Our Weekly Read column features Fortune staffers’ and contributors’ takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We’ve invited the entire Fortune family — from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers — to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities. In this installment, senior editor Matt Vella takes a look at Revolution 2.0, Wael Ghonim’s account of how he helped shape Egypt’s Arab Spring.
FORTUNE — Just before midnight on the evening of January 27, 2011, Wael Ghonim tapped out the first few characters of an ominous tweet. “Pray for #Egypt,” the 31 year old wrote, before going to predict a brutal crackdown by the government. Moments later, three men emerged from a dimly lit street and pushed him to the ground, gagging him, binding his hands and throwing him into the back of a getaway car. To his family, friends, and thousands of social media followers, Ghonim simply vanished.
Revolution 2.0 is the often harrowing memoir of Ghonim’s role in the Egyptian uprising. He describes his unlikely part — his online activism, nightmarish detention and subsequent public appearances — in the protest movement that toppled the Egyptian regime last year. Aside from the scrawl in deposed president Hosni Mubarak’s personal diary, Revolution 2.0 may be the most detailed account of the disparate currents that propelled the revolution along to its tumultuous conclusion.
Ghonim, an Egyptian native living in Dubai, was a manager in Google’s (GOOG) Middle East and North Africa marketing division. He rose to prominence as a critic of the Egyptian regime, in part, by creating “We Are All Khaled Said,” a Facebook page named for the 27-year-old Egyptian blogger beaten to death by police in June. The page operated anonymously under the signature “El Shaheed” (The Martyr) and became a rallying point for the antigovernment protests that began on January 25. After his detention two days later, Ghonim’s family, friends and co-workers struggled to find him. They eventually discovered that he was being held by Egyptian authorities. Twelve days after being abducted, Ghonim was released. For many, what happened next made him the face of the revolution.
The night of his release he appeared — highly emotional, his face gnarled in pain and glistening with tears — on Dream 2, a private Egyptian television station. He confirmed that he was one of the administrators of the Facebook page and said that he had not been tortured while in detention (although in the book he said Egyptian officers threatened to rape him with a stick and interrogated him about anti-government demonstrations). On Dream 2, Ghonim stressed that the Web page simply expressed the feelings of its many contributors and commenters. “This was a revolution of the youth of all of Egypt,” he said. “I’m not a hero.” Overcome at the thought of the suffering of his fellow protesters, he walked off the set.
As in all revolutionary movements, the Arab Spring has had its defining images. In Egypt, the television picture of Ghonim’s boxy frame crumpled into itself, sobbing and apologizing, became emblematic. It humanized the movement, undermining government propaganda that branded dissenters as loafing malcontents. Despite attempting to reject the focus of attention, Ghonim himself became a catalyst, drawing more “everyday” people into Tahrir Square and, ultimately, helping sustain the movement.
Revolution 2.0 is a turn-by-turn account of the events that lead to that decisive evening and the many that followed it. The text jogs through the myriad phases of the protest as well as the online campaigns devised by Ghonim to keep up engagement. The curation of his Facebook page is treated in particular detail. Narrative text is interspersed with important posts, annotated with their respective number of likes and comments. At first, this treatment is jarring, bordering on gimmickry. But as the numbers below each post grow and the events that generated them — the swell that lead to mass action — become more dramatic, the effect comes off. Ghonim has managed to construct a compelling historical narrative out of tweets and status updates. (Full disclosure: My girlfriend works for the agency that represents the author.)
Those looking for rumination on the role of social media in popular movements are likely to be disappointed, however. This is a story about revolutionary praxis. Theory is barely addressed. What makes revolution 2.0 so distinctive from revolution 1.0 is only superficially treated, despite a bombastic book jacket that suggests otherwise. Still, this is potent and forceful testimony. Ghonim’s story is in many ways the story of contemporary Egypt: a savvy, ambitious youth with deeply held religious convictions and a desire to see his countrymen be free.