28-year-old Egyptian businessman, Khaled Said, in June 2010. Purely by chance, Said acquired footage of corrupt police officers dividing up seized drugs and cash. It is thought it was delivered to him accidentally, via Bluetooth, as he sat quietly in an Alexandria internet cafe. But Said didn’t delete the incriminating video – bravely, he posted it online.
Witnesses say his head was smashed against a marble table repeatedly, before he was dragged outside and kicked to death
The details leading up to the killing are blurry. But we know that several weeks later, two of the same policemen saw Khaled Said walking outside the internet cafe. They took him inside, and attacked. Witnesses say his head was smashed against a marble table repeatedly, before he was dragged outside and kicked to death.
For the second time, the internet comes into play. A police report claimed he had died after swallowing a bag of marijuana. But Said’s family obtained photos of his battered corpse from a morgue guard. His jaw, twisted out of shape by a policeman’s boot, was enough proof of a cover-up. So in defiance of the Egyptian authorities, the photos were published online by Said’s cousins. They became a shocking, viral sensation.
They even reached Wael Ghonim in Dubai – so Google's head of marketing in the Middle East and North Africa decided to act. He set up a new Facebook page to display them, calling it “We Are All Khaled Said”, using the moniker “ElShaheed” (the martyr) to hide his own identity. By the end of January 2011, the page had more than 350,000 followers. It was then that Ghonim invited these followers to protest against the Egyptian regime on January 25.
© AP / Peter Macdiarmid
But some spectators – including me – aren’t so sure that Ghonim organised a revolution
This linear narrative, or at least parts of it, has enthralled a Western audience. The story explains why Wael Ghonim came home to Egypt. But it’s what happened next that’s really open to question.
In short, some spectators think the linear narrative continues. That Ghonim’s Facebook group inspired tens of thousands of protesters to take to the streets on the 25th, which – eventually – would lead to Mubarak’s downfall. On January 30, for example, Newsweek asked, “Who is ElShaheed?” The anonymous activist, said the magazine, was “behind Egypt’s revolt”.
Once he revealed his identity, the same magazine profiled Wael Ghonim as “the Facebook freedom fighter”. The New York Times, meanwhile, breathlessly gave an account of “Wael Ghonim’s Egypt” – it would be Ghonim, the article said, who would “declare liberated Egypt open for business”.
But other spectators – including me – aren’t so sure that Ghonim organised a revolution. Or that he was behind Egypt’s revolt. Or, indeed, that this was an internet revolution – “a revolution 2.0”. The linear narrative has, it seems, been stretched and repackaged, but it just isn’t accurate. For his part, the Google marketing executive is an undoubtedly courageous man. But he’s not necessarily right.
First, let’s start with the basics. What proportion of Egypt’s 3.4 million Facebook users followed Wael Ghonim’s “We Are All Khaled Said” page in January 2011? We haven’t got a clue how many were actually in the country. At the time of writing, it was possible to follow the page using my own Facebook account in the UK. How many others followed the page from outside Egypt? How many tens of thousands of the Arab diaspora – American Egyptians, for instance? Nobody knows.
The turnout on January 25 set a historic precedent. Did Wael Ghonim’s six-month old Facebook page play a part in this? Almost certainly, yes. But other factors dwarf its significance hugely, not least that Tunisia had overthrown a dictator just nine days earlier. The protests – dare one say it – would probably have occurred without the help of Facebook or other social networks like Twitter. January 25 is a national holiday in Egypt.
The Twitter revolution was exaggerated
Then there is television. The Western media – and most Egyptians – first heard of Wael Ghonim when he appeared on Dream TV, interviewed just hours after his release from 12 days of detention. He told his story and wept for the protesters killed during his captivity. This, as one Egyptian columnist put it, gave the revolution “a shot of adrenaline in the heart”. Turnout increased massively.
But this distinction is important: a significant TV interview with a social media expert – one who perhaps embodied Egypt’s hopes for the future – has little to do with social media itself. The two media have been confused, and the likelihood is that television (particularly satellite television) made an enormous impact on the Egyptian revolution. As Fares Braizat, of the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, has said: "Al-Jazeera has given people a voice that they didn't have before.”
The West has a track record when it comes to overestimating the impact of social media. Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009 was known by another name – the “Twitter revolution” (among others, the Washington Times and the BBC World Service described it in those terms). The use of social media by the opposition movement made headlines all over the world. As Clay Shirky alleged at the time: “This is it. The big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media.”
But the Twitter revolution was exaggerated. In Evgeny Morozov’s book The Net Delusion he shows that, according to analysis by Sysomos (a social media analysis company), there were “only 19,235 Twitter accounts registered in Iran (0.027 percent of the population) on the eve of the 2009 elections.” In other words, as Hamid Tehrani, the Persian editor of Global Voices, said a year later: “The West was focused not on the Iranian people but on the role of Western technology… Twitter was important in publicising what was happening, but its role was overemphasised."
The same is likely to be true of Egypt’s revolution and the Arab uprisings more generally. The Western media has focused intently on the role of Western technology, but less so on the fact that active street protests, a strikingly familiar vehicle for revolution, brought down dictators. The chaotic reality of the Arab street protests – at one point, bizarrely, there was a camel charge in Cairo – has been repackaged for a Western audience. No doubt the 30 million Facebook users in the UK, and the tens of millions who enjoyed The Social Network last year, welcomed that.
So, back to that second question: was Wael Ghonim right about Egypt’s revolution? Was this an internet revolution? Was this a “revolution 2.0”? No, probably not.
And when you consider one of Ghonim’s other saying – “if you want to free a society, just give them internet access” – the idea begins to look naïve.