Profile: Egypt's Wael Ghonim

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Wael Ghonim embraces the mother of dead businessman Khaled Said in Tahrir Square, 8 February
Image caption,
Wael Ghonim met the mother of dead businessman Khaled Said in Tahrir Square on 8 February

In Wael Ghonim, Egypt's anti-Mubarak street movement finally found a hero to rally around after a period of leaderless protest.

The Egyptian-born Google marketing executive first played a role in organising the opposition through Facebook, only to disappear into police custody for 12 days.

Emerging again, he denied he had done anything heroic at all, instead paying tribute to the young activists who had been on the streets since 25 January.

But his return to the public eye - marked by an emotional TV interview on 7 February which gripped Egyptian viewers - re-energised the movement just as it seemed to be losing steam.

The fact that hundreds of thousands of protesters returned to the streets of Cairo the day after he spoke testifies to his appeal.

He was hailed on Facebook and Twitter as a hero, Egyptian blogger Issandr el-Amrani noted.

"You know how this has been a leaderless movement and they're saying they want to designate him as a leader of the youth component in this movement," Mr Amrani told the BBC World Service.

Cyber activist

Mr Ghonim walked free after a campaign waged by Google on behalf of its marketing manager for the Middle East and North Africa.

Image caption,
Wael Ghonim wept on television

The search engine giant may not have been aware that its Dubai-based manager had been running a popular Facebook page, with 400,000 Egyptian followers, outside of office hours, BBC technology correspondent Mark Gregory reports.

Named after Khaled Said, a businessman who died in police custody in Alexandria last year, the page played a crucial role in organising the protests.

The "We are all Khaled Said" website became a rallying point for a campaign against police brutality. For many Egyptians, it revealed details of the extent of torture in their country.

The 30-year-old executive says he was blindfolded for most of his time in custody, threatened with torture but not actually hurt.

Soon after being freed, he appeared live on one of Egypt's most watched talk shows, on the Dream 2 television channel.

"This is the revolution of the youth of the internet, which became the revolution of the youth of Egypt, then the revolution of Egypt itself," he said.

"I'm not a hero, I slept for 12 days," he continued.

"The heroes, they're the ones who were in the street, who took part in the demonstrations, sacrificed their lives, were beaten, arrested and exposed to danger."

He was shown video of some of those who had died during the protests, events he was seeing for the first time.

He burst into tears, insisting it was the fault of the authorities, not the campaigners, and left the studio - a human response that provoked a wave of sympathy.

"Ghonim's tears have moved millions and turned around the views of those who supported [Mubarak] staying," the website wrote two hours after the interview.

At least 130,000 people have joined a Facebook page titled "I delegate Wael Ghonim to speak in the name of Egypt's revolutionaries" since the interview, the Associated Press news agency reports.


Addressing the giant rally on Tahrir Square on 8 February, Mr Ghonim declared: "We won't give up."

Fifi Shawqi, a 33-year-old upper-class housewife, said she had come to the square with her three daughters and sister for the first time after seeing the interview with Mr Ghonim, whom she had never heard of before the TV appearance.

"I felt like he is my son and all the youth here are my sons," she told AP.

During his TV interview, the Google executive came over as a passionate Egyptian patriot, who even expressed some empathy for the officers who had interrogated him because they, too, seemed to love their country.

"They were 100% convinced that foreigners are behind us, that someone manipulates and finances us," he said.

"But if I was a traitor I would have stayed in my villa with my swimming pool in the Emirates. We are not traitors."

Google issued a statement welcoming its employee's release, without commenting on his political role.

Mr Ghonim has thanked Google for its support, explaining that he tricked the corporation into allowing him to return to Egypt from Dubai last month, citing a "personal problem".

It is not yet clear what, if any, political ambitions the young executive harbours, beyond "putting an end to all the rubbish" in Egypt.

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