Last Updated: Thu Feb 10, 2011 12:07 pm (KSA) 09:07 am (GMT)

Google executive's role in Egypt a corporate dilemma

When Egypt cut off Internet access last month in a bid to quell anti-government protests, Google joined forces with Twitter to create a tool that lets Egyptians "tweet" by telephone.

Google said it came up with the "speak-to-tweet" service to help Egyptians "stay connected at this very difficult time" -- a move very much in keeping with the Internet giant's stated commitment to the free flow of information.

Since then, however, Google has found itself drawn even further into the turmoil with the emergence of a young company executive, Wael Ghonim, as a prominent voice of the protesters seeking to oust President Hosni Mubarak.

Leading the revolution

Wael Ghonim could not stop his tears while he was on air on the Egyptian TV

Once a behind-the-scenes Internet activist, 30-year-old Wael Ghonim has emerged as an inspiring voice for a movement that has taken pride in being a leaderless "people's revolution." Now, the various activists behind it - including Ghonim - are working to coalesce into representatives to push their demands for President Hosni Mubarak's ouster.

Some protesters said they were inspired to turn out by an emotional television interview Ghonim gave Monday night just after his release from detention. He sobbed over those who have been killed in two weeks of clashes and insisted, "We love Egypt ... and we have rights."

Business experts said Ghonim's high-profile role in the protests poses a dilemma for management, even for a company like Google that has not hesitated to take on countries such as China in the past.

"I'm sure Google is very nervous about having their employees publicly associated with politics," said Charles Skuba, an international business professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, according to AFP.

"It's a slippery slope," Skuba told AFP. "Whenever an employee of a company becomes publicly associated with a political situation there's often more peril for the company than there is advantage."

Google campaigned vigorously for the release of Ghonim, a 30-year-old Egyptian who is the company's marketing chief for the Middle East and North Africa, after he went missing in Cairo on Jan. 27.

Freed on Monday after 12 days in custody, Ghonim addressed huge crowds the next day in Tahrir Square, epicenter of the protests against Mubarak.

Hailed as a hero, Ghonim also revealed that he was behind the "We Are All Khaled Said" page on Facebook that has been credited with helping mobilize the pro-democracy protests that have gripped the country.

"Ready to die" for the cause

A stone-made Welcome to Freedom slogan placed on the street in Tahrir Square

Ghonim told CNN on Wednesday he was "ready to die" for the cause.

It is "no longer the time to negotiate" with the Mubarak regime, Ghonim said, weeping openly after discussing the plight of protestors who had died in the three weeks of demonstrations.

"I'm telling you, I am ready to die," he said in the interview conducted in English, displaying a notarized power of attorney that would grant control of his assets to his wife in the event of his death.

"I have a lot to lose in this life. I work in the best company to work for in the world. I have the best wife, I love my kids. But I'm willing to lose all of that for my dream to happen, and no one is going to go against our desire. No one."

Addressing Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman, Ghonim delivered the message: "You are not going to stop us."

"Kidnap me. Kidnap all my colleagues. Put us in jail. Kill us. Do whatever you want to do -- we are getting back our country. You guys have been ruining this country for 30 years. Enough, enough, enough," he said.

"Don't use Google logo"

 I'm sure Google is very nervous about having their employees publicly associated with politics 
Charles Skuba

While profusely thanking Google in a Twitter message for seeking his release, Ghonim took care to emphasize that his actions are his alone.

In a message on his Twitter feed, @ghonim, on Monday, he wrote: "My friends please don't create logos with my personal photos in general. Also specially if it has Google logo in it."

Google for its part issued a brief statement welcoming Ghonim's release but has declined further comment. "It is a huge relief that Wael Ghonim has been released. We send our best wishes to him and his family," Google said.

Rhonda Reger, an associate professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, said Ghonim may be acting on his own but he will still be associated with Google.

"Whenever an executive speaks, even if he says this is just me speaking, if he's identified as being an executive of the company, people assume it's the company's position as well," Reger said.

She said she expected that discussions have been taking place at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, about "what's the right stance to take (with Ghonim) because it's fairly uncharted ground."

"They don't want to put out something that then becomes a headline 'Google silences executive,'" she said. "But I would not be at all surprised if they're not talking to him."

"Undoubtedly they have policy about this, about what you can and cannot say," Reger continued. "In general, the first responsibility (of an executive) is to be a viable concern and not harm the company and not harm the brand."

"Double-edged sword"

Wael Ghonim talking to Al Arabiya after his release

Ayman al-Tarabishy, a research professor in management at George Washington University's School of Business, said Ghonim's prominent role in the protests is a "double-edged sword" for Google with both risks and rewards.

Social networking titans Facebook and Twitter have been attracting more attention recently than the Internet search giant and the Egyptian protests have put Google back in the limelight, he said.

At the same time, Tarabishy said, "what they should also be concerned about eventually when this all settles down is how people in power will look at Google.

"Will they be seen as business friendly or as tools in aiding in revolution or uprising?" asked Tarabishy, who is of Egyptian origin and was in Cairo when the protests began on Jan. 25.

Georgetown's Skuba said Ghonim's activism could be interpreted as being consistent with Google's corporate philosophy of "Don't Be Evil."

"The company cannot afford to be public about their views," he said, "but I would not expect Google to take any action against him."

Skuba said Ghonim "is now a hero in Egypt and in other countries across the Middle East and elsewhere and Google's association is going to be very positive with many people and their customer base.

"The upside is the positive political imagery with this situation," he said. "The downside is potential government actions by Egypt and other countries that may impact Google down the road."

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