Egypt’s revolution, My life, and My Broken Soul

Five years ago, my tears fell as the plane took off. For the first time in my life, I was desperate to leave Egypt, despite not knowing when I would be able to return. A few days prior, a military coup had toppled our two-year-old failed attempt to transition to democracy.

I had lived most of my life as an outsider. I never belonged to a majority. As a child, I was the Egyptian kid growing up in Saudi Arabia, and when I moved to Egypt at the age of 13, I became “the kid who came back from Saudi.” At 17, I became religious, and my family and friends called me an extremist. At 30, I was an anonymous activist–who barely knew any activists. And now, at 37, I’m the Egyptian who just moved to the US and is once again struggling to prove his worth.

My early childhood seems to have been contained in a sheltered bubble. I went to private schools in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, spent most of my time at home, and my parents knew everything about my friends. But at the age of 14, I burst that bubble. I decided to leave private school and join a public one.

On the first day in public school, I was shocked. Our classroom had benches for forty students but we were over seventy. There was no fan, no AC, no ventilation. The school yard was huge, but not enough to accommodate the thousands of students.

In my third day at school, a fight erupted in the yard. Kids were throwing rocks randomly in the middle of the yard. I saw blood, knives, and swords. The screams of anger and the ambulance sirens were all that I could hear.

I became friends with some of my classmates who came from low-income families. I witnessed the hardship of their lives. It made me realize how much I had taken things for granted; but even so, stepping out of the bubble that my parents created for me to experience the cruelty of real life was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

The first time I learned about the Internet was in 1997. I was 17, and my cousin invited me over to check out something “super cool.” He connected a modem to his family’s phone line, and a fax-machine-like beep announced the start of a session. “Welcome to the Library of Congress,” it said. It was a magical moment in my life. Suddenly, the constraints of planes, borders, and visas were lifted.

My computer became my best friend. It was my sanctuary. I expanded my education, learning English and teaching myself to program. The Internet took over most of my real world.

That same year also marked another major transition in my life: I became strictly religious. My lovely young cousin, Dalia, had just died in a horrific car crash at the age of twenty five. I was devastated by her loss. At her passing, the words of a family member sank in: “Life is a test,” he said,“and we will all die sooner or later. We will be in eternal heaven, or eternal hell. You choose what you want.”

I did not want to be in an eternal hell.

With that fear looming over my head, I began to unerringly follow the teachings of the prophet and his companions. strived to be the best Muslim version of myself, praying five times a day at the mosque, and attended religious lectures held miles away from home on an almost daily basis.

It was at the mosque that I noticed a few young kids who all seemed very close to each other. I wanted to join their group, and spent a lot of my time around them. As we grew closer, one of them eventually confessed that they are all members of the Muslim Brotherhood. He eventually told me that they wanted for me to join the group.

I was confused. Why had they hidden that from me for all those months? Did I need to question their intentions? After reading more about the Brotherhood, however, I eventually believed in their vision of restoring our Islamic nation’s dignity. Egypt is the heart of the Muslim world, they preached and if Islam rose in Egypt, it would rise everywhere else. At 17, this seemed like a great purpose for my life.

The group was organized by geographic locations. I belonged to a “family” of 6 members who lived in my area and met weekly to read the Quran, Hadith, and the teachings of Islamic scholars and the leaders of the movement. I was considered a “fan”, a level before becoming a full member in the group. I had to prove my loyalty to the ideology before I could be considered a full Muslim Brotherhood member.

I eventually realized that the underground nature of the Muslim Brotherhood and the risks they are continually exposed to made them establish rigid systems. The leadership appreciated loyalty and considered questions to be threatening to their organization. It didn’t take me long before deciding to quit the group.

Dejected, I anonymously started a religious website named Islamway to broadcast Islamic lectures to people around the world. I was still fascinated by how the Internet empowered individuals to reach millions of people from behind a screen — but little did I know that I would meet Ilka, my wife, on Islamway. She was a user of the website, a new Muslim convert eager to learn more about the faith. At the time, Ilka was 24 and I was 20. And despite the thousands of miles between her home in California and mine in Cairo we began a beautiful relationship that has survived 17 years of love and struggle. We got married on the first day we met in real life.

But despite the happy new connections I was making, being very religious in Egypt had exposed me to a huge risk. The government cracked down on social movements, especially those with a religious background, and I lived in constant fear that they would find out I was running Islamway, which was getting quite popular among Egyptians. My secret was never discovered by the state security at the time, but Yasser, a close friend who helped me run the website, met a different fate.

One day, on his way back home from school, state security officers randomly arrested Yasser under the emergency law because of his beard. For the following months, Yasser was viciously tortured. He was electrified, deprived of food and sleep, and hung upside down for hours with no access to water. His torturers wanted him to confess that he was a member of a terrorist cell.

I will never forget Yasser’s face after his release. His soul had been broken. All I could see was a pale brown face full of pain and the most unrelenting sadness. He shaved his beard.

In the following years, keeping my head down led me to what many would consider success. In 2008, I finished my MBA at the American University in Cairo and joined Google. By 2010, I had moved to Dubai to lead Google’s marketing operations for the MENA region. I lived in a fancy villa and earned a high income. I was blessed with a great wife and two amazing kids.

But I wasn’t happy with what was happening in Egypt. I believed that people like me who were blessed with the education they received had a moral responsibility towards the less fortunate, and Egypt was on the brink of a big change.

My interest in politics began when Muhamed El Baradei an Egyptian Nobel Peace Prize Winner, announced his intention to run for President of Egypt in 2011. I saw a glimpse of hope that Egypt could change and that he could be an alternative to Mubarak. While at first I joined a few meetings with his team and other political activists, but with every friend who was kidnapped and tortured in prison for their activism, I became all too aware of the risks of full engagement. And so I turned to my old friend: the Internet. I decided to use its anonymous power to call for change, and secretly ran El Baradei’s official Facebook page. It only escalated from there.

On the 10th of June 2010, I was sitting in my study crying as I looked at the photos of the dead body of a 29 year old man. His name was Khaled Saeed. He had been beaten to death by two police officers. Once again, I felt the need to take action, the undue responsibility for this mess. The police officers who had committed the crime had to be held accountable.

I anonymously started a Facebook page called We Are All Khaled Saeed. In its first 3 days of existence, the page was joined by more than 100,000 members. I recruited Abdelrahman Mansour, another political activist, to become my co-admin. Being the admin of “We are All Khaled Saeed” was my secret job. It took away most of my nights and weekends. It was me striving to live in a world in which in which all Egyptians could hold their heads high. And then, something momentous happened.

On the 14th of January 2011, Ben Ali was forced out of Tunisia as the protests mounted against him. Never in my life had I seen an Arab dictator forced out of power. It was a historical moment. I wrote on the page which then had almost half a million followers: “Today is the 14th. The 25th is National Police Day, if 100,000 of us take to the streets, no one will stop us.

Over one million Egyptians received the call via the Facebook page, and activists on the ground started to organize for what became later a pre-announced revolution.

I wrote my will in the days before leaving from Dubai to Egypt. I told my boss at Google, Yonca Dervisoglu, that I was going home for a vacation. She suspected nothing.

As the taxi drove me from my house to the airport, I was thinking of what my wife had told me as we had said goodbye: “You are putting your life at risk. That’s very selfish of you.”

On January 25th, tens of thousands of brave men and women marched shoulder to shoulder on the streets, chanting, “Freedom, Dignity, and Social Justice.” Their fear melted.

On the night of 27th, I started to panic. I checked out of my hotel and used a public phone to call a friend and ask if I could sleep in his office for the night. The next day could be the biggest protest in the history of Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of people would be marching out of every major mosque and church in the country. I tweeted: “Pray for Egypt,” and stepped out to the streets.

“What’s your name, boy?” a calm yet threatening voice asked,
“My name is Wael Ghonim,” I responded with a shaking voice.
He punched me hard.
“Your name is 41. What’s your name, boy?” The officer proclaimed.
“My name is 41,” I surrendered.

The most difficult parts of prison were eating and using the bathroom I was blindfolded and the handcuffed. I wasn’t allowed to change my clothes or take a shower. My body was covered in rashes. The frigid water I used on my face worsened everything. I was always accompanied by a guard–one of whom was someone I believed to be an old man. The first time he walked into my prison cell, he told me that he would treat me like he treated his son.

He beat me up everyday.

I lost track of time, of kicks, of punches.

How long have I been here?

For the first time in my life, I ran out of thoughts.

“You want to convince me that a suspicious guy like you is well-intentioned?” said an enraged interrogator, “Do you think we are idiots? You are an undercover agent to the CIA.”

But I was not. I was just a human. A nerd. A naive man who had tried to disentangle the web of politics in Egypt. I had carried nothing but hope for a better country for me, my children, and everyone else in the nation, including the interrogation officers. I had just wanted to unfuck the system.

Outside my prison, my brother and friends were looking for me in morgues. Ilka thought I was dead, but had told the kids that I hadn’t called in a while because I was very busy on a business trip.

The protesters in the Square demanded my release. Yonca, my boss, talked to my wife everyday, and with the help of my colleague Najeeb Jarrar, led a company wide effort to get me out of jail. Najeeb, Yonca, Lorraine, Rachel, Marty, and Sergey, among others, did everything in their power to have me released.

After 11 days in prison, after facing my eternal hell, I was set free.

On 11th of February 2011, Mubarak was forced to resign. For the first time, I felt as though Egypt were being returned to me and the Egyptian people. We were no longer outsiders in our own country. I wrote on “Kullena Khaled Said”: “welcome back Egypt!” Young kids started cleaning the streets, planting seeds, and painting the sidewalks. Who had said such a world couldn’t exist?

But just as quickly as it had risen, the high of the Arab Spring began to fade. Power corrupts even those with the best intentions, and I saw it do so every day. I lived it. The opposition groups were blinded by the January 25th victory. They didn’t trust each other and lacked empathy. Sometimes I found myself lacking empathy too. We were all practicing one form or another of what we criticized the Mubarak regime of doing.

I became a public figure. I was under attack and had various smear campaigns leveled at me from different political groups and individuals. I trusted many who ended up causing me harm and ignored many who only cared about me and wanted to help. I was hated by many activists for all the publicity I received; and most of all, I was accused–of being a traitor, of working for the CIA, of being an undercover member of the Muslim Brotherhood, of being a media whore, of stealing the revolution and making money off of it. The accusations came from the people I had fought for; the people I had gone to Hell for.

When the Muslim brotherhood candidate, Morsi, won the elections, I was both optimistic and deeply anxious. I hoped that the now-governing party would be wise enough to be inclusive. –Unfortunately, however, it was naive to assume that the underground group I had known myself could trust outsiders. The Brotherhood tried to force a power grab that resulted in one of the nation’s greatest political chasms. The subsequent decline was quick and ruthless: the army announced a coup and Morsi was arrested. Egypt was plunged into dusty chaos once again.

I had to leave from Dubai to the US for my own safety and that of my family. I didn’t want any of us to be exposed to any risks, especially after they all what they have went through.

In the US, I tried to distance myself and focus on my family and my career. I was defeated and desperate; the task seemed impossible.

In 2015, I co-founded Parlio with two dear Egyptian friends. Parlio was a company aimed at improving the state of online conversations. It was me trying to attempt to solve what I perceived to be some of our fundamental issues: empathy, mistrust and miscommunication.

But the steep decline in Egypt continued. I stopped following the Egyptian news. My co-founder and I joined Quora in March of 2016 after Parlio had reached a stand-still.

I fell into a state of depression the likes of which I never experienced before.

My body announced its official collapse when I found myself crying in a meeting room at the Quora office. In August 2017, I decided to quit.

Dignity is a value I would always like to be defined by. Thus, I admit that I began to come back to life sometime in Boston that fall.

I was at first reluctant to agree to the three-month fellowship at Harvard but thanks to my dear friend Tarek Massoud, I ended up taking the offer. I desperately needed a change. I left my family in California, and spent the fall in Boston. I would like to say I was alone, but I was in fact surrounded by swirling and endless thoughts about the world, politics, and the role of technology in Boston. Photos of my children were what began to draw me out.

In my depression, I’ve rediscovered myself. I am, ultimately, eternally grateful for the collapse. Imprisonment in my mind prompted me to learn about myself, reflect on my past and pushed me for change.

The biggest lesson that I’ve learnt in my depression was to realize that one can’t exclusively rely on the power from within. And that life is far more beautiful when we let others love us and show us that they care about us. Outsiders like me grow to live independently. I’ve been so disappointed in people throughout my life that makes me think a thousand times before asking anyone for anything. When I was among others, I hid my depression behind a funny character. I was like a miserable clown who wiped the fake makeup smile off their face as soon as they headed back home.

Pure human connections were the glimpse of light I needed to start my recovery process. I am now friends with amazing people, people that I hope to remain close with for life. One of my friends, Ramy, invited me to spend time with him in Amsterdam for a week. Through his kindness and care, I was able to finally realize what I was doing to myself.

It may seem sad that after spending so long trying to build a nation, I’ve just started to realize the power of having a community at 37. But I’m going to make up for all the years I’ve lost–to those companions who have created my home, I’m grateful forever for all the love, caring and friendship. And because of you, I have also learned to appreciate the power of empathy.

It’s very easy to judge people and point fingers at them, but it’s far more useful to try and relate to their struggles, fears and hopes. I have stopped believing that there are “good” and “evil” people. Humans are complex species: we have both the good and bad in us. Well designed systems could make us be the best versions of ourselves, just as effectively as badly designed systems can bring us to our lowest forms of existence. In absence of accountability, some of the best political activists would become the worst kind of state security officers if they weren’t saved from themselves.

I learned that arrogance is one of the worst forms of insecurity. It speaks to one’s lack of appreciation of self worthiness. I also learned that there are two ways to fight arrogance–my own and that of others. These ways are to be humble, or to be humbled. I have been humbled by the failures I’ve encountered in the last few years, and by seeing the rise and fall of my public image.

I grew up learning to bury my insecurities and never disclose them. But I recently realized that exposing one’s weaknesses could speak to one’s strength. I’m at fault if I ever spend my energy seeking validation from others who would judge me for my weaknesses.

I’ve learned that I don’t want to live a life in which I’m forced to put my head down. I don’t want to live a boring life confined by fear. In the remaining time I have on this earth, I want to continue to live a life standing up for my values and fighting for them.

When I traveled to Boston, I was heartbroken and devastated. I had a lot of unanswered questions. I was depressed. But today, I choose to not give up. I’m not giving up on Egypt because it was naive to think that a 30 years of dictatorship will be toppled in a few days, and its equally naive to think that one of the biggest events in the modern history of Egypt have failed just after a few of years. I’m not giving up on a world in which the power of the people is greater than the people in power.

I aspire to always try to be a positive force in the world, to help those who need the most help, and to continue trying to unfuck the system.

P.S.: Cops are not bastards. Activists are not saints. We are all human.

A birthday note from one of my dearest friends:

I wish you will continue to be free enough from the ground to unfuck systems, but I also wish you have enough roots to feel home

I wish you will always have this internal power to do good, but I also wish you surrender from time to time to power outside of you

I wish that your confidence always keep you strong, but I also wish you will have enough humbleness that would allow you to receive love

I wish you have the wisdom to know that you have reached no truth

I wish you something that is pure, ideal, real, deep, spiritual, and supernatural all at the same time.

I wish you a continuous pursuit.

A curious Egyptian

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