On January 25, 2011, I went to Tahrir Square to join what I thought would be yet another small demonstration doomed to be crushed by overwhelming police force. The minute I stepped in, however, I realized that this time the situation was different.
For one thing, our numbers were huge. For another, the slogans were new. There was the same beat as familiar slogans, but now I heard strange, unrecognizable words. Soon, I figured out what people were shouting: “Al-shaab.” Stop. “Yurid.” Stop. “Isqat al-nizam.” Stop. “The people.” “Demand.” “The downfall of the regime.” Goosebumps spread all over my body. I then found myself joining tens of thousands of fellow citizens at the top of my voice.
For the following 18 days, I went to Tahrir nearly every day, returning home only to sleep and get provisions for my friends who preferred to camp in the square. Mubarak’s step-down was only a matter of time, we firmly believed. The regime is teetering on the brink of collapse. We are finally making our voice heard. We are shaping our country’s future. And soon a new slogan spread like wildfire throughout the huge square and was repeated by hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life: “Irfaa rasak fo’. Inta Masri.” “Lift up your head. You’re Egyptian.”
Four years later,* this confident, hopeful mood is no more. Instead of the open, democratic country that seemed, for a short while, to be ours at last, Egypt is now in the grip of a military dictatorship that has arrested our friends, imprisoned our comrades and quashed our dreams. Kangaroo trials have passed death sentences on hundreds of Islamists in court sessions that lasted less than an hour. And on August 14, 2013, security forces committed what Human Rights Watch described as one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators on a single day in recent history, a massacre in Rabea al-Adaweya Square in Cairo that was more lethal than Tiananmen Square and that probably amounts to a crime against humanity.
How did the 18 days in Tahrir that saw so many Egyptians embrace these lofty ideals lead to 12 hours in Rabea al-Adaweya that witnessed a massacre in which more than 1,000 people were killed? How did we start in such a hope-filled way in 2011 and end up with this bloody massacre in 2013? How did the Arab Spring morph into an Arab nightmare, out of which we seem not to be able to awaken?
I am a historian by training, so I’d like to offer a historical reading of the Arab Spring — particularly in Egypt, but generalizable to some extent, I think, to other countries of the Arab Spring. Thus I will not only reflect on the events of only the past four years, but will consider the revolution’s deeper historical roots.
One way to do so is by reflecting on a peculiar personal experience. Only a week after Mubarak stepped down, the head of the National Archives, together with the minister of culture, appointed me as chair of an official committee whose mandate was to document the momentous events the country had just witnessed. I assembled a team of archivists, historians and IT experts, and we set about laying down criteria for accomplishing the mammoth task ahead of us.
We soon found ourselves having to answer some difficult questions: “How do we go about collecting people’s testimonies?” and, even more problematic, “Given that we are effectively a government committee, can we guarantee that the testimonies do not end up falling in the hands of security agencies and used against the very people who had entrusted us with these potentially self-incriminating testimonies?”
However, there were even more difficult questions to deal with. Some of these were historical. When did the revolution end? Did it end with Mubarak’s step-down? With the constitutional amendments? With the parliamentary elections? With the presidential elections? And given that we are constantly attending funerals of friends and loved ones, running from one police station to another looking for our friends who have been arrested, and participating in demonstrations and sit-ins to demand the release of our comrades — given all this, did the revolution actually end, or is it still going?
Most difficult of all were questions not about when and how the revolution ended, if it ever did, but about when it began and where it originated. Was it launched on January 25, National Police Day, when we took to the streets to protest against the endemic use of torture in prisons and other places of detention? Or did it begin on January 14 when Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian president, fled his country to Saudi Arabia, inspiring people in Egypt to say, “If the Tunisians could do it, then maybe we can, too”? Or was its beginning on New Year’s Eve 2010, when Muslims and Copts took to the streets protesting against what they believed was their government’s complicity in the bombing of churches? Or a few months earlier, with the beating to death of the young Alexandrian activist Khaled Saeed, who later became the icon of the revolution? Did it start in 2008, when thousands took to the streets all over the country in solidarity with the striking workers in the industrial town of Mahalla? Or were its origins in 2004 with the birth of the Kefaya Movement, whose members were protesting week-in and week-out against Mubarak’s dictatorial rule? Did it start in March 2003, when we took to the streets protesting against the US bombing of Iraq and when we occupied Tahrir for a few hours? Or did it begin in March 2000, when the Israeli prime minister paid his ill-fated visit to Haram al-Sharif (Al-Aqsa Mosque Sanctuary) in Jerusalem, prompting thousands of Egyptian university students to spill out of their university gates and to demonstrate in solidarity with the Second Intifada?
My colleagues on the committee and I pondered these questions, and even more difficult ones. During the last of his long years in office, were we demonstrating against Mubarak for grooming his son to take over the presidency and effectively transform the republic into a monarchy? Were we demonstrating against the endemic use of torture by the Egyptian police? Were we demonstrating against the debased choice that Mubarak presented us with, whereby he was effectively telling us, “Either accept my torture chambers or Islamist rule”?
Or did our revolution have deeper roots still? Was it, rather, a revolution not only against Mubarak’s 30 black years, but against the July regime set down 60 years earlier in the wake of the July 25, 1952 revolution? That revolution offered us another debased choice: giving up our constitutional and political rights in exchange for social and economic rights. Were we rebelling to assert our entitlement to have both kinds of rights — constitutional and political, as well social and economic? When we took to the streets on January 25, 2011, and when we finally overwhelmed the police by our numbers, determination and tenacity on January 28, the Friday of Rage, were we doing what we, as an Egyptian people, should have done in the wake of the catastrophic defeat of June 6, 1967, when instead of asking President Gamal Abdel Nasser to step down and face trial, we actually begged him to rescind his resignation and stay on as uncontested leader of the nation?
Or was it possible that our revolution had even deeper roots? Were we protesting against the very nature of the modern Egyptian state — a state that was put in place by Mehmed Ali in 1805? When this Macedonian adventurer set about to change the status of Egypt from a mere province of the Ottoman Empire to a special realm that he and his sons could rule for a hundred years, he founded an army that would dominate all aspects of Egyptian life and change the nature of the country forever. Were we specifically rebelling against the state that was created as a result of founding this army, an army that enslaved peasants by dragging them against their wishes to serve dynastic interests that made no sense to them, to struggle for a cause in which they did not believe, and to die in wars that were not theirs?
Far from being a Facebook phenomenon, a foreign conspiracy or an insurrection staged by a handful of street urchins (as members of the current regime insist in their phantasmagorical delusions), our revolution has a long and venerable pedigree. We, the people, have been in a state of constant rebellion for the past 200 years, and January 25 is but the latest phase of our struggle to force the tyrannical state to serve us, instead of serving it.
Despite these deep problems, I remain confident that the future is ours and that our revolution will prevail. This may not happen next month, next year or even in next decade. Given how deep are the roots of, and reasons for, this revolution, it would be naive to expect its victory overnight with one decisive knockout blow. Nevertheless, and despite the recent gains by the counterrevolution, I am deeply convinced that the future is ours and that we are now witnessing the beginning of the end of this tyrannical state.
My optimism derives from two simple but profound facts. The first is that we, the people, have asserted our presence in our own country. We have a will, we have a voice and we have agency. We acted in history and affected radical change — never before in our long history that extends far back to the pharaohs did we manage to topple a leader from power. In the January revolution we did that, and we thus asserted our right and determination to shape our own destiny.
We have also pried open the black box of politics. Politics is no longer what government officials, security agents or army officers decide among themselves. It is also no longer what university students demonstrate about, what workers in their factories struggle about or young men in mosques whisper about. Politics is now the stuff of coffee shop gossip, of housewives’ chats, of metro conversations, even of pillow talk. People now see the political in the daily and the quotidian. The genie is out of the bottle and no amount of repression can force it back in.
*The above are selections from a book chapter by the author published in 2015 in Raja Shehadeh and Penny Johnson, eds., Shifting Sands: The Unraveling of the Old Order in the Middle East. London: Profile Books, 2015. ISBN: 9781781255223.