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The Lonely Battle of Wael Ghonim


But to other observers, the lesson was more severe. The military “undertakes repression now because it assumes it has majority support,” says Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egypt scholar at the Century Foundation. It was after the violent protests in November that the counterprotest began in Abassiya Square. It may well be that in a country of 83 million people, the revolution never had the support of the majority. It certainly doesn’t now. “Let me say it bluntly,” says Salama, Ghonim’s friend. “A lot of people hate the revolution.” Some hard-core revolutionary activists believe that liberals like Ghonim abandoned the square too hastily, and that this has made it harder to sustain a movement against military abuses. “When Mubarak left, Wael Ghonim tweeted, saying, ‘Mission accomplished,’ ” says an influential leftist blogger and activist named Hossam el-­Hamalawy. “Complete bullshit, in my point of view. There were people like myself who thought, Ha! We haven’t really changed anything with Mubarak stepping down.”

Ghonim is still on leave from Google, and when he is in Egypt, which is about half the time, he stays at his mother’s house. He and some of his close friends recently announced that they had formed an advocacy group, Our Egypt, to try to reframe the revolution’s public-relations campaign. But most of his political work has been less formal: trying to negotiate between protesters and the government when things get tense, visiting with neighborhood groups who want his help. When we sat down to lunch one day last month in an upstairs restaurant in Mohandeseen, Ghonim pulled out his iPad and showed me a photo; he and some other activists had gotten all seven presidential candidates into a room to try to persuade them to push the military for concessions. But the effort failed.

He started to scroll through the Khaled Said Facebook page. It has 1.8 million members now, and here Ghonim is trying to keep a revolution of the crowds, directed by the crowds, alive. Often a post will have attracted thousands of comments, but he will scroll diligently through them all. When he is thinking about a new stand to take on the page, a new direction to suggest, he will call up leftists, Salafists, friends, focus-grouping the idea, trying to discern where consensus lies. Ghonim is disdainful of liberals who are trying to rush the country along—one recent campaign that earned his disdain was in support of a 20-year-old blogger who had posted stylized nude photos of herself, a red ribbon in her hair, to make a case for free expression. “You have to respect the boundaries of the culture,” Ghonim says. “The page sort of needs to be a honey pot for everyone.”

Neither Ghonim nor the page took any position on the parliamentary elections. An endorsement might have helped shift “30 or 40 seats,” maybe 10 percent of the Parliament, he conceded, but it would have alienated too many of the page’s members. Ghonim has an absolute commitment to the crowd. “Maybe I’m in a denial,” he says. “I just think that if this is the decision that people make, that they want the Muslim Brotherhood to run the country, then this is the decision that we all have to respect. This is the people’s choice. This is democracy.” Sometimes the conservatism of his membership surprises even Ghonim. In December, the military commanders who run the country appointed an ex–prime minister named Kamal Ganzouri to be prime minister again, and Ghonim assumed that his audience would hate the choice, given the clear old-regime retrenchment. But he took a poll; 55 percent of his readers were in favor of Ganzouri.

“Ghonim is probably more in touch with Egypt than the activists, but it’s also possible that [his audience is] wrong,” says Hanna. “What you see in Egypt now is a thirst for stability. People are okay with crushing dissent, with military trials, with putting down the rabble. Looking to majority support in a country with that much illiteracy and state propaganda—there is a conservatism there.”

The Internet isn’t just a ham radio. It’s also a mirror: It gives a movement self-knowledge, and self-knowledge in a revolution is a complicated gift. We are accustomed to the idea of the unbendable revolutionary, wedded to his radical vision. Ghonim is a different model: a revolutionary who follows his followers. At the most important moments, Ghonim’s supporters supplied a bracing moral clarity, the conviction that the regime could not stand. But now, when the politics are more complicated, the crowd can reflect exhaustion, even moral deference. Perhaps there was something to be said for the ministers of the old regime; perhaps the Islamists would bring stability. Revolutionaries could once be willingly ignorant of what the people wanted. A revolution of the crowd does not have the same freedom. Sometimes the crowd imposes brakes.


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