Egyptian Revolution's Biggest Name Shuns Politics, Spotlight

PHOTO: Wael Ghonim attends the TIME 100 Gala at Lincoln Center in this April 26, 2011 file photo in New York City.PlayStephen Lovekin/Getty Images
WATCH Egyptian Activist Doesn't Claim Credit

On February 8th, 2011, the Egyptian revolution was at full throttle, just three days from deposing President Hosni Mubarak. What had started as a protest organized by young activists on Facebook had exploded into a full-blown uprising including Egyptians of all stripes, a good many of whom had never laid eyes on the social networking site.

Despite the momentum of the masses, there was no leader, no individual who rose up from the anger and bloodshed. But when a Dubai-based Google executive got on stage on Tahrir Square on February eighth and grabbed a microphone, the crowd erupted.

"For a long time, I've been saying we have a voice that should be heard," Egyptian-born Wael Ghonim said. "We will take that right, even if we die as martyrs. Your demands are my demands. For the president to step down is our demand from now on."

The day before, Ghonim had been released after 12 days in jail. He and several others had used a Facebook page they had created to expose injustices in Egypt to organize a protest on January 25 on the heels of the Tunisian revolution that had unseated longtime President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. Ghonim's arrest three days later on January 28th quickly became a rallying cry for demonstrators and his subsequent release provided a massive jolt in the final stretch.

Here was the leader many Egyptians -- and the media -- had been looking for. He was everywhere, doing interviews with the global media, praising the protesters and taking little credit. He told ABC News at the time, "I don't think that I am the face of the revolution … I'm not a hero, I slept for 12 days," he told Egypt's Dream television channel." When shown video of some who had died, he wept on camera and left, overcome with emotion.

But Ghonim would not take the leadership role many hoped and after Mubarak fell, didn't use his newfound celebrity status to push a particular political agenda, angering many young liberals.

Instead, a few months after Mubarak stepped down, Ghonim announced he would take a sabbatical from Google to start an NGO focusing on poverty and education. He also landed a book deal, "Revolution 2.0" was recently released. In it, he details his experiences behind the scenes before and during the revolution.

"I wanted to share my personal story," he told ABC News in an interview on Tuesday in an office building in the upper middle-class neighborhood of Mohandessin. "I believe I was a very ordinary person, I hope I still remain a very ordinary person," he said.

"I don't see myself in the political life," he said. "The reason behind my disappearance was that I didn't want any credit for it [organizing the January 25 protest] and we didn't want to personalize it. And I think going forward I think that was one of the best things that happened."

Ghonim won't say who he voted for in the recent parliamentary elections which were dominated by Islamist parties who won 70 percent of the seats. He is calm, not nearly as angry as the thousands who have turned out regularly on Tahrir Square demanding the ruling military council hand power over faster to a civilian government.

"We have achieved a lot, we have done the impossible in the last twelve months," he said. "I'm not happy with the pace as an individual but at the end of the day, life doesn't work on individual desires. We are recovering from 60 years of dictatorship and 30 years of corruption, we cannot just do it in 12 months."

Another of the young, loud voices from the revolution believes Ghonim's take on politics is "s**t."

"He could have done so much," said activist Gigi Ibrahim, a member of the Revolutionary Socialists who was a mainstay on Tahrir last winter and since. She called Ghonim "completely absent" but also said his role and profile have been overblown by the media, echoed here by many. He was just one of the Facebook page's administrators, she said, and it was a people's revolution, not a Facebook revolution, as it has been called in the press.

On the last points, Ghonim agrees.

"We were there to bring back the choice to them [the Egyptian people] and let them choose who they want. The leaders should be elected and I'm happy with whomever is elected [in] parliament or as a president."

But on Wednesday, the first anniversary of the uprising, Ghonim plans to be back out on Tahrir Square, joining thousands of others protesting the slow pace of democratization.

"The most critical thing now is the completing the power transition," he said, "we want the army to get out of politics we want to see an elected president, an elected parliament take charge of this country."