If there was a face to the Egyptian protester at the start of last year’s revolution, it belonged to Wael Ghonim.
The administrator of the “We are all Khaled Saeed” Facebook page was one of the forces behind the online campaign that publicised and promoted the street protests and radical fervour that led to the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former president. Khalid Saeed, in whose memory Ghonim’s group was set up, had been beaten to death while in police custody.
Ghonim, a Google marketing manager, disappeared in Cairo on January 28, 2011. His employer, family and friends mounted a desperate campaign to learn what had happened to him, and it was several days before it was revealed that he had been taken into custody.
Released after 11 days, the 30-year-old continued his activism and later wrote Revolution 2.0 – detailing the harrowing experience of being kept blindfolded for the duration of his detainment and the exhilaration of being part of his country’s push for change after three decades of Mubarak rule.
As Egyptians prepare to head to the polls to elect their first president since Mubarak, the man dubbed the “spokesman for a revolution” and Egypt’s “Facebook hero” spoke to Al Jazeera’s D. Parvaz, sharing his thoughts on the bumpy road to democracy.
D. Parvaz: Are you concerned that Egypt has elected a parliament and will have a president before having a constitution that would define the powers of either?
Wael Ghonim: Despite the fact that I voted “No” [in the March 19 constitutional referendum], hoping to see a constitution before the elections, the majority agreed on the roadmap we are going through now. Being concerned or not isn’t what will make a difference now. Our job is to closely monitor the integrity of the process and ensure that we elect a president that represents the will of the people, and that a constitution is drafted that sets the values of equality, democracy and freedom that we’ve aspired for.
DP: Egypt has experienced patches of violence and instability over the past year. Do you think that more of the same is in store for the upcoming months?
WG: I’m hoping not! The stability of the country will heavily rely on the outcome of the next few weeks.
DP: Do you think the way the country is going into this election – with all the back and forth of disqualifications and appeals – might jeopardise its legitimacy?
WG: Certainly, there are concerns over the recent decisions taken by the elections committee. Yet, overall, most Egyptians are still going to vote, which is a positive sign that those decisions didn’t break the process altogether. I personally think that, if the elections process goes smoothly during the election days with no clear evidence of fraud, most Egyptians will accept the results.
DP: An ongoing theme – both during the revolution and in the year following – has been accusations of rights violations against the country’s ruling military. As someone who was arrested, detained and kept blindfolded, how do you see these issues being resolved?
WG: This is going to be one of the toughest challenges facing the new president. The “police state” mentality isn’t something you can get rid of in a matter of days. Things haven’t got significantly better during the transitional period and many Egyptians, like me, are hoping to see some key decisions taken by the new leader of the country – in terms of restructuring the police force and enforcing practices that ensure the protecting of human rights and of freedom of expression.
DP: What is the role of activists – on-the-ground types, as well as those who operate via social media – in post-revolution, post-election Egypt?
WG: Activists are evangelists. We have two main jobs – one is to put enough pressure on the government and parliament to ensure that we rebuild our nation’s governing power on the basis of human rights, equality and social justice. The other job is to continue to communicate with as many Egyptians as we can, to ensure that their level of involvement is high enough to ensure that the government is listening to the voice of reason.
One of the most critical roles the newly elected leader will need to work on is that of uniting Egyptians. The nation won’t move forward with different parties and political movements wasting their time and effort deepening the gaps among them. It will move forward if we truly believe that we’ve got real work to do, for Egyptians – who have been suffering for years.
Having a bird’s-eye view on what is happening in the country, I’m very optimistic about our future. I’m a true believer that we are moving forward and making history, despite all the hurdles and challenges that we are facing. These challenges are expected, given that the country is recovering from over 30 years of dictatorship. I don’t have a crystal ball to see the future, but I believe that Egypt is never going back to the pre-January 25th era.
Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: @Dparvaz