By Swapan Dasgupta
For three weeks the world has been awaiting a face that would personify the determination and anger of the Jasmine revolution in Egypt. For all their accomplishments, neither Nobel Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei nor Arab League secretary-general Amr Mousa quite fitted the bill: they were too stuffy and detached from the passions on display in Tahrir Square.
Last week, many Egyptians found their symbol in the boyish, bespectacled, 31-year-old Google employee Wael Ghonim. Better known by his Facebook nom de plume El Shaheed (the martyr), he could well be mistaken for another dishevelled but trendy techie with a trademark black computer bag—someone likely to be naturally awkward in the perfectly tailored suits that make Hosni Mubarak and Omar Suleiman appear so distinguished. To middle class Egypt, the backbone of the Egypt uprising, Ghonim is the archetypal boy next door.
It is Ghonim's ordinariness and modesty that enthralled Egyptians last week when he appeared on Dream TV after his release from 12 days of incarceration. His message was sincere and touchingly innocent: "we did this because we love Egypt", "these are our rights", "this is not the time to spread ideologies" and, "we deserve much better than what is happening to us." There was no bitterness and no call for recrimination—he actually praised the patriotism of his tormentors, just a plea for life with dignity. He ended with a tearful apology: "I want to tell every mother and father who lost a child, I am sorry, but this is not our mistake. I swear to God it's not our mistake. It's the mistake of every one of those in power who doesn't want to let go."
By the time an emotionally distraught Ghonim abruptly concluded the interview, leaving the channel to sign off with mournful music and photographs of nameless boys felled by bullets in the prime of their lives, it is said there was not a dry eye in Egypt. The spurt in the numbers in Tahrir Square last Tuesday, particularly of women, could be traced to the Ghonim interview.
If Ghonim's charm does indeed prove a game changer and Egypt persists in its determination for a new order that is democratic in both form and spirit, it will be a spectacular development. Since the June 2009 protests in Teheran against a blatantly rigged election, there has been growing interest in the role of social media as a catalyst for change in authoritarian societies. As the creator and administrator of the "We are all Khaled Said" page on Facebook which attracted some 3.5 lakh followers before the uprising, Ghonim personified the new cyber activism. The Egypt uprising was triggered by an improvised protest rally on January 25 convened by the April 6 movement, a group that was forged primarily out of social media linkages.
This is not to go along with the facile description of the Egyptian troubles as the Facebook or Twitter uprising. Had the anti-Mubarak stir been merely a middle class revolt of the well-off, under-35s, it would have had an impact but it wouldn't have either shaken an entrenched regime or forced a grudging shift in US policy. The demonstrations have attracted mass support, well beyond the relatively small group linked by social media. It has seen the participation of the bazaars, the working class and a Muslim Brotherhood that is ideologically disinclined to share the liberal values of the likes of Ghonim.
Where Facebook and Twitter have played a seminal role is in drawing a very wide swathe of the educated middle class youth. In her interview with Ghonim, the feisty TV presenter Mona el-Shazly spoke about a curious facet of the movement: the participation of the sons and daughters of Establishment figures in the Tahrir Square protests. The Egyptian revolution is also a babalog revolt against the lack of personal and creative freedom.
It is this facet of the uprising that has contributed to the muddle in US policy. Hitherto, Washington viewed the global spread of the social media as both a success of US enterprise and a vehicle for the spread of American values. Each tirade against a Google or Twitter-inspired ideological contamination by Iranian clerics and Chinese commissars was seen as a triumph of US soft power. In Egypt, the earnest boys and girls spouting the virtues of democracy in American accents to CNN and BBC were also upholding the spirit of freedom the US always showcased. Tragically for Washington, this idealism was at odds with American geo-political interests.
Like the Egyptian youth who have outgrown the traditional culture of deference but yet remain passionately committed to Egypt, Twitter and Facebook are also setting their own norms. If social media helped liberate Egypt, Egypt could trigger the liberation of the social media from its American origins.