Just before I arrived in Cairo, Ghonim had spent an afternoon visiting a poor neighborhood whose local community-watch organization, having been formed during the revolution to protect property from damage, wanted his help to lobby the government—for better trash collection and access to the city’s gas lines. Ghonim has been getting these requests with some frequency, and they encourage him. “Ownership,” he says. “A good sign of a changing Egypt.” The most subtly arresting images from the revolution came after Mubarak had been deposed and the crowds had dissipated, when small groups of citizens—two, five, ten people—had emerged on the streets, brooms in hand, and begun to clean up, as if to prove that the revolution had restored a sense of agency. “The revolution was not an event,” Ghonim says. “It is a process.”
To be optimistic about Egypt right now is to have faith that the very fact of participation matters, in some tectonic way—each time a person votes in a legitimate election, each time he encounters photographs of the martyrs rather than busts of the dictator. “The DNA of the revolution was that there was no one who said, ‘Go back down the streets now’ or ‘Go back to your homes now,’” Ghonim says. For a while, he had believed categorically that this is what had given the revolution its power. Now he is more circumspect. “The lack of leadership in the revolution, we’ll see whether that was the best thing for the revolution or the worst thing. History will judge.”
That morning, I had been with Ghonim when he went to vote for the first time in his life, at age 31, at a primary school near his mother’s home in Mohandeseen. His 23-year-old brother, Hazem, was with him, and so was an uncle, and he wore a light coat and carried an iPad. The entrance to the school was on a quiet, curving side street that police had blocked off from cars as a precaution against violence. That seemed a very distant worry. Overhead, there was the strained, echoing, tin-can-telephone call to noon prayer. There was nothing like the eruptive, valedictory joy from the first elections in places like Afghanistan or Iraq; when the men in front of Ghonim finished voting, they mostly looked at their watches and hurried off, eager to get back to work. Ghonim was in the line for three hours. “Democracy is slow,” I texted him, from a few feet away. “;-) slow but steady,” he texted back. I had been warned that he would be swamped by well-wishers, by people wanting to have their photos taken with him, but aside from a couple of handshakes, he was left alone. After some time, Ghonim pulled out his iPad and hunched over it, shuffling anonymously in line, toward the polling station and out of view.