I looked up an article I wrote for Al-Ahram Al-Massa’ie on 16 December, 2010 – more than one month before the 25 January Revolution under the title ‘Egypt’s Mr Google’. Two weeks before that I had published an article in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper on 1 December, 2010, under the title ‘The Arabs' Mr Google’. In both articles I argued that Egypt and the Arab world cannot move forward without an environment and capability to produce talent that gave the world such ideas, innovations and inventions as those generated by the young people at Google, Apple, Microsoft, Oracle and others who transformed industry, economy and life all over the world. These innovators amassed vast amounts of wealth more than any of the rich who owned factories manufacturing steel, ships, airplanes, automobiles and other industries.
My idea was simple and I added a handful of aspirations and suggestions about how education and scientific research can produce Mr Google who would overhaul our societies from the ground up. Both articles, however, omitted the requirements needed for such a person to appear which go beyond education and advanced scientific research. He needs a free, advanced, civic and modern society which manifests itself in action and not just words.
As it turns out, Egypt’s Mr Google had already arrived a while back but could not be realized like his European, American or Asian counterparts as long as Egyptian society was not civic, modern, democratic and open to the world. The story of Wael Ghoneim, the icon of the Facebook Revolution, is the epitome of this notion. Ghoneim graduated from the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University in 2004 and received an MSc in Business Administration cum laude from the American University in Cairo three years later. As soon as the Internet began, he created a website in 1998 and between 2002-2005 began working at Gawab.com an email service provider. Between 2005-2008, Ghoneim created a team which launched an information portal which within the first year had one million visitors every day.
Ghoneim then joined Google in November, 2008, as marketing director for the Middle East and North Africa for such products as Gmail, YouTube, Google Chrome and Gmail Search. He was interested in expanding the Internet user base among Arabs and hoped that the Ahlan Online initiative by Google would increase the number of users who are Arabic speakers, especially that the website gives users the ability to surf the Internet and use search engines to look up information and connect with others through available websites.
Ghoneim is a bright young man who is in fact the product of the Egyptian education system – which we often malign – since he came from the ranks of Cairo University. But he is also the product of foreign education, specifically American, which means he was exposed to a liberal education that embraces humanity. At the same time, he is the product of the contemporary technology revolution gripping the world in terms of open communication, and we did not realise the scope of its ability to connect people together. It is true that the people on Facebook are the world’s third largest population after China and India.
A fourth truth is that Ghoneim is a member of Egypt’s new youth who are the offspring of the middle class. When I saw for the first time, he reminded me of my own children who strive to distinguish themselves with a slight goatee, designer clothes from Polo, Ralph Lauren and Burberry, mixing Arabic and English when they speak and carrying a laptop just about everywhere. But they are also idealists who demand absolute freedom and justice.
On a fifth plane, the rise of multinational companies around the world has created a special culture which always questions why we are not like advanced societies, but instead sit in the back row waiting for aid and grant donations. The sixth and final factor is specific to Ghoneim, who perhaps acquired leadership skills from his family or from all of the above, making him a leader over his peers. Or perhaps he has charisma and superior qualities which compelled an international company like Google to hire him.
Perhaps there was more to him than all this, and it all came together to produce a unique condition after it collided with a brutal event after which Ghoneim became an instigator of the protests which erupted on 25 January, 2011, when he called for demonstrations via the Internet or the virtual world, especially on Twitter and Facebook.
He had created a page on Facebook titled ‘We are all Khaled Said’ which was a primary motivator for demonstrations with a membership of 650,000 people. This page played a vital role in the past in bringing the killers of Said to justice after he died at the hands of police officers, and eventually two of them were prosecuted. Ghoneim became a symbol of the revolution at its inception and the talk of the town when he was detained and then released ten days later.
Somehow, Ghoneim’s story – whether he wanted it or not – became a tool of the revolution like in any other revolt whereby the human drama is stripped of many details, its mass following and forgotten heroes, and all the focus is placed on specific players who become part of the legend or tragedy depending on how the revolution ends.
How the role of the revolution’s icon transformed after this can be discussed later, but the important question now is can Ghoneim’s generation which possesses these qualities become a fundamental part of Egypt’s future since they were a critical factor in toppling a regime which no longer had the energy to move the country forward?
The answer to this question makes the preceding bitter days a natural prologue for good times ahead, where unprecedented creative abilities and energy explode on the domestic scene. What we have is a new generation which is fundamentally different from the generation which led the country since 1952 with its tradition of ruling, living and politics. It is a generation which is similar to the generations who rebelled against their leaders in 1968 around the world, most prominently in France and the US. This brought forth world leaders with excellent credentials.
The youth in Tahrir Square reminded me of the youth at Woodstock in the US, who later took charge of pulling the US away from its defeat in Vietnam to the threshold of the third industrial revolution, and led it out of the deep stagnation of the 1970s, giving birth to such genius as Steven Spielberg in the movie industry and Bill Gates and Steven Jobs in new technology which began in the 1980s and took off in the US in the following two decades.
But we have gained more than just a new generation. Egypt has also gained the knowledge of new contemporary technology and did not squander the facilities provided by the government to enable 22 million young people to go online and create web news sites which have changed the face of media in Egypt. They also make up more than one third of all Arab bloggers, but most importantly is how this generation took industry, trade and services in Egypt to the next level which gave it a fighting chance on the international market. In fact, Ghoneim and his peers are the generation of market economies and multi-national companies – which were both detested in Egypt with constant campaigns maligning this type of economy and company because they are seen as working against the majority of the people and a means of global control of the country.
All these pillars, the youth, the technology, the market economy and multi-nationals like Google are the ones propelling underdeveloped countries such as ours to progress. China, Malaysia, South Korea, Turkey and Brazil would not be where they are if it wasn’t for the millions like Wael Ghoneim who are armed with all of the above, as well as overwhelming patriotism which submits all this to serve the motherland.
This is the story, or excerpts of it, but not the last chapter.