Topping Time Magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People in 2011, Egyptian activist and social entrepreneur Wael Ghonim spoke to more than 100 Northwestern students and community members about his work in the Egyptian Revolution on Monday afternoon as part of the McCormick Dean’s Seminar Series and a tour across college campuses in the U.S.
Audience members attended the lecture at Tech LR2 not only to learn about the 2011 Egyptian Revolution but also to learn more about political activism and social entrepreneurship. Anna Bethune, a second-year Ph.D. student studying campus activism, said the lecture taught her about successful activism.
“The Egyptian people wanted change, they took ownership of the revolution, they participated, and it was one insightful moment that drove people to the streets,” Bethune said. “It was very organic.”
For Ghonim, this moment occurred when he heard the news of police beating Khaled Said, a young Egyptian man, to death.
“It wasn’t that major. It happened every day,” Ghonim said. “What was major about it was the person who died was young, was middle class, and there was a photo. And those three things made a lot of people connect with the person.”
A young middle-class Egyptian himself, Ghonim was particularly emotionally affected by the event and created a Facebook page called, “We Are All Khaled Said.”
In three days, the page gained 100,000 likes. Inspired by the page’s rapid increase in popularity and the people who supported the cause, Ghonim and the page's other administrators decided to use it as a platform for political activism.
Ghonim and the other administrators ran the page anonymously not only to ensure security, but also to evenly distribute the credit to all protestors, not labeling a single person leader of the movement.
“I am not an activist, and I was never an activist,” Ghonim clarified. “I just thought: I am a concerned citizen, and I want more concerned citizens to care about this, and that might end up pressuring the government.”
The page’s organizers and other citizens organized creative ways to convey their message to the government as alternatives to protests, such that the police could not break them up by force.
“The great dynamic of Facebook is very empowering to people,” Ghonim said. “People were really shy to do small things, until some ridiculous person was strong enough to do it, and then other people saw the likes and comments.”
Before January 14, 2011, Ghonim actively did not organize any protests that would put people’s lives at risk. However, the stakes rose after protestors in Tunisia successfully removed President Ben Ali from power. Egyptians who previously could never conceive of any other president than Mubarak began to call for a revolution of their own.
“The dream seemed legit, like something could happen here,” Ghonim said. “That event really captured a lot of us.”
The page then called for a peaceful protest in Tahrir Square on January 25. The event was a major success, bringing together citizens of various backgrounds, religious, and political views to protest the government. The protesters successfully toppled the regime on Feburary 11, 2011, but not without violent clashes including civilian injuries and deaths.
“A big part of the narrative before January 25 was that Mubarak was the problem,” Ghonim said. “The reality is, the problem is much more complex than that.”
Following the major conflicts surrounding who should become the next president of Egypt, Ghonim realized that one of the major issues plaguing Egypt was the polarization among political views. The conflicts of interest and lack of experience among the new aspiring politicians led to major issues, according to Ghonim. Thus, while Ghonim’s Facebook activism made serious waves in Egypt, he admitted it certainly was not enough.
“The problem with Facebook is that the algorithms only show you things you agree with and does not show you anything that you disagree with, based on what you like,” Ghonim said.
Now, Ghonim has switched from activism in the public sphere to social entrepreneurship. In order to combat the lack of communication among polarized groups in Egypt, he created an online platform called Parlio that aims to foster positive and productive conversation between people who disagree politically.
Ghonim acknowledged that the steps that he took with his activism were only small ones, and much more must be done to reform the Egyptian government. Thus, his work with Parlio is an attempt to improve Egyptian politics through social media once again.