With the Fight in Egypt Failing, Wael Ghonim Is Out of Sight
At a celebrity-studded conference in Zurich last month, the latest in the line of high-flying affairs he has headlined since becoming the face of the Arab Spring, Wael Ghonim didn’t quite seem to fit in. An array of glossy people were on hand: beautiful singer Joss Stone, Norway’s crown prince, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Then there was the diminutive Ghonim. Hair tousled, the penultimate button of his dress shirt pressed hard against his neck, splaying out his collar flaps, he hunched over his iPad at a table in the green room.
As the event buzzed around him, Ghonim quietly lectured a budding activist on how to use Facebook to promote his cause. (The conference, called One Young World, was billed as a global forum for young do-gooding achievers.) “You can target different groups of people,” Ghonim said, his fingers sliding across the iPad screen.
Using the handle El Shaheed, or “the martyr,” Ghonim anonymously ran a Facebook page that was the lightning rod for Egypt’s revolution. Since getting arrested and outed in dramatic fashion, then emerging—with Hosni Mubarak’s regime about to topple—as an international sensation, he has been elevated to the status of a geeky god, revered by protest movements from Syria to Wall Street. He’s been bombarded by media requests, awards, and speaking engagements. Literary agents have pleaded desperately for his attention. “I am hoping so deeply that we can correspond even briefly,” reads one entreaty from an agent in New York. Ghonim netted a rumored $2 million advance to publish his story, Revolution 2.0. (He plans to donate the proceeds to charity and to the families of protesters who were injured or killed.) The book is set to be released in January 2012, one year after Ghonim scheduled the revolution on his Facebook page.
Ghonim was well-suited to the role of anonymous agitator. Even in casual situations, he can’t help but be provocative. In the green room in Zurich, he playfully pressed a Jewish kid on the Israeli-Palestine conflict and badgered a Scottish woman about her country’s tepid bid for independence. The knack for mass marketing that made him a rising star at Google helped him draw Egyptians of all stripes to the cause. He harped on subjects with broad and immediate appeal, such as poverty and police abuse, and his entreaties to protest were simultaneously combative and inclusive. “I saw you who love Egypt—conscientious, respectful, educated youth,” read one of his Facebook posts after the first wave of protests. “Youth are dreaming, and they want the chance. And we will have our dream. I swear to God it’s very close. If only we would unite.”
But Ghonim, an introverted techie at heart, has had an uneasy time in the spotlight. (“I’m still trying to figure that guy out,” said another headliner in Zurich, describing how Ghonim had mostly kept to himself, fiddling with his iPad, at a luminaries-only dinner on the previous night.) As El Shaheed, Ghonim was so intent on message control that he obsessed over every post. Since stepping out from behind his persona, he has found that his image is getting out of his control. Ghonim came across poorly in his first round of interviews with the Western press, and even as his Facebook fans (some 376,000 on his personal page) and Twitter followers (226,000) have skyrocketed, his high profile opened him up to a tide of verbal attacks in Egypt. “Wael has been vilified a lot,” says Wael Khalil, a veteran activist who worked closely with Ghonim during the revolution, adding that the criticism has had “a reeling effect” on Ghonim. Counterrevolutionary forces and even regular Egyptians have disparaged him on all sorts of contradictory charges—he’s a freemason, an American infiltrator (Ghonim’s wife is a U.S. citizen), an Israeli spy, an Islamist, a traitor. “Everything people say affects him,” says a friend…