Egyptian political activist and Google Middle East executive Wael Ghonim spoke about his role in helping catalyze the recent Egyptian revolution in a talk on Friday at Cubberley Auditorium.
Ghonim, who recently made it onto TIME Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people, founded a Facebook group credited with sparking the Jan. 25 revolution.
The 30-year-old Egyptian was detained for 11 days by Egyptian state security in late January and early February. Ghonim gave an emotional televised interview after his release on Feb. 7, which fueled protests until former President Hosni Mubarak resigned on Feb. 11.
During his talk at Stanford, which was organized by the Muslim Student Awareness Network (MSAN), Ghonim took the stage following the presentation of video clips from Al Jazeera’s documentary on the revolution, “Egypt Burning,” and a YouTube clip showing reactions to Mubarak’s resignation.
Ghonim began his talk on a modest note, claiming an “allergy to video cameras” and a hesitation to take full credit.
“I don’t enjoy the compliments much, not because I’m humble or anything, but because I hate the fact that a lot of Egyptians aren’t getting the credit for work they did,” he said.
“The real challenge is not to get rid of the regime,” he added. “The real challenge is to actually achieve what we wanted to achieve from the beginning.”
Ghonim projected a note, written in Arabic, that he had posted on the Facebook group on Jan. 17. He proceeded to translate the note to the audience, explaining what he wanted from the revolution.
“I want to feel that I have a voice in my country…I wish that corruption is fought in my country…I want teachers to make students love learning,” he said.
Ghonim also translated select passages, pausing to ask for his audience’s help with certain words.
“We had a dream,” he said. “Hosni Mubarak was a nightmare, and we got rid of the nightmare, but we still need to reach the dream.”
Ghonim described Mubarak’s regime as an “obstacle” and cautioned against believing that the revolution is complete.
He spent the bulk of his talk outlining practical steps that can be taken to rebuild Egypt, calling upon his audience to mimic the “independent initiative” of the protestors.
“You need to come up with grassroots movements where you can all get organized around a cause,” he said, suggesting the sponsorship of a rural Egyptian village or investing in young entrepreneurs.
He also listed restoring the tourism industry as an immediate concern.
After showing the audience a web page where the public can sign up to volunteer to rebuild Egypt, Ghonim said his plans for the future were to take time off from Google and start an NGO to “add a difference to people’s lives using technology.”
Dr. Ossama Hassanein, the chairman of the board at TechWadi, a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit that promotes entrepreneurship in the Middle East and North Africa, followed Ghonim’s talk. Hassanein discussed stimulating economic development in Egypt and highlighted initiatives to improve healthcare, education and employment.
After Ghonim and Hassanein finished their presentations, Omar Shakir ’07, J.D. ’13 moderated a Q&A session where audience members asked Ghonim about ways to help from abroad, the role of political parties in the revolution and Islamic fundamentalism. The session also broached the topics of the Coptic minority, safety in Egypt, detained protestors and bloggers and current uprisings in other Arab nations.
Ghonim responded by emphasizing the agency of the individual protestors, condemning sectarian violence and urging his audience to focus on the future.
“I am pro ‘communicating with everyone’…there’s an extremism that I think is just as bad as religious extremism, refusing to talk to [religious extremists],” he said. “Let’s educate them, and let’s be educated about them. It’s time to be tolerant and educate…criticize, criticize strongly, but respect them as human beings.”
Audience member Samar Alqatari ’14 expressed her appreciation for Ghonim’s talk.
“I thought he was very charismatic, a bit idealistic…but I think that he has the potential to do what he’s advocating for,” she said.
“It was great when he told us how we could help and contribute,” Alqatari added. “Just being inspired by a leader like that helps us become leaders of our communities.”
MSAN President Mai El-Sadany ’11 was also inspired by the talk.
“Everyone I spoke to, whether they were Muslim, non-Muslim, Arab or non-Arab, got a lot out of it,” she said. “It was great to hear from someone with firsthand experience what we can do to affect democracy in the Middle East.”