Time's List of the 100 "most influential people in the world" came out last week. I only noticed it today because I came across a news item about Egyptian Internet activist Wael Ghonim taking a sabbatical from his job at Google to, according to his Twitter account, "start a technology focused NGO to help fight poverty & foster education in Egypt."
Mr. Ghonim was the little known Google marketing executive who, with friends, started the "We are all Khaled Said" Facebook page to commemorate the murder of a middle-class Egyptian man by the police. That site evolved into the online rallying point for the Egyptian revolution. He was arrested in the early days of the Egyptian uprising and upon his release gave an emotional television interview that briefly made him the revolution's media star.
Since, he's returned to his job at Google and been active on the Internet. With the future of Egypt now in the hands of the political activists, military officers, and politicians jockeying for power and influence, he's largely receded into the background -- something confirmed by his decision to start what appears to be an apolitical, mom and apple pie kind of charitable organization, rather than engage with the rough and tumble of Egyptian politics.
Yet there he is as one of the 100 most influential people on a planet with 6.7 billion residents. And he's the only Egyptian on the list, implying he's currently the most "influential" person in his homeland. More influential than Field Marshall Mohammed Tantawi, the man currently in charge of the military junta running Egypt and who, a recent Pew poll found, has a 90 percent favorable rating among the Egyptian people? More influential than Mohamed Badei, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, which, despite some internal problems of its own, remains one of the best organized political forces in Egyptian society and is likely to make a strong showing in the next parliamentary election?
None of this is to criticize or diminish the role Ghonim played as a galvanizing figure in the Egyptian revolution, or any good work he may accomplish in the future. But he wasn't so much influential as a symbol of a moment. He was one of a number of figures involved with the Khaled Said Facebook page, and a key impetus for Egypt's revolution was Tunisia's uprising.
Activists who'd spent a decade on the ground trying and failing to organize mass protests like the ones that eventually toppled Mubarak brought needed experience and mettle to the organization around Tahrir Square. And Egyptian conditions themselves -- with an aging Hosni Mubarak maneuvering to have his son Gamal installed as his successor, at a time when wages had been stagnant or falling for years -- infuriated millions out of their acquiescence to his rule. Absent Ghonim, it's quite likely the revolution would have largely unfolded exactly as it did. Going forward, he looks set to be a footnote in the political battles that will shape Egypt's future.
If the list had been named "100 people who played a major role in events of the past year," I wouldn't be writing this post. But Time's definition of "influential" is heavily skewed towards recent events. Here's a few more examples that seem, well, a little questionable.
1. Ai Weiwei. Ai, an artist and activist for freedom of expression, is one of three Chinese citizens on the list (the other two are a blogger and a journalist). He's been a crusader against corruption and abuse of power in his homeland for some years, and is certainly the symbol of an increasingly loud but apparently minority movement against the Chinese political system. An important, provocative figure, with a noble goal. But the most influential man in China, which is poised to become the largest economy in the world in the next decade? President Hu Jintao is the leader of more than 1 billion Chinese and head of the Communist Party in what is, after all, a one-party state. Chinese Central Bank Governor Zhou Xiaochuan commands $3 trillion in foreign reserves and helps to set interest rates not just in his own country, but in the US, based on his willingness to participate in debt auctions.
2. Reed Hastings. Mr. Hastings is an American who founded Netflix and has grown very rich renting movies through the mail. Netflix has branched out into distributing content over the Internet, and his subscriber model has proven wildly successful, with more than 20 million American customers. How this translates into "influence," however, is not quite clear. Wealth? He's not one of the 400 richest Americans, as ranked by Forbes. Innovation? Perhaps. He's a distributor of other people's content.
3. Sting. The 60-year-old musician. Formerly of The Police. Seriously. Sting. He's on the list.