Even the most fervent supporters of the protests called for 25 January did not believe they could amount to much.
Newspaper editor Lina Attalah chose not to assign a reporter to cover the rallies in Cairo, assuming they would be cleared within minutes.
Human rights defender Mona Seif, who planned to attend one of the secret marches, voiced her doubts on her blog. Hossam Baghat, the founder of one of Egypt’s leading civil society organisations, laughed off a sudden decision by the authorities to permanently disconnect his mobile number and those of several rights lawyers, hours before it was all due to kick off.
True there had been feverish exchanges of knowledge between protesters in Cairo and Tunisia who had successfully toppled their president just 11 days earlier. They shared leaflets detailing home remedies for tear gas, and strategies such as handing roses to police officers to discourage violence.
However, in Bahgat’s words, it felt funny to announce a revolution via a Facebook invite. It seemed optimistic in a country largely anesthetised by the stifling 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
But on that crisp and cold afternoon 10 years ago today, Egypt snapped.
In Nahiya, west Cairo, where protesters had secretly spread the word about the location of their particular march, Seif described the moment converging rallies outstripped the police until “it felt as if [the security forces] were dissolving”.
Across town at the entrance to the now ionic Tahrir Square, Bahgat saw protesters calling their relatives to communicate the enormity of what was unfolding in front of them.
A few hundred meters away, on Qasr al-Aini street, Attalah was suddenly tackled to the ground and dragged by security forces who were viciously attacking protesters.
“They started stamping my face with their boots, they broke my glasses,” she recalls, reliving the transformative moment.
“But it felt like a metaphorical moment of changing sides. I felt something big was unfolding and I literally needed to see things differently. And then boom it happened.”
The spark of revolution that first flickered in Tunisia, set Egypt alight and would later spread like wildfire across the Middle East and North Africa, shattering the long-held illusion that the region’s cadre of despots could not be challenged and there could never be change.
If the Arab’s world’s most populous country could overthrow Hosni Mubarak – the emblem of Arab autocracy – there might just be a chance for the other nations. And so, Yemen’s uprising was already under way before Hosni Mubarak stepped down on 11 February and just days after his ouster protests erupted in Libya, Bahrain and Morocco while a month later the Syrian uprising would gather pace.
For a brief moment it felt like a region of dominos and that a new youth-led order would take hold, challenging the world.
“It seemed like it was a matter of months and then we would be able to win a country that is ours: a place where it is possible to actually plan a future and realise some of our dreams,” Seif says.
“Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to go back and try to remember 2011 in my current state because I fear I would superimpose the heaviness of now. It was an amazing and empowering year of my life, for my generation.“
Ten years on, that spark of hope and change has been largely snuffed out. The revolutions in Syria, Yemen and Libya have crumbled into complex civil wars, while Egypt has witnessed some of the most intense levels of oppression in its history.
The experiences of the activists, journalists and civil society leaders like Seif, Attalah and Bahgat at the heart of revolutions tell the difficult story of the so-called Arab Spring and the decade of shattered dreams that followed.
In Egypt, the hopes of young revolutionaries would be drowned out by a bitter battle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. It culminated in the country’s then army chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi seizing power from unpopular Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in a coup. In the years since, hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands imprisoned, including Seif’s own brother Alaa and sister Sanaa, who have been jailed multiple times over the years.
Bahgat is now subject to a five-year travel ban and asset freeze because of his journalism and human rights work.
Attalah’s independent news outlet was banned in Egypt in 2017, and in 2019 she herself was bundled into a police truck after a raid on the paper’s offices.
Egypt vehemently denies there is any crackdown on freedoms, or that there are any political prisoners.
But unsanctioned protests are forbidden, independent media such as Attalah’s website is barred and with many dissidents in exile, jail or dead, the state has started going after other groups that badmouth Egypt or break from assumed “traditional” norms. In recent months that has included TikTok stars and, in the pandemic, doctors.
“Any simple action, even taking on a legal process or voicing some general remark could land you in jail, or a security case, abducted and tortured,” Seif says.
As Bahgat puts it: "I don't think there is any doubt this is the worst moment of our modern history. We live in an era of darkness.”
The 18 days
By late January 2011, no one would know which way the uprising was going to go.
The sit-in on Tahrir was attacked numerous times, including at one point by armed thugs on camels, and later snipers.
When the internet was shut down and it became clear the members of the military had been involved in the violence, there was a real threat that the state would choose eradication over revolution or reform.
But the fear was drowned out by a kind of fury. And the air crackled with an infectious potential that caught in your throat and sparkled up your scalp.
And so, despite the uncertainty, Seif, Attalah and Bahgat all found their new roles in the “collective painting ” of change, as Seif describes it, against the backdrop of the square that blossomed into its own kind of ecosystem.
The central saniya, or the roundabout, was populated with tents and even a school for the children. Furious political debates were held at different street corners which Bahgat described as a cocktail reception for Egyptians to meet. Medics and pharmacists patrolled in their lab coats tending to the injured. Volunteers took turns to clean up or to form concentric circles around the hem of Tahrir to protect it from attacks.
Attalah and her team, decamped to the nearby InterContinental Hotel that had one of the last internet connections left in the city, turning a tiny hotel room into a 24-hour newsroom where they tried to make sense of the history unfolding around them.
Bahgat’s organisation, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), also documented the abuses including when the security forces raided the offices of prominent human rights law firms.
“I was losing my mind with happiness. It was unreserved elation
Seif and her family became the most prominent faces of the uprising and later Egypt’s most well-known human rights defenders. Together with her brother Alaa Abdel-Fatah, who returned from South Africa, Seif used social media to help build a hub of citizen journalists that documented every moment of the uprising.
Her sister Sanaa set up a student newspaper publishing stories from all of Egypt’s revolutionary squares. Her mother Laila Soueif, a professor and her father Ahmed Seif al-Islam, a veteran human rights lawyer, offered support and legal aid for revolutionaries all over the country.
With the world watching it felt like everything was racing toward a spectacular crescendo. And then on 11 February it reached the peak: Mubarak was forced to step down.
“I was losing my mind with happiness. It was unreserved elation,” says Bahgat, who together with Seif and Attalah, was on the square as it burst with joy and uncertainty.
But he says the biggest mistake was made a day later on 12 February.
“We woke up determined to work very hard knowing that our work was just now beginning. But we thought we were building a new Egypt. We didn’t realise we were still in the old Egypt.”
“The never-ending nightmare”
The police officers only looked bored when the crowd of youth began handing out leaflets calling for sedition to people driving around central Cairo.
It was 2013, and not uncommon to see activists from the Tamarod – or rebellion – movement openly collecting signatures for a petition calling on unpopular Islamist president Mohamed Morsi to step down in full view of the usually strict security forces.
Two years after the revolution, a furious push and pull between the largely secular revolutionaries and oppressive wings of state was quickly made irrelevant by a bigger struggle between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamist group and its shadowy leadership had defended Tahrir Square during the 18 days of revolt, but rose to power winning the parliamentary and presidential elections while violently crushing dissident movements along the way.
And so 2013 started with Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, trying to keep his grip on the country that was plagued by protests and problems. By the Spring, Tamarod was openly plotting his downfall in protests called on 30 June.
In press conferences, its leaders even began urging the military to intervene.
And so Seif, Bahgat and Attalah, who were critical of the Brotherhood, grew increasingly alarmed at the motives behind some of those encouraging revolution 2.0.
“It felt intuitively wrong,” Attalah says of that period.
“I felt that we were gearing up for a major political transformation that would change our lives… But there was something not right about relying on the military to fulfil the desire to see the Brotherhood go. “
The atmosphere felt odd. Both state and private media turned on the Brotherhood but also anyone who criticised the military. Eventually, the paper Attalah edited, an English language version of an Arabic daily, was closed down.
She began building Mada Masr, among Egypt’s few truly independent news outlets, which coincidentally launched on 30 June, the day of the mass rallies calling for Morsi to step down.
Bahgat decided to leave EIPR and transitioned into journalism himself, to fight what he called the growing war over narrative and on memory – an action that would see him subject to the watchful eye of the state.
For Seif, 2013 was the beginning of a nightmare which hasn’t ended: the relentless targeting of her family.
Her brother Alaa, who has been detained under every single modern-day Egyptian leader and president including Morsi, would be caught up in the string of detentions of protesters, who were jailed for demonstrating against a new law which banned non-state sanctioned rallies. This would later swallow up her younger sister Sanaa after she protested against the detention of Alaa, and the authorities would bar both siblings from being at the bedside of their father, who died in while they were behind bars.
In July 2013, the army removed Morsi after issuing him an ultimatum which he famously refused in a defiant speech where he shouted the word “legitimacy” dozens of times.
His supporters built several sit-ins that were finally and violently cleared on 14 August in what some rights groups claim is one of single largest killings of unarmed protesters in modern history.
Between 800 and 1,000 people were killed, and thousands more injured in just a few hours. The Egyptian authorities said the Brotherhood were armed and dangerous and relentlessly fired into the sit-in, before bulldozing the tents to the ground and setting them alight.
As journalists, Attalah said her team tried to make sense of the scope of the catastrophe around them, reporting while people dropped dead in the hours-long hail of gunfire.
But what made it worse, according to all three, were the people celebrating the violence from the sidelines. Even some pro-democracy revolutionaries who participated in the 25 January uprising supported the brutal way in which the security forces snuffed out the Islamists.
The country’s political life would get uglier. There were mass demonstrations in support of Field Marshal Sisi when he ascended to the presidency in 2014 after elections that international monitors said were not truly free and fair.
The space to criticise all sides was narrowing and becoming dangerous.
“People weren’t just silent but cheering on the military and going even further waging a war on us, human rights organisations and activists,” Bahgat recalls.
“That was the saddest and most painful moment, almost as painful as the mass death and misery itself.”
“It’s a matter of survival”
Handcuffed in a police truck, not knowing if she would be facing five or 15 years in jail, Attalah remembers thinking that day was “an incomplete trip to hell”.
Just a few hours earlier on afternoon in November 2019 the offices of Mada Masr had been raided and a group of them were arrested after being accused of publishing false news.
The journalists were only released after widespread international uproar but there were no guarantees it wouldn’t happen in the future.
Over the years as the revolutions in Libya, Syria and Yemen shuddered into war, Egypt’s military-backed government helmed by President Sisi widened its crackdown. It detained anyone for their links to the now banned Muslim Brotherhood, but also journalists unconnected to the group, human rights workers, anti-Brotherhood dissidents who had supported the coup and more recently members of the LGBT community for waving rainbow flags, Tik Tok stars for “indecency” and doctors for voicing their concerns with the country’s response to the pandemic.
But despite criticism of Egypt’s disastrous rights record, President Sisi’s standing internationally has grown as he positioned himself as the necessary bulwark against the rising chaos in the region and groups such as the Islamic State.
He shifted his focus to reimaging Egypt in a slew of controversial and expensive megaprojects, including building a second Suez Canal and a new megapolis capital in the desert that already houses the Middle East’s biggest church.
On a macro level there are some signs of economic improvement: according to Egypt’s main statistics body CAPMAS Egypt’s poverty rate last year decreased for the first time in two decades while unemployment levels are also gradually falling.
But in daily life, the inequalities are still painfully present, and the crackdown escalated.
For Bahgat, Attalah and Seif, oppression is the everyday reality.
State harassment of Bahgat, who published several investigative pieces about the military, culminated in a travel ban and assets freeze in 2016 on trumped up accusations he had illegally received foreign funding. He returned to directing EIPR in 2020 after three of its staffers, including the executive director were briefly rounded up last year on terrorism charges.
Attalah continues working under the constant fear Mada Masr might be raided again and its journalists jailed but she keeps going as “it is a gesture of hope”.
For Seif, by the time the coronavirus pandemic arrived at Egypt’s shores, her brother was behind bars again: he was arrested just six months after completing a full five-year sentence. And so, this time his family has the additional worry he might catch a life-threatening virus in a notoriously squalid jail.
After prison visits and communications were stopped amid the lockdown, the family held small protests demanding the right to receive a letter from Alaa about his health. These were met with violence and then Sanaa was re-arrested. The security forces even briefly held Attalah for trying to interview the family about the situation.
Ten years on from the heady days of the revolution, its core demands of bread, freedom and social justice have gone largely unanswered. The dreams of a new revolutionary Egypt have been lost in this nightmarish reality.
It is telling that state media in Egypt marked the decade anniversary of the uprising with coverage of officials celebrating what 25 January was before 2011: police day.
While all three believe that change is inevitable as the status quo is untenable right now , as Bahgat puts it, they can’t come up with a new idea to fight back.
And so it is this year, that Seif says she actually feels defeated. She has put her studies on hold because Alaa and Sanaa are behind bars, and instead spends her days shuttling between the two prisons with her mother. For the first time, the family, known as the veterans, even the lodestars, of Egypt's human rights movement, are considering leaving the country.
“Under Sisi I am incapable of imagining any future, I plan a week ahead or a month at a time, and it is built around the schedule of prison visits and court appearances,” she says, her voice worn to tears at the edges.
“Before it used to feel like a battle for a better future, for realising our dreams, for securing something for our kids. Now it just feels like a battle for survival.”