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Gladwell, Google, Twitter & Egypt: Social Media’s Revolutionary Mystery (UPDATED)

Gladwell

(A dramatic wrinkle in this story is below  — the Google marketing executive in question has been released.)

Here’s an intriguing subplot lost amid all the press coverage on Egypt and the Middle East this week.

Writer Malcolm Gladwell finds himself having to face up to his controversial Oct. 10 article “Small change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.” In a nutshell, the article argued that social media is not as powerful a force as some believe it to be. (By the way, hear Tom Ashbrook’s intense interview with Gladwell.)

Gladwell responded to some of this in a recent New Yorker blog post: “Does Egypt Need Twitter?” He’s sticking to his original line:

[S]urely the least interesting fact about [the implications and origins of the protests] is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along.

But in a weirdly grim twist, the plot has thickened.

According to the New York Times, Wael Ghonim, Google’s marketing chief for the Middle East and North Africa, has gone missing after heading to Egypt to join in the protests. His Twitter account has been silent since Jan. 27 and his whereabouts remain unknown. (UPDATE: Al Jazeera reports he has been released.)

One of Ghonim’s last tweets before the account went silent?

Hey @Gladwell, #Jan25 proved you wrong. Revolution can be a #Facebook event that is liked, shared & tweeted. http://nyr.kr/bYKeLq

Ghonim

Other of Ghonim’s most-recent tweets are worrisome: on Jan 25 –  “Now in Tahrir situation is out of control. Prevented 2 angry guys from throwing a huge metal on police cars from top of the bridge!”; and on Jan 27 – “Very worried as it seems that government is planning a war crime tomorrow against people. We are all ready to die #Jan25.

UPDATE: Egypt frees Google manager who became protest hero

By HADEEL AL-SHALCHI and SALAH NASRAWI
Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) – Egypt on Monday released a Google Inc. executive who became a hero of anti-government protesters after he vanished nearly two weeks ago while taking part in demonstrations calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

Protesters in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square say Wael Ghonim, a marketing manager for the Internet company, was one of the main youthful organizers of the online campaign that sparked the mass protests on Jan. 25. He went missing on Jan. 27 and his whereabouts were not known until Sunday, when a prominent Egyptian political figure confirmed he was under arrest and would soon be released.

Ghonim has been held up as one of the heroes of the protest movement that has already extracted the most sweeping concessions toward reform that Mubarak’s regime has ever made.

The gestures have not persuaded the tens of thousands occupying downtown’s Tahrir Square to end their two-week long protest, leaving the two sides in an uneasy stalemate. The protesters have vowed to stay put until Mubarak steps down, while the regime wants him to stay in office until elections in September.
President Barack Obama said Egypt is “making progress” toward a solution to the political crisis. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said later in the day that what the Egyptian people want most to see is the government taking concrete steps to bring about demanded changes, including the end of Mubarak’s government, and free and fair elections.

He said “monumental change” already has taken place, with Mubarak pledging not to seek re-election in September, ruling out his son as a candidate to succeed him and the first-ever appointment as vice president.

The embattled regime announced a 15 percent raise for government employees Monday in an attempt to shore up its base.

Newly appointed Finance Minister Samir Radwan said some 6.5 billion Egyptian pounds ($960 million) will be allocated to cover the salary and pension increases, which will take effect in April for the 6 million people on public payrolls.

“We don’t trust him and he’s a liar. He’s made many promises in the past,” said Salih Abdel-Aziz, an engineer with a public sector company, referring to the president. “He could raise it 65 percent and we wouldn’t believe him. As long as Mubarak is in charge, then all of these are brittle decisions that can break at any moment.”

Public sector employees have been a pillar of support for the regime, but their salaries have stagnated in value in recent years as prices have soared, forcing the government to periodically announce raises to quell dissatisfaction.

Following widespread labor unrest in public sector factories in 2008, Mubarak announced a 30 percent increase in public sector salaries that appeared to temporarily blunt public anger at the time.
The regime appears confident in its ability for the moment to ride out the unprecedented storm of unrest, and maintain its grip on power, at least until September elections, but it has made a number of moves in response to protesters’ demands.

Egypt’s Vice President Omar Suleiman met several major opposition groups, including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, for the first time Sunday and offered new concessions including freedom of the press, release of those detained during the protests and the eventual lifting of the country’s hated emergency laws.

Egypt’s state-run news agency reported Monday that Mubarak ordered the country’s parliament and its highest appellate court to re-examine lower-court rulings disqualifying hundreds of ruling party lawmakers for campaign and ballot irregularities, that were ignored by electoral officials – possibly paving the way for new elections.

The ruling National Democratic Party won more than 83 percent of the 518 seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections, which were widely condemned as being rigged.

Judicial officials also promised to start the questioning on Tuesday of three former ministers and a senior ruling party official accused of corruption charges after they were dismissed by Mubarak last week. The cabinet reshuffle was intended to placate protesters by removing some of the most hated officials in the government.

The official Middle East News Agency said former Tourism Minister Zohair Garanah would be questioned Tuesday along with the former ministers of housing and trade.

MENA also reported that the country’s top prosecutor had imposed a travel ban on former Interior Minister Habib al-Adli and froze his bank account.

Life in Cairo was returning to a more normal routine after the weeks of upheaval. Banks were open for limited hours along with many shops. The stock market announced it would reopen on Sunday, though schools were still shut for the mid-year holiday. Traffic was returning to ordinary levels in many places and the start of the nighttime curfew was relaxed to 8 p.m.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

APNT 02-07-11 1432EST

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