2011-02-09 The Google Search for Wael Ghonim

When Google Marketing Executive for Middle East and North Africa [MENA] Wael Ghonim went missing amidst the chaos that was enveloping Cairo in the first week of the uprising in Egypt, Google started a search. So did friends and family.

He took six days off from Google, saying he had to take care of some "personal business." The day before the big January 25th protest he tweeted "Heading to Tahrir square now. Sleeping on the streets of Cairo, trying to feel the pain of millions of my fellow Egyptians. #Jan25"

His last tweet, before he went missing was on Thursday, 27 January. He was helping another Internet user get around Egypt's web censorship:

@Ghonim how can you tweet when its blocked??

He responded:

@SweetOwl proxy servers

At first Google refused to confirm that Wael was missing, In an email, a spokeswomen said "We care deeply about the safety of our employees, but to protect their privacy, we don't comment on them individually."

A few days later the company was asking for help in locating him. On Tuesday, 1 February, Google issued the following statement from it's Mountain View, CA headquarters:

"A Googler, Wael Ghonim, is missing in Egypt. He has not been seen since late Thursday evening in central Cairo. The safety of our employees is very important to Google, so if anyone has any information please call the following U.K. number: 44 20 7031 3008."

I have already blogged how other Googlers worked the weekend after Wael went missing to give Egyptians more options in accessing Twitter.

This Open Source Software site reported:

Arabic to English translation (Google Translation + my own corrections)

'Dustur al-Asli' (the site) has received confirmed information indicating that Wael Ghonim, president of marketing for Google Middle-East, and who disappeared since last Thursday, January 27, is the admin for the group "Khale Saeed" along with the groups "6th October" and "Popular Movement for the Support of Baradaie" which called for the organization of popular protests to depose of president Husni Mubarak, starting on January 25th.

Sources told 'Dustur al-Asli' that there is information indicating that the security services have kidnapped Ghanim on Thursday and he may have been killed on its hands, such as happened with Khalid Saeed, who also founded a group.

The U.S-based Internet company, Google, has launched Tuesday an appealed asking for help to find Wael Ghoneim missing since nearly a week.

Boston technology entrepreneur and friend Habib Haddad also started a search going. He asked for volunteers to comb Cairo looking for him.

"We are asking for people to take the old-school approach and walk around and ask about him," Haddad said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "We are sure that with the number of people there on the ground, someone somehow must have seen him and must know where he is."

The LA Times reported:

A friend, Habib Haddad, told CNN that Ghonim was in touch with his wife and brother on Friday before disappearing over the weekend. Haddad said his concerns for his friend were growing bigger "by the day."

"He would do whatever he could to reach out, and he wouldn't put himself in a stupid situation," Haddad said.

In the meantime, Twitter users are teaming up to track down people reported as missing by family and friends.

A Twitter user in Beirut, Samer Karam, and another in Canada, Tamer Salama, created a Google Docs spreadsheet to list missing people and update the world as they are found. Hundreds of people have gone missing during the protests, but few as high profile as Ghonim.

Probably the most important step in protecting Wael Ghonim and insuring his safe return was taken by the people in Liberation Square on Thursday, 3 February when they elected him official spokesman for the April 6th Movement group. The Mubarak regime still hadn't confirmed that they were holding him but they had expressed an interest in opening talks with the opposition. The people in the square sent the government a resounding message. You want to talk to us? You talk to Wael!

Four days later he was released.

As you might expect, the post-release interviews with Wael Ghonim that so raised the level of the struggle are in Arabic. I have found these versions with English sub-titles on Alive in Egypt. The videos are hosted on YouTube, but since they use JavaScript for the sub-titles, I can't embed them and you'll have to watch them on their site:

Exclusive: Wael Ghonim’s First Interview With English Subtitles.
Dream TV Interview With Wael Ghonim: Part 1 – With English Subtitles
Dream TV interview with Wael Ghonim – Part 2 – With English subtitles
Dream TV interview with Wael Ghonim – Part 3 – With English subtitles
Dream TV interview with Wael Ghonim – Part 4 – With English subtitles
Dream TV interview with Wael Ghonim – Part (last) 5 – With English subtitles

My Google Search for Wael Ghonim

I did my own Google search for Wael Ghonim this morning. Like everyone else since he's come to the world's attention in the last few days, I wanted to know more about him. I know he is a Google marketing executive that is now being seen as a leader in the Egyptian revolution. I wanted to know about his past. Was he possibly someone I could have cross paths with in my own history in the Free Software Movement? Is he more than a marketing guy, is he a geek, a nerd, a computer hacker that is also a political activist, what the media has taken to calling a hactivist? [a term I dislike and reject] Is he an anonymous member of that club? In short, is he one of us? I had to know. So my search began.

Googling for info about the past of someone after they have come to the attention of the world is a daunting task. You have to filter out the zillions of fresh references to find the few needles at the bottom of the pile. But there are ways..

I found the answers to my question in a posting that Wael Ghonim made to a forum on open source software, alt.php.sql, on Oct. 3, 2001 at 1:51am (nerd time). In his post he is trying to help someone move from a proprietary Microsoft database to a free open source database by answering the question Which is easier to convert to MySQL? Access or SQL2000? Here is what he posted:

Wael Ghonim View profile


I've experienced the same problem 6 months ago, It was a headeche for me however I guess now I would know the solution. Acess allows you to dump the database, make a table structure in your Mysql the same as the one that you have for the Access Database. Dump all the data putting : "" between every field ( you can choose that ) ( Ex.: "1","John","Woow" )

After that you can easily create your Mysql Database and dump the files to it.


Islam = Terrorism ?!

We can see his political side showing even then in his signature.

I was using PHP and Mysql and posting on forums like that back in those days. In fact I did a Google search to see if I ever discussed those subjects on that forum and instead turned up this gem from my past. In 2007 Linux.com did a story on me and wrote:

His current main project is a Vietnam War retrospective video based on thousands of TV and film clips taken while the Vietnam War was still going strong, all filed and catalogued in a PHP/MySQL system Clay wrote for himself that runs on his personal MythTV box. The amount of time he's putting into this video project has severely curtailed his business activities; he's still building and supporting Linux computers, but he says that he is currently "dipping into savings" since he cut back his work hours to make more time for anti-war activities.

I finished the documentary Vietnam: American Holocaust, and got Martin Sheen to narrate it. I recently upgraded my PHP/MySql based system for work on the sequel, Vietnam: People's Victory, work that has been so rudely interrupted by current revolutions. Thanks Wael.

Anyway back in 2001 Google was only 3 years old and barely out of the dorm room but they were running the free software LAMP system [the Linux OS, the Apache webserever, MySql database, and the PHP web scripting language, and so was I and apparently so was Wael. So I feel a strong connection. A decade ago he was one of us.

Wael Ghonim went to Cairo University from Sept. 1998 to June 2004 and graduated with a BS in Computer Science. Then he spent two years at the American University in Cairo to get an MBA. He worked while going to school in marketing at Gawab.com from Aug 2002 til Aug 2005. He started his present job with Google in November 2008.

In September 2009 he spoke at a conference in Dubai on how Companies Turn to Social Media to Survive Global Crisis hosted by IQPC Middle East. The announcement says,

Wael Ghonim, Regional Product Marketing Manager MENA, Google will discuss how social media is being utilised during the downturn and how to target users in social networks.

I wonder if he told them much about how he personally was using social media to combat the "downturn."

Another item my Google search turned up was much more recent, from December 21, 2010, just about a month before the revolution in Egypt kicked off. It gives us a clue as to just what a MENA marketing executive for Google does when he is not administering subversive webpages. It also gives us a window into how Google and other Open Source companies do business. In an email on that day Khaled Mokhtar, the Project Manager for the Google/Wikipedia Health Speaks Initative in Egypt writes:

Hello Health Speaks Arabic,

Please visit our blog post to read about the final results of Health Speaks. We had 177 Arabic articles translated, published and reviewed by the deadline, including 3 articles on important reproductive health issues (safe sex, gonorrhea and birth control) that have already been viewed over 20,000 times.

As you know, Google.org pledged to donate 3 US cents per English word translated to Children Cancer Hospital Egypt 57357. Now, as a special thank you to all of you for your incredible hard work and patience with us as we tested things for the first time, we've also pledged an additional $10,000. That's a total of $26,611 that will be donated to the hospital as a direct result of this group.

It has been a privilege to work with all of you and I hope you feel very proud of yourselves! I must also give special congratulations to our top contributors (below), to Mido and Hexacoder from Wikipedia, to Noura for our daily updates, and of course to Khaled for his wonderful reviewing skills and amazing enthusiasm!

Competition for Arabic translators has been especially fierce in the past decade. I wonder if the CIA or Pentagon ever thought of this approach? Khaled Moktar added to the top of her email:

Also we can't forget the wonderful Wael Ghonim for his strategic guidance, and for giving me the opportunity to do this great initiative.

Today there are thousands in Cairo's Liberation Square that might echo that thanks to Wael in quite a different context.

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