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The Lonely Battle of Wael Ghonim

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The language Ghonim prefers is Silicon Valley inflected, and consumerist; when he speaks about his role, he sometimes says that he “signaled” the crowd. Whenever Ghonim took a stand with his page or organized a demonstration, it was an amplification of an idea that had first been proposed by one of his readers, which Ghonim then made the subject of a poll: Majority ruled. Traditional protests had been held in front of government buildings with anti-regime signs. The Khaled Said protests took place along riverbanks, silent, the participants dressed in black. It was a theater of political self-expression, not anger. You did not have to have a political program in mind, or be willing to risk jail, or even to think of yourself as an activist in order to participate.

Identity operates in fragments, particularly online. What Ghonim understood is that if the circumstances were right, if the ethical appeal were precisely calibrated, a movement could capture a piece of everyone’s self-image, and it could have a far broader reach. There were many Egyptian revolutions, not all of which moved in coordination. But this was Ghonim’s: the mothers with strollers who, for a while, assumed the identity of revolutionaries and stepped out into the square. And who then, almost as quickly, shed it and moved away.

Tahrir Square is so enormous and so busy that if you approach it walking east, having crossed the Nile on the Qasr al Nil Bridge, it takes you a few minutes just to find the political demonstration at all. Tahrir Square is not just the symbolic center of the revolution but also a main transportation hub for a metropolis of 16 million ­people—it is the National Mall, but it is also Times Square. Today much of it is consumed by a massive construction site, which turns out, improbably, to contain a future Cairo Ritz-Carlton. Between the tidal energies of the daily commute and the ugly presence of the hotel’s massive construction pit, the initial impression is not of a protest that has changed the country forever but of something that has been submerged in the churn of everyday life.

Most days, the political activity is confined to the plaza’s southwestern corner, and on the December mornings I visited, it was occupied by just a couple of hundred people, mostly hunkered quietly down into tents, some of which bore the slogans of small, fragmentary revolutionary parties. These are the revolution’s most hard-core devotees, who are still here, almost a year after the crowds have left. It is a precarious existence: Last Tuesday night, when this remnant rallied to protest the ongoing military trials, they were beset by a group of thugs who beat them with baseball bats, fired live ammunition, and occupied their tents, which were later burned.

Near the encampment hang imposing, two-story-high banners, each displaying idolizing photographs of the martyrs, the young men who died fighting the regime’s security forces in Tahrir Square. For a while, in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, the faces of the martyrs were everywhere—you could buy revolutionary soap and revolutionary shaving cream. But even these early heroes are less celebrated now. “I was just communicating with one guy who lost both of his eyes—he used to work, and he no longer works,” Ghonim told me. “He got a lot of attention from people at the beginning. And then everyone leaves, and he’s still got no job.”

About twenty minutes away from the square, if you get lucky and traffic is moving, is the prosperous neighborhood of Mohandeseen, on the opposite bank of the Nile in the city of Giza. This is where Ghonim grew up, and when he walks through the streets, he is stopped frequently by worried men who grab his hand. The question he gets most often is the most basic one: What does he think will happen next? But there are also questions about the Muslim Brother­hood, the military. “People just want someone to tell them ‘Things are okay,’ ” Ghonim says. “ ‘There are others working on it. Don’t worry.’ ”

This has become increasingly difficult to do. Throughout the summer and fall, the protests had been steadily dwindling. But in November, a few days before the first round of parliamentary elections, the square had exploded. Protesters lobbed Molotov cocktails at the police, and for three days the demonstrations mounted. The state’s response was bold. The riot police swept through the square, long lines of cops holding plastic shields, behind them men firing tear gas and, occasionally, live ammunition from on top of armored Toyota trucks. “The fact that people died is very annoying to me; it just shows how incompetent those who lead us are,” Ghonim told me. “And it also shows that on the other side”—the revolutionary side—“we failed to create the leadership for this moment. At the end of the day, the revolution was against a school of thought, a mentality. And this mentality is still ruling the country one way or another.”


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