I amIn the middle of where it all began, Mansour Mohamed ran a tarpaulin stall on the lonely green lawn between miles of concrete and asphalt. For 10 days, he was eating and sleeping with strangers linked together with growing anger and revolt everywhere. Huge crowds gathered and rushed – their demands for change chanted in a call echoed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. He said, “I will never forget this voice.” “It was the strongest sound I have ever heard. It was louder than 10 jumbo jets. It was a release of six decades of fear.”
A decade later, the starting point of the Egyptian revolution – an essential part of the uprisings that came to be known as the Arab Spring – has become an entirely different place, as it is in the country. A piece of grass was poured over it and a new obelisk was placed on it, pointing to the sky in a powerful reminder of the times of unshakable certainty. Traffic is moving quietly around a roundabout now devoid of protesters or defiance attempts. Secret police stationed nearby, not in secret. There is little talk of the revolution, and attempts to stir up the ghosts of Tahrir Square meet with the heavy hand of the revived military state that has established itself in the wake of the revolution.
It started completely differently for Moaz Abdul Karim. On January 25, 2011, he and a group of young Egyptians gathered in apartments on the other side of the Nile and made their way to the pastry shop, where they prepared to change history.
The site was out of reach of police trucks and off the grid for security leaders who were scanning the city for the saboteurs of the uprising in Tunisia that forced dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile weeks earlier.
The narrow lanes in the neighborhood gave them time to organize and build numbers before riot police stormed them. They have jumped on those who are going after them in another – more important – way: by rallying supporters on social media platforms, which would soon shatter the illusion that President Hosni Mubarak’s forces were too strong to confront them.
Early that morning, the group gathered at Al-Hayes Pastries and proceeded with their plan. “Meeting at the bakery was just one step of the plan,” said Abdul Karim, who now lives in exile in Europe. “There were many different groups [to co-ordinate with] The mission of our group was to stay in the bakery at Mustafa Mahmoud Square. We watched the police to see if they would attack the protesters.
We were thinking, if we can succeed, we will have a better Egypt, and if we fail, we will die or spend our whole lives in prison. In my life, Mubarak was alone the president, so I always dreamed of seeing another president from another family.
Our mission was to get all of the protesters together so that the police could not control them. If there are only a few protesters, the police can simply arrest them and this will fail. Soon there were about 2,000 people and the police could not control the situation. At that moment I realized that we had succeeded, because I had seen people of all kinds; Different economic levels, rich and poor, old and young, all stand with one voice. “
By that time, calls on social media for crowds to gather in districts of Cairo and gather in public places had created an unstoppable momentum. “Social media was the most important tool in the revolution,” Abdul Karim said. “People can easily communicate and express themselves without any supervision.” The dissidents have overshadowed Mubarak’s police state with their smart accounts and Facebook.
By January 28, Tahrir – or Tahrir Square – had become the melting pot of relentless demands for a new Egypt. Within two weeks, the seeds of Mubarak’s demise had been laid. The then US president, Barack Obama, withdrew Washington’s longstanding support for the Egyptian leader, who ruled for 30 years and supported Egypt’s revolutionaries. Obama said: “The Egyptians have made clear that nothing short of true democracy will survive.”
Then came the challenge to the Egyptian army, which stood with the revolutionaries as their demands escalated. Obama said, “The military has served patriotically and responsibly as a patron of the state.” A credible transition in the eyes of the Egyptian people will now have to be guaranteed.
Salwa Gamal, a supporter of the revolution that was forced to flee Egypt in 2014, said, “He didn’t know it at the time, but his words were like a shrine. From that moment on, the army was planning to take power.”
Nancy Aqil, an Egyptian activist and researcher, said that Mubarak’s resignation day, February 11, revealed that the coming months would be nothing but a smooth transition to democracy. “It was the worst moment for me,” she said. I saw the tanks and knew the army was in control. I saw people hand out military flowers, clean streets, and wipe graffiti. It was the beginning of erasing the effects of the revolution.
“Throughout all that, people used to say no, not the army on our side. But we knew them and we knew how to manage things.”
In 2012, democratic elections were held and Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, a member of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, took office. Soon he issued pronouncements to give himself more power, and discontent with his government quickly grew.
Less than a year later, Morsi was ousted in a coup led by then-defense minister, Major General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who dissolved parliament and outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood. A crackdown on dissent began, and continues to this day, and Sisi was elected president in two election sessions.
Since then, the new Egyptian leader has attempted to wipe out all remnants of the revolution, using crushing repression to crush calls for change. Civil society has been wiped out in Egypt, and artists, thinkers, journalists, and academics have been forced into silence or exile – or imprisonment. Political opposition has also been obstructed or polarized, and international condemnation has long been silenced. In early December, French President Emmanuel Macron presented el-Sisi with the Legion of Honor, France’s highest civilian honor, surpassing the human rights record described by global NGOs as diabolical.
Sisi’s claims that he helped stem immigration to Europe and acted as a bulwark against security threats had tacit support, and his routine suppression of dissent and expression led to minimal consequences and impunity. Human Rights Watch said there were 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt in 2019.
Despite the repression, Khaled Mansour, former executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said many of those who supported the revolution would do so again. “It was definitely a turning point,” he said, “But we’re not always heading in a comfortable position, or in a good direction.”
He added, “The only thing they have that allows them to remain in power is power. Social cohesion, being the economic savior, terrorism, national security threats; all enable these agencies to say” We are the last stronghold “and postpone any talk of change.
“What we need is not a united Egypt, but a place where different factions can talk to each other and engage in political dialogue without existential fears overshadowing matters. Can we recover? It will take a long period of self-criticism and reflection, and this is very difficult now.”
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