Just a year and change since the protests that marked the beginning of the Egyptian revolution, Wael Ghonim was in Chicago this weekend for a conversation about his new book, Revolution 2.0, and questions about social activism.
He spoke with the Tribune’s Julia Keller in a Printers Row program at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Rubloff Auditorium and then took questions from the avid audience members, nearly a hundred of whom bought or brought copies of the book for his autograph.
Reflecting a clear current of support for Ghonim’s social activism, one woman alluded to America’s Occupy Wall Street and related protests, decrying what she described as attempts at censorship and asking how people in the United States could make their voices heard. “I want to ask your advice from the heart,” she said.
“That’s the brilliance of the Internet,” Ghonim responded, noting that it cannot be blocked, that open sourcing and inevitable leaks of information from sources in government and power give the Internet reach and strength. Efforts to stifle dissent on the Internet eventually lose, he observed.
The issue of abundance in the hands of very few is global in scope, Ghonim continued. “There is no social justice in the world,” he said.
That Egypt’s economic situation and widespread poverty made the country ripe for a people-based movement is a theme of his book. Through a Facebook page he managed, Ghonim gave voice to, first, thousands and then millions who collectively answered his call to take to the streets on Jan. 25, 2011, which was Egypt’s Police Day, a national holiday.
Just as the protests begin to build, he was taken into custody for 12 days, interrogated, beaten; upon his release, he spoke on national television and the protests grew. In four days, the Mubarak regime of three decades collapsed. The Egyptian demands for democracy unleashed what came to be known as the Arab Spring, as people in other countries staged their own demonstrations.
Ghonim remains unwilling to take what he considers undue credit for what he calls the leaderless revolution, despite many who would have him be the face of the uprising. The proceeds from his book, he said, will go to charity, to help the impoverished in Egypt or those hurt or suffering from injuries in the violence.
At this Printers Row program, questions kept returning to activism. You speak of interest in an evolving democracy, a woman noted. What do you mean by that? Define democracy? And, how can Americans visibly support your efforts?
To that, Ghonim said that in a way, democracy is a call to individual action, to realize that each person acts from strength and is a dictator in a sense, in his own behalf, and that people must come together.
He made a distinction about American support. There is the government, he said, and then there are the American people. The U.S. government has a long history of questionable practices supporting regimes without regard to the effect on the people, he said. Even in the case of the Mubarak regime, U.S. policy was to support the government in power – until it began to be clear that the regime was going to lose and the people would win, Ghonim said.
American people, he said in answer to this and similar questions need to be more aware of the impact of the U.S. foreign policy. In a practical way, he said, Americans could support economic development. And tourism, he added.
Ghonim, who is on leave from a marketing position with Google, fielded questions with a mix of serious responses and gentle humor. At one point, a man referred to the upcoming economic summit in Chicago in May and asked how protesters could change that world stage into a high-profile moment to call attention to income gap and economic disparity. The Tribune’s Keller clarified: “He wants you to start a revolution here.”
Ghomin smiled and said: “I’m not an American,” as people laughed.
Conditions were so different in Egypt, he said, where there is immense poverty and frustration. “People really had nothing to lose – to revolt, you pay the price,” he said.
Ghomin paused and added: “I’m very apolitical and I’m very proud of it.”
People in each country must decide their course of action, he said, citing the impact of democracy and self-determination if individuals accept the real power of unbridled speech loosed by the Internet.
This was one of a series of Printers Row programs with well-known authors. For more information about Printers Row membership and other programs, go to www.chicagotribune.com/printersrow.
— Margaret Holt, Standards Editor