After Egypt, A Palestinian Techie Takes to the Streets

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Eduardo Castaldo for TIME

Like most Palestinian children, Mohammad Khatib was raised to avoid politics, widely understood as a shortcut to an early grave or an Israeli prison.  Khatib took the advice and bent to his studies. But on Feb. 2 he noticed that a friend had updated her Facebook status to say she was going to demonstrate in solidarity with Egyptians in Ramallah’s central square.  He remembers thinking: If she’s going…

“Mostly, I’m not Akind of an activist,” says Khatib, 23. “Mostly, I’m not political.” But the part of him that is will hark to a certain appeal, and hearing it from Cairo, one more bright young Arab found himself edging from private concerns into public life.

“I think I’m a guy who’s more attracted to principles than to ideology,” he says. “I’m Muslim but I’m not like the extremists. I don’t believe in patriotism. I’m more about humanity, because it doesn’t matter if you’re Palestinian, Egyptian, you’re human. You have rights.”

So he went to the demonstration, and tucked a friend’s Blackberry into the top of his pocket to make a video record of Palestinian Authority riot police dragging away peaceful protesters, and fooled the policeman who wanted him to delete it.  He live-Tweeted to make another record of what was happening.

Khatib looks like he ought to be the vanguard of the change roiling the Arab world: Bright, pony-tailed,  up to his eyeballs in the digital world. But in fact he is on the cusp, unsure that he would go to another demonstration, and his ambivalence says a great deal about both the potential and perhaps the limits of the uprisings driven by the new generation.  What was important to Khatib about the Ramallah demonstration,  it turns out, was what it was not:  Something organized by a party, or other established organization that wants you for its own purposes.  He doesn’t like organizations. What he trusts is other people, as he encounters them through social networks digital and otherwise.

“After Egypt, it’s just people sending stuff out and coming together, which is one of the things that’s getting me involved,” he says. “If people want to get something done, I’ll actually support.”

He has a webmaster job waiting in Mountain View, Calif., with Google. During the year it takes the visa to come through, he co-founded a business called Bazinga, a floor on a building in the newer northern section of Ramallah where for a $54 a month, young Palestinians can come to work on their ideas. “We’re a start-up catalyst,” he says, then gets a cell phone, taps on an icon of an Egyptian flag.  The “Demo Egypt” app, developed right in this room, plays crowd chants from Cairo. One goes: “We are the Google. We are the Twitter. We are the generation of the computer.”

He has a brother with Microsoft in Dubai, a sister who makes architectural drawings. Their father works construction.

“As a student he was a militant,” Khatib says. “I think I remember, when I was really little, the celebration when he got out of prison.”