Wael Ghonim is talkative and confident, just like many in the new generation of Arabs who are out to change their world and prosper in it by way of technology. He once pointed out that Norway, so much smaller than the Middle East in population, had more indigenous language content on the Web. There was so much room to grow. "We live in a digital age, and it is important that the Arab world takes advantage of this new medium," Ghonim told an Abu Dhabi paper.
I met him briefly on a couple of occasions in Dubai, where the expatriate Egyptian lived and worked as Google's head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa. Slim and standing a little more than average height, Ghonim, 30, is typical of the new guard: he speaks English with an American accent but is audibly Arab when he pronounces Arabic words. He is at ease in both worlds.
But in spite of his career achievements and comfortable life, he chose to be part of a hidden, more dangerous world one in which he sought to activate change in his homeland. After he returned to Egypt, that work thrust him into prison for more than 10 days. When he emerged, he was hailed by some as the leader of the faceless group of young revolutionaries who are credited with getting the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak off the ground.
Only a few of Ghonim's friends knew that he was the creator of the Facebook page "We Are All Khaled Said," on which he called for the Jan. 25 protest that launched the uprising in Tahrir Square. (Said was a 28-year-old techie and businessman who is believed to have been brutally killed by police in Alexandria in 2010.) Ghonim spent "nights and days" on the page, says his friend and fellow geek-entrepreneur Habib Haddad. "I had been in close touch with him as he was doing it and as he was seeing it taking off," he says. "He was quite emotional about it."
Haddad, the founder of Yamli.com, an Arabic search engine and transliteration technology, says he and Ghonim engaged in cross-continental Internet chats. Haddad says that after he would go to bed and then get up, he'd see from the chat indicator that Ghonim had stayed up all night working on the page. In fact, he remembers Ghonim joking that his countless hours on the Web were causing tension in his marriage. (Ghonim is married to an American, and the couple have two children.) Still, says Haddad, "it was like the feeling you would get when you are a college student, when you think you're onto something big." Haddad, who splits his time between the Middle East and Boston, met Ghonim about four years ago, and says his friend found himself in a situation where he could use his skills to help the movement in Egypt. Says another entrepreneur, Yousef Tuqan Tuqan, CEO of Flip Media, an interactive ad agency in Dubai: "We're in this young digital generation. What can we do with this wonderful gift that we have besides just make money?"
Haddad says he urged Ghonim to be careful. But Ghonim knew the risks he was taking. On Jan. 27, he tweeted, "Pray for Egypt. Very worried as it seems that government is planning a war crime tomorrow against people. We are all ready to die." He was arrested shortly afterward. And on Jan. 28, anti-riot police pounded protesters with tear-gas canisters as they marched toward Tahrir Square.
Ghonim's friends and family shared their concern over Twitter and other social media to get his name out into cyberspace. And when Ghonim was released, he increased his media profile by giving an emotional interview on Dream TV, one of Egypt's satellite stations, breaking down in tears during a montage of images of young men killed in the protests. He said, "I want to say to every mother and every father that lost his child, I am sorry, but this is not our fault. I swear to God, this is not our fault. It is the fault of everyone who was holding on to power greedily and would not let it go." Then, clearly overcome with emotion, he said, "I want to leave," and walked off the set.
The next day, many people in Tahrir Square said they had been motivated by the footage to show up to the protest. The epicenter of the uprising had suffered a slackening of dissent, as the focus of the political events shifted to meetings behind closed doors. Ghonim appeared in Tahrir that day as well, and was met with a thunderous greeting. Among the thousands of people who had never been to a protest before was Fatma Gaber, 16, who had finally persuaded her parents to let her go. "When I saw Wael Ghonim [on television]," she says, "I really got affected by his words and understood that a lot of people suffered in this revolution. I really wanted to be part of it and support it. I wanted to join for Egypt, because I didn't want the people who had died, and the ones who had protested every day, to pay the price alone for what all Egyptians would benefit from."
But even as he grows increasingly popular and mediagenic, Ghonim has pleaded that he should not be portrayed as the hero of the movement. "I ask you, really, please don't turn me into a hero," he said during his TV interview. "I am not a hero, O.K.? I am not a hero. I am a very ordinary person. The heroes are the ones in the street."
He took time to tweet thanks to "@Google for all the efforts you did in 'searching' for me. Today 'I'm feeling lucky' that I work for this company." Through the technology he so fervently embraces, Ghonim has become for many the archetype of the future of leadership in the Arab world: educated, savvy and entrepreneurial. Says Tuqan back in Dubai: "He really does represent what's best in all of us."
With reporting by Rami Aysha / Beirut and Yasmine El Rashidi / Cairo