Friday, February 11, 2011

United Fruit 2.0: Google's Egyptian Pusch

The Wall Street Journal takes a look at the extracurricular activities of Egyptian Google executive Wael Ghonim, who appears to have played an active role in the social media aspects of the Egyptian unrest and became a "martyr" (without actually dying) after spending 10 days in detention. Needless to say, most American multi-nationals frown on this sort of thing

As the world marveled this week at the remarkable story of Wael Ghonim, the Google manager who helped organize a popular rebellion in Egypt, a great sigh of relief could be heard rising from much of the rest of American business:

"I'm glad," came the exhale, "the guy doesn't work for us."

Who wasn't amazed at the power Mr. Ghonim wielded against the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak? An Internet geek and Google's Mideast regional marketing executive, Mr. Ghonim helped administer a group of Web pages that served as a rallying point for activists long before crowds gathered in Tahrir Square. He was detained by the police, made a martyr in the streets, and then released. A popular hero was born.

A lot of U.S. companies, which now manage millions of employees abroad, watched with trepidation. Many of them now earn more abroad than they do in America. And much of that income comes from the sale of big-ticket items—power systems, infrastructure equipment, aircraft, telecommunications—that only governments can afford to buy.

Companies may not want to be lapdogs to dictators. But they also don't want to tick off their chief customer. It's a balancing act, one that inevitably leads to a policy of corporate discretion: Best to stay off the radar screen.

We can all anticipate the riposte that Google is "not like" other multi-nationals, which is certainly true. For one thing, Google doesn't need to commit to building hundreds of millions of dollars worth infrastructure, like say Exxon or Verizon, that could be seized at any moment should the government turn into a people's republic. Also, Google is "not evil." Still, the hidden hand of US corporate interests in the affairs of the Third World is a favorite bogeyman for western leftists, whether you're talking about United Fruit, Exxon, Coca-Cola, or the Koch Brothers. I don't remember hearing about how any of these supposed sinister operators had executives who took an active role in toppling a foreign government.

We've heard a lot about Ghonim, and seen televised images of him speaking to the crowd. He seems like a familiar figure: the highly educated transnational technocrat. I don't know what his politics are per se, but I am willing to bet that he is not a Thatcher-type looking to enable to birth of a free market "nation of shopkeepers." Indeed, I would guess he could parlay the last couple weeks into a lifetime invite to the Davos Forum and other meetings of the world's progressive elite. Does anyone have any idea what his program is? Who he is working with? What he thinks of Islamists? What about his feelings about the Muslim Brotherhood? No one seems to know, and no one in a position to find out seems at all curious.

I don't mean to cast aspersions on Ghonim. Most western would-be revolutionaries are all bandanna/no barricades, but when the time came to take it to the streets, Ghonim was ready to bring it. There is an undeniable romance to the handsome street revolutionary, yelling his slogans and battling les policiers. But romance has killed more revolutionaries than it has saved.

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