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Google Search For 'Ghonim' Yields New Leader

  • Kristin Deasy

Wael Ghonim addresses the crowd on Tahrir Square on February 8.

Wael Ghonim addresses the crowd on Tahrir Square on February 8.

It's hard to stump a major search engine like Google, but Egypt managed to do it.

After an exhausting search for Wael Ghonim, Google finally located its charismatic, 30-year-old marketing executive. Ghonim had been involved in organizing Egypt's January 25 protest that kicked off the current wave of political unrest and was being held in detention by Egyptian authorities. He was finally released on February 7.

Ghonim has since emerged as an unexpected leader of the country's groundswell opposition movement. He addressed a crowd of tens of thousands in Tahrir Square on February 8 and urged the crowd to put "Egypt above all."

'I Am Not A Hero'


Many had seen Ghonim on local television the night before, where he had broken down in tears after seeing photos of those killed in protests. In the interview, he told reporters that he was not a hero.

"The [real] heroes," he said, "are the ones who were in the street, who took part in the demonstrations, sacrificed their lives, were beaten, arrested, and exposed to danger."
Tears for those who died
Ghonim's star continues to rise. As of February 11, some 290,000 people had joined the Facebook group "I Delegate Wael Ghonim To Speak In The Name Of Egypt's Revolutionaries."

He first went missing on January 28. The subsequent search eventually revealed that he had been the anonymous administrator behind the Facebook group "We Are All Khaled Said" -- a reference to a 28-year-old Egyptian man who was beaten to death by police in an incident that has served as a rallying cry for the opposition.

That Facebook group was at the forefront of the online campaign that ultimately led to the mass protests calling for the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.

Google's Support A 'Model'


Google has been particularly vocal in its support of Ghonim and before his release even set up a hotline for people to call if they had any information on his whereabouts. The company has not commented on Ghonim's political activities, but it told RFE/RL in an e-mail that his release comes as a "huge relief."

Critics say Google may be using the Ghonim case in an effort to boost its image after criticism of foreign censorship. But Amira Ahmed of "The Daily News Egypt" said that he thinks the company's support sends a critical message to Egyptian firms that often fire employees who are openly political.

"[Google] could distance themselves from him," Ahmed said, "but the fact that they kept, you know, the very close link between Google and Wael Ghonim, it means they support him and support their employee and this is something that's very positive."

Ghonim describes himself on the information-sharing website Twitter as someone who is "constantly changing," a "serious joker," an "Internet addict," and someone who "loves challenging [the] status quo." He attracted Google's notice after he founded mubasher.info in 2005, a website that rapidly established itself as a leading financial portal in the Middle East and now serves over a million regional investors.

A Geek At Heart


Gaith Saqer has known Ghonim for a couple of years and met up with him for a Google conference in Cairo a few months ago.

Saqer, who runs the Jordan-based Arab technology website ArabCrunch, says Ghonim has a likeable, charismatic personality.

"He's a genius," Saqer said. "He's very smart. He's a geek, dedicated to his work. He loves the Internet, and he's active. He's an innovative guy. He's humble and sweet. Yeah, he's a nice guy."

And now, he's one of Egypt's most high-profile political activists. But he hasn't forgotten his other image: the Google guy. In a quirky tweet sent just after his release from state detention, Ghonim marked his return from captivity with a bit of comedy:

"Thanks @Google for all the efforts you did in 'searching' for me," he wrote.
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