Five influential Egyptian protesters look back on a tumultuous year.
- By Sarah A. TopolSarah A. Topol is a Cairo-based journalist. Follow her on Twitter: @satopol.
On Jan. 25, 2011, Egypt erupted into the now iconic uprising that raged for 18 days. The protests were the culmination of decades of frustration with the country’s authoritarian regime, its stranglehold over political freedom, and growing economic inequality. The thousands, and ultimately millions, of bodies occupying downtown Cairo and city squares around the country represented every segment of society, uniting around the demand to topple the regime.
On Feb. 11, 2011, Egyptians made history: Hosni Mubarak stepped down as Egypt’s president, handing authority to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. As Cairo’s Tahrir Square emptied, however, divides emerged within the protest movement over the timing of elections, when Egypt should draft a new constitution, and whether continued street protests were necessary.
On the first anniversary of the uprising, five influential participants reflect on the last year, Egypt’s future — and how revolution is a lot more complicated than they thought.
In the run-up to the Jan. 25, 2011, protests, Gigi Ibrahim — like everyone else in Cairo’s activist community — was walking on eggshells, expecting the worst from Hosni Mubarak’s famously repressive security forces. The motley crew that made up Cairo’s opposition movement was making its first attempt at simultaneous, coordinated protests throughout the country, and she had no idea whether it would succeed.
On Jan. 25, Ibrahim began protesting in the Cairo neighborhood of Shubra and arrived in Tahrir Square around 4 p.m. — when tear gas and street clashes already ruled the day. Over her upper-middle-class family’s objections, Ibrahim became one of the revolutionary firebrands to regularly appear on Western media — even making an appearance on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.
Ibrahim remains active in citizen journalism and is a grassroots coordinator for the Revolutionary Socialists, where she works with labor groups to hike the country’s minimum wage — a cause she sees as vital to the revolution’s continued success. “For the movement to grow is do or die,” she says. “If we’re not able, as Revolutionary Socialists, to mobilize and organize labor and bring them into the revolution, if we’re not able to expand our revolutionary ideas, not just we will be crushed — the revolution will be crushed.”
Ibrahim and the Revolutionary Socialists boycotted Egypt’s latest parliamentary elections, arguing that the elected assembly has no real power. They will be out in full force this Jan. 25 to renew their call to strip away the vestiges of the Mubarak-era political system.
Egypt’s political climate has transformed radically from last year, Ibrahim notes. The tight-knit activist community has split into larger politicized groups, but the main demands of the revolution remain the same.
“When you look at the list of demands and see what we achieved and what we didn’t, of course we didn’t achieve anything other than toppling Mubarak,” she tells me. “But what we were able to achieve [is] to break that fear barrier, to put Mubarak in a cage.”
Zyad Elelaimy was a member of the 17-person “Revolutionary Youth Coalition” that organized the Jan. 25, 2011, protests, holding secret meetings and coordinating over social networking sites like Facebook to set the time and location of the small marches that would culminate in Tahrir Square.
Now, the 31-year-old lawyer is one of the youngest of the 498 elected representatives in Egypt’s new parliament — and he has already proved his determination to shake up the established order. On Jan. 23, during the chamber’s opening session, Elelaimy threw proceedings into disarray by demanding to pledge an oath of loyalty to the Egyptian revolution, rather than to the state and constitution. He was sworn in wearing a yellow sash that read: “No to Military Trials.”
Elelaimy’s path to parliament was far from inevitable. Believing the new body would be a sham without a new constitution, many liberal activists called for a boycott. While Elelaimy agreed with his compatriots that the revolution was incomplete, he couldn’t justify leaving parliament to supporters of the status quo. He ran as a liberal standard-bearer in the district of South Cairo. One of his campaign platforms was the irrelevance of the same chamber that he sought to join.
It was an uphill battle. Elelaimy appeared to be on the wrong side of the secular-religious divide that defined much of the election, which saw Islamist parties win two-thirds of the vote. “The Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood were trying to say we are Christians, we are godless. They gave papers to the people and told them Zyad used to drink and all these kind of things,” he remembers. “It was hard for me to tell people, ‘I have a program. You have to look at my program; don’t look at me.'”
After his first week of campaigning, deadly clashes broke out in November between protesters and security services near the Interior Ministry. Civilians once against faced off with security services, and scores were killed. Elelaimy suspended his campaign in protest and joined the activists in Tahrir Square. He still won.
Elelaimy plans to work inside the parliament to advance the demands of the revolution: lifting the country’s draconian emergency law, abolishing military trials for civilians, and ending the rule of the military caretaker government. He also remains a member of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, which is trying to mobilize masses of people on the Jan. 25 anniversary.
He’s not convinced, however, that they will be able to pull it off. “Last year, I thought we would be in jail in the first 10 minutes. I can’t expect anything. You work for something, but you can’t tell the result,” he says. As for the final revolution: “We’ll start it on the 25th. I don’t know when we’ll end it.”
Mohammed Abbas, then a member of the Muslim Brotherhood Youth, remembers being shocked by the sheer number of bodies in Tahrir Square on the afternoon of Jan. 25, 2011 — estimated at 50,000. Abbas helped mobilize his group’s members despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s official ban on joining the early protests, and he fell to his knees to “thank God” for the turnout, he says.
These days, things have changed. Abbas is no longer in the Brotherhood Youth, nor is he impressed with just 50,000 people in the street. In June, influential members of the Brotherhood Youth broke with the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, over what they saw as a lack of internal democracy within the 84-year-old Islamist group. Thirty ex-Brotherhood Youth members founded the Egyptian Current Party, which works to mobilize youth in support of a civil state that protects individual civil liberties and embraces Islamic values, but does not enforce Islamic law.
The Brotherhood leadership promptly launched an investigation and booted the participating members. Abbas received the call that he had been kicked out when he was at a leadership conference in Malaysia.
Abbas ran for parliament as a member of the Current Party in Banha, the capital of the Qalyubiyah governorate, north of Cairo. His party was trounced, however — contesting 10 seats but winning none. Despite losing, Abbas remains hopeful. “I think our party will be a leader in a few years,” he says.
Although Abbas understands the importance of street mobilization and will be out again this year, he’s unconvinced continued protests will bring about much-needed systemic changes. “It’s also time to be realistic and pragmatic. The majority of us took part in the elections because we realized how important it was and how important the parliament is to achieve the demands of the revolution and to remove the power of the military rulers,” he says.
While the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces have decided to commemorate the anniversary of the revolution, Abbas is skeptical that there is much to celebrate. “We only achieved a step or two from our demands. We are still under military rule which applies emergency law, detains activists, and applies military trial for civilians,” he says. “I think anyone who intends to go and celebrate on Jan. 25 needs to go and reconsider this choice because we still have a long way to go.”
Like Abbas, Ali Khafagy was a Muslim Brotherhood Youth member who went down to Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, against the official position of the Islamist organization. “After hearing the chants for toppling Mubarak and the people demand the toppling of the regime, I knew it was a revolution that was going to achieve what it wanted,” the 29-year-old activist says.
While Abbas split with the Brotherhood, however, Khafagy rose through the ranks over the past year to become one of the rising stars of the organization’s youth wing. He joined its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), as a deputy youth organizer in Cairo’s sister city of Giza.
While liberals and leftists kept up a steady drumbeat of protests in Tahrir Square, Brotherhood members like Khafagy once again proved the edict that “all politics is local” — campaigning in their electoral districts for the parliamentary elections, in which the FJP took 47 percent of the seats.
Like many of the young activists in the movement, though, Khafagy has misgivings about the slow reform process in the Brotherhood. His main goal is to work within the group to separate the political party from the social movement. “Honestly, up until now there has been no separation between the FJP [and the Brotherhood]; it’s just cosmetic,” Khafagy says. “All the activities or responsibilities must be coordinated between the guidance office [of the Muslim Brotherhood] and the elected parliamentarians.”
Khafagy echoes the Brotherhood’s stance that this Jan. 25 is a celebration — not the beginning of a second revolution. “We will celebrate accomplishments, such as the parliamentary elections, dissolving the [deposed President Hosni Mubarak’s] National Democratic Party (NDP), and toppling many of the corrupt figures.”
Khafagy thinks that a three-day sit-in at Tahrir Square, between Jan. 25 and Jan. 27, should be enough. After that, he argues, it’s time for Egypt to get back to the political process set down by the country’s military rulers. “We think it’s important to be patient with the road map that’s been planned for now,” he says.
One of Egypt’s most subversive and prominent bloggers looks back on Jan. 25, 2011, as the culmination of years of frustrated political activism against the Mubarak regime — and a moment to “play with the police.” When the irreverent 30-year-old writer known to his readers as “Sandmonkey” found access to Tahrir Square blocked, he chartered a small speedboat to bring himself and a few friends across the Nile. When Mubarak stepped down 17 days later, Salem and his friends celebrated with two bottles of champagne and two boxes of beer in front of Starbucks.
As the revolution moved haltingly forward during the following months, Salem decided to run for parliament in the middle-class neighborhood of Heliopolis. “I looked at the people who were supposedly running [as representatives of] the revolution, and I wanted to kill myself. I decided someone must run that actually wants to go in there and do something different, not be an idiot,” he says in his trademark caustic style.
Salem, a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston, ran as a representative of the secular Free Egyptians Party founded by prominent Christian businessman Naguib Sawiris. Salem says his intention was to stand as a bulwark against the growing power of Islamists, especially on issues of freedom of speech, including pornographic websites. He soon found, however, that activists’ favorite hobbyhorses — judicial reform, civilian oversight of the military, and police reform — were divorced from the concerns of the Egyptian street. He finished in third place, winning 16,000 votes.
Salem wanted to see exactly how the system worked and found himself critiquing the mindset of his revolutionary clique. “Your biggest problem as a revolutionary is your access to information,” he explains. “Revolution becomes a subculture; you don’t hang out with people who disagree with you after a while. You speak of the people, in the name of the people, without actually knowing the people.”
Salem blames the Islamist parties and the military caretaker government for preventing the progress of the revolution, and he gleefully predicts they will perish from their inability to halt the economy’s downward spiral. “The people who stunted the revolution in order to maintain the status quo will reap what they sowed,” he insists.
Salem will once again take to the streets on Jan. 25, 2012, as the coordinator of the Free Egyptians Youth Party. He is also working on opening two art centers for teaching graffiti artists to cultivate revolutionary culture, and he is in negotiations for his own television talk show aimed at the country’s youth.
“Revolution is more than just an uprising. It’s changing the way people act and behave,” he says. “Change the values and you change the system. Top-down reform never actually works.”