Prominent figure of Egypt's 2011 uprising returns home from years of exile

Wael Ghonim's return is part of President El Sisi's reconciliation process

Activist Wael Ghonim, the iconic figure of Egypt's 2011 uprising. AFP
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Wael Ghonim, a well-known secular figure in Egypt’s 2011 uprising, has returned home after nearly a decade in self-imposed exile in the United States, the activist announced.

There has been no official announcement on Mr Ghonim’s return to Egypt, but it’s the latest evidence of a political reconciliation campaign President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has embarked on since he announced in April the convening of a national dialogue on key policies.

Since then, authorities have cautiously allowed a level of freedom not seen for years.

The Egyptian leader has also green-lighted the release from prison of hundreds of political detainees held in pre-trial custody. The releases were made on recommendation from a presidential commission convened by Mr El Sisi to look into the files of thousands held in pre-trial custody.

Mr El Sisi on Thursday mandated Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly to convene a national conference by the end of the month to review the country’s economic crisis and find ways to deal with it. The crisis has been chiefly caused by the damaging fallout from the Russia-Ukraine war and the coronavirus before that.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Bloomberg

There appears to be no intention, however, for Mr El Sisi’s reconciliation efforts to include the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, also designated as a terrorist group by the government.

Brotherhood supporters are blamed for a series of deadly terror attacks in the years that followed the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi. They are also blamed for encouraging and condoning attacks by ISIS-linked militants fighting the government in the northern region of the Sinai Peninsula.

The slightly broader margin of freedom allowed since April has emboldened some commentators to criticise the government's handling of the economy, questioning its spending priorities and judging some of the mega infrastructure projects undertaken since 2014 to be unnecessary.

In response, the Egyptian leader — a retired army general — has spiritedly defended the policies and questioned whether the criticism was being made in good faith. In thinly-veiled reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, he counselled Egyptians against paying attention to unnamed parties he accused of doubting the sincerity of the government.

"Support the country that you are living in and where your dreams are. Don't quit on your dream or allow them to make you despair," he told Egyptians in televised comments on Thursday.

Mr Ghonim, who has lived in the United States for the past eight years, is the second prominent activist to be allowed to return home after years spent in exile. Political scientist and former member of parliament Amr Hamzawy returned home in the summer after years living in the United States and Germany.

Mr Hamzawy is scheduled to take part in the national dialogue, which remains in the preparatory stage, with organisers still selecting members of specialist panels to run the discussions.

Thousands of policy proposals have been received by the organisers along with applications to take part.

The dialogue will produce draft policy recommendations that will be sent to the president who in turn will have the prerogative to choose which ones to adopt.

“I arrived in Egypt for a family visit and I am happy to be with my family, friends and loved ones,” Mr Ghonim wrote on Facebook late on Saturday night. "Thank you for all your beautiful messages and may God bless you for your love, respect and understanding.”

Mr Ghonim, a 41-year-old computer engineer who once held a senior position at Google in the Mena region, posted alongside his message a photo of his landing card in which he stated that his visit to Egypt was “temporary”.

The card showed that he arrived on Saturday night from Frankfurt, Germany.

Long considered a representative of Egypt’s youth and technology-driven democracy movement, Mr Ghonim secretly founded a Facebook page in 2010 called “we are all Khaled Said” — a reference to a young man from Alexandria beaten to death by two plainclothes policemen. The pair were later tried and convicted of manslaughter.

The page was seen by hundreds of thousands and started an online debate on Egypt’s woes at the time. The 2011 uprising, which forced former president Hosni Mubarak to step down after 29 years in power, began on January 25, the day Egypt celebrates Police Day.

Mr Ghonim himself was detained for 10 days during the 18-day uprising.

He left Egypt around 2014, saying he wanted to stay out of politics.

In a series of videos posted online since 2019, he was sharply critical of the government’s policies. He repeatedly used Arabic profanities on his videos and confessed that he cheated on his ex-wife.

However, he seems to have later repented, offering an apology along with his services to his country on a Facebook post dated May 11.

“After months of soul searching, I offer an apology over my repeated loss of composure, surrender to anger and publicising my sins … Sometimes, life must break your will so that you appreciate the value of patience, respect leadership and consider the public interest,” he wrote.

Updated: September 12, 2022, 6:58 AM