Wael Ghonim. Credit: David Degner/New Statesman
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Mehdi Hasan speaks to Wael Ghonim, Egyptian democracy activist, on Facebook, Assad and the Muslim Brotherhood

“The fate of nations should be decided by their own people”.

“The fate of nations should be decided by their own people”

How does it feel to be the face of the Egyptian Revolution?
I don't think I am the face; I don't think there should be a face. It's unfair to those who sacrificed their lives.

What prompted you to set up the Facebook page "We are all Khaled Said", which got you arrested by the Mubarak regime and brought you to global prominence?
It was injustice. I'm a patriotic Egyptian, and it was my response to a dictatorship run by security forces that were making everyone scared, using the psychological barrier of fear and the propaganda machine of the media and spreading corruption. I didn't just want to mourn and forget [the killing of the 28-year-old blogger Said by the Egyptian police] after a few days, like everyone else. I knew how to manage Facebook pages and so that's how it all started.

Do you resent the west's decades-long support for Hosni Mubarak and his dictatorial regime?
There has been a huge struggle of "values v interests" for so many years. I don't appreciate the fact that countries which talk of human rights and democracy then go and support dictatorships based on their interests. The west likes to talk about values, but acts based on interests. I believe that the fate of nations should be decided by their own people.

Did you support the west's war in Libya?
The Libya situation is very tricky. Every nation has the right to decide its own destiny. It's not my personal decision to support or oppose an intervention; it should be decided by the people. It's important to see what happens in the next few years. Libya has a lot of oil resources and there are a lot of countries very interested in those resources.

What inspired you to you write your memoir, Revolution 2.0?
I wanted to share my experiences so that other people [in other countries] can do useful things based on my experiences. In this world, we don't really speak to each other; there are lots of misconceptions and stereotypes. A lot of people in the west have only now started to understand that we Arabs share the same universal values, a belief in democracy and human rights. But it's not what they hear on the news.

Why did you choose that title?
From my point of view, the older style of revolution was to have a leader. But in our revolution, and other revolutions that took place in the Arab world, it was a leaderless movement. Everyone was contributing. It was the difference between Web 1.0, where most of the internet was content that users just read and watched, to Web 2.0, where users have started to communicate and collaborate with one another on content. In Revolution 2.0, no one is a leader - everyone is a leader.

What should be done about Bashar al-Assad in Syria, who has turned out to be a more durable and brutal dictator than Mubarak?
I'm not in a position to say what the Syrian people should do. I support the revolution in Syria because it is the same revolution as our own. It is very important that the international community put all sorts of pressure on Syria with an eye to avoid any more casualties.

When will the people of Saudi Arabia join the Arab spring?
I think every dictatorship will have a hard time over the next few years, in this era of communication and collaboration. And I believe eventually even Saudi Arabia will become more open.

Are you worried by the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in the recent Egyptian elections?
No. The western media, and even some sections of the Arab media, are basically taking a very pessimistic view. But what is going on here is very healthy. The Muslim Brotherhood was the strongest party and got almost 50 per cent of the seats. So we should give democracy a chance and respect the choices of the Egyptian people. What matters is that the country should be on the right road map for democratic transition, away from military rule.

Has the Arab spring become an Arab winter?
No, these revolutions take a lot of sacrifices. The Egyptian Revolution is going through hard times but I don't think it is going wrong. One of the best things is that it has no leader who wants to become another dictator. Across the Arab world, empowerment is taking place. People are now strong enough to stand up to injustice and, because of technology and communication and collaboration, these revolutions are going to go in the right direction.

Do you vote?
For the first time in my life, I just voted.

Is there a plan?
No, I have a set of values in my life and the plan keeps changing based on them.

Are we doomed?
I am an optimist. No country or civilisation can continue with people who believe they are doomed. I force myself to wake up every morning believing the world can be a better place.

Defining moments

1980 Born in Cairo
2007 Gains MBA in marketing and finance from the American University in Cairo
2008 Begins working at Google
2010 Promoted to head of marketing. Sets up Facebook fan page for Mohamed ElBaradei
2011 Returns to Egypt to join the revolution. Is detained by security agents
2011 Establishes tech NGO in Egypt
2012 Publishes his book, Revolution 2.0 (Harper Press, £14.99)

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State