Speaking during a forum at MIT on Monday night, celebrated Egyptian democracy activist Wael Ghonim urged his audience to “get into action,” emphasizing that Egypt — despite having overthrown autocratic president Hosni Mubarak — remains in a political “vacuum” in which the shape of its future government and civil rights are uncertain.
“After a revolution, things are messy,” Ghonim said, addressing an energized, overflow crowd of more than 300 in Building 34. He added: “We’re now in the driver’s seat, and it’s up to us to decide: Do we want this to go forward? It will not happen until every one of you as individuals start believing that you should contribute something.”
Ghonim has been widely lauded for his use of social media to spur the Egyptian protest movement that forced Mubarak out of office on Feb. 11, after 30 years in power. A Google marketing executive then based in Dubai, Ghonim started a Facebook page, “We are all Khaled Said,” in honor of an Egyptian man killed by police in 2010. Ghonim was arrested after using the page to help organize the January protests in Egypt; he was ultimately released after two weeks in detention.
Earlier Monday, in Boston, Ghonim received one of the John F. Kennedy Library’s “Profiles in Courage” awards, presented by Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg.
“I just want to make sure that what we fought for is going to happen,” Ghonim said in his remarks at MIT. In March, Egypt’s voters approved a measure paving the way for parliamentary elections this fall. But there has been increasing public dissatisfaction with Egypt’s interim military government, leading to more protests in April and continued uncertainty about the country’s transition to democracy.
Ghonim listed a series of things people could do to help: investing in poor communities in Egypt, supporting movements to build civil rights, or simply visiting the country and supporting its tourism industry. “Egyptians outside, living abroad, have a huge responsibility today,” Ghonim asserted, noting that many educated, middle-class Egyptians have emigrated in recent decades. “What we need is expertise.”
Technology and democracy
Monday’s event, called “Egypt: Towards a Vibrant Civil Society,” was sponsored in part by the MIT Egyptian Association as well as a Harvard Egyptian students’ group, and also featured remarks from Mona Mowafi, a postdoc in social epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. Mowafi warned against the “false hope that one individual will … usher in a new era of democracy.” Instead, she suggested, “groups must organize to put pressure on those running for office, to improve transparency” in the country.
Mowafi also suggested a series of ways that technology could help create a better civil society, including use of better analytics to study social and political problems such as poverty, health-care delivery and corruption. The use of social media in Egypt, she noted, will likely continue to be vital; during the events of January and February, “it was the best primary source of news for anyone interested in what was happening on the ground.”
During a question-and-answer session that followed the panel’s opening remarks, one audience member asked if social media are better suited to rallying large numbers of people to a single cause — such as demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square — than organizing citizens around the many specific civic issues now facing the Egyptian people. In Ghonim’s view, social media can work well for either purpose; what matters more is how any particular social medium is managed. “Create tasks and clear deliverables so that it’s not just a forum for endless talk,” Ghonim said.
Indeed, an urgent theme of his remarks was that mere talk and speculation about the revolution and its future will not get Egyptians very far toward a working democracy. Both in his technology jobs and as an activist, Ghonim said, “I’ve always hated long-term plans. We should get busy working. Do something simple. Don’t sit and wait for the big thing to happen. Stop talking about your dreams, and get into action.”