Leaderless revolution
Online activism has its own dynamics. Here is the experience of a man who used Facebook for effectively provoking "a nascent protest movement" for freedom and justice
Reviewed by Shelley Walia

Revolution 2.0: A Memoir from the Heart of the Arab Spring
By Wael Ghonim. Fourth Estate. Pages 320. £14.99

In this recent memoir by Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian computer engineer working for Google, it is argued that revolutions in the days of the internet will not be learnt and theorised in libraries, but will be spurred through the agency of social media and television, "beamed directly into our heads". The book is the first-hand experience of a man who used Facebook for provoking "a nascent protest movement" for freedom and justice unleashing the beginning of the end of authoritarian dictatorships in the Middle East and Africa.

Ghonim maintains that Facebook facilitates mass movements and that the Arab Spring began from a solidarity initiated through the Facebook through pictures and emotional arguments appealing to millions. It all started when a young businessman named Khaled Said posted a video on the Web showing cops engaging in the corrupt practice of pocketing pot taken from drug dealers. The police retaliated by bludgeoning him to death. The news infuriated Ghonim to the extent that on June 8, 2010, when he was browsing Facebook, he was compelled to start a new page called "We Are All Khaled Said". Young revolutionaries in Egypt, already mobilised by the Facebook, could not possibly let the decisive moment pass. Hosni Mubarak had to go. Ghonim sent out a clarion call on Facebook: "January 25: Revolution Against Torture, Poverty, Corruption, and Unemployment". Thus began the Arab Spring, the central act of resistance against state atrocities, turning the page into the single most volatile site of activism. Within a few days, more than 50,000 followers of the page would agree to support the revolution. The author, passionate though humble, takes the readers inside the successful uprising and compliments social media for their ability to connect activists.

Ghonim, within a short period, had become the conspicuous face of the revolution, "anointed a leader by the leaderless movement he’d helped to create". He would return to Cairo on the eve of the protest. While in a meeting with two American executives from Google in a café, he was suddenly arrested by the police, who kept him in prison for more than 10 days. Released so that he might provide them a lead, the police later came to realise what Ghonim told the Newsweek: "What you don’t understand… is that this protest doesn’t have real organisers. It’s a protest without a leader."

It is yet to be seen whether it would be Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, or Facebook, who gets the Nobel Peace Prize. But if the committee does choose its winner from the Arab Spring, the forerunner would certainly be the unassuming Wael Ghonim, who has become an icon of the young Middle Eastern "digital" generation. A "real-life introvert yet an Internet extrovert", he is the face of the revolution, a man who has come a long way from the comforts of an executive life to an endangered fate of a revolutionary. His online and offline politics successfully converge into a praxis of political activism which has shown tangible results.

However, one could argue that the role of social media in the Arab Spring has been exaggerated. Though the Facebook effect of protest and its proliferation in large part is due to the game-changing technology of reaching millions instantaneously, it cannot be the only force behind the revolution. Undoubtedly, the page started by Ghonim became the rallying point, but it was not solely responsible for hastening the movement. Indeed, beyond the mere avalanche of Facebook verbiage lies substantial thought and action of far more human significance. A wired-up existence of a simulated world in virtual contact cannot be enough. The cyborgian perspective does anticipate an environment of solidarity and sharing, but it ends in extinguishing the spark of activism in the face of visuals or messages. Live presence on the street becomes the real revolutionary impetus, a face-to-face confrontation that does not exist in cyberspace. Armchair Facebook activism had to be translated into an active political movement through other channels of more human ways of communication. Though the digital revolution may well have brought the youth on the streets, what makes revolutions a historic impetus for change is the arrival of people on the street, their social interaction, the human touch, the history making acts of courage and solidarity. In moving from the idea to active participation, a revolution is born.