The revolution did not fail

Ten years ago, the Egyptians overthrew ruler Hosni Mubarak. Although this did not bring them more freedom, they did gain something. An essay by Andrea Backhaus

Essay by Andrea Backhaus

There is a scene in the movie The Square that aptly portrays the state of affairs in Egypt today. The activist Ahmed Hassan is seen walking through the streets of Cairo, telling in a voiceover of life under the dictatorship. It is an undignified and unjust life, with no hope of a better future. He describes oppression under a ruthless regime and dictator. "The regime," Hassan says, "has always worked against the people, tormenting them, torturing them with electric shocks, beating them with extreme brutality."

Oppression by a police state is part of everyday life in Egypt today under the dictator Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. But Hassan is not speaking of the situation today – the film is ten years old. Rather, he is recounting exactly what many Egyptians found they could no longer bear back in January 2011 – and what drove them to revolt.

The documentary The Square, released in 2013, portrays the events of the Egyptian revolution from the point of view of the activists, among them Ahmed Hassan. The film documents an era when people from Tunis to Sanaa rose up against their oppressors. It is an ode to Cairo's Tahrir Square, which has become a powerful symbol. A symbol of the courage of those who peacefully fought for a better Egypt and paid a high price for their boldness. Hassan remembers in the film being overwhelmed when he went out onto the street: "Everyone felt what I felt."

We see tens of thousands of women and men pouring into the square, shouting: "The people want an end to corruption!" Police officers break up the crowd, shooting at the protesters. Civilians fall to the ground or are pulled by their companions out of the line of fire.

Watching these scenes today, it is easy to get the feeling that there is no escape in Egypt from the cycle of oppression, rebellion, crackdown and more oppression. And yet, these images also attest to what is possible.

Talking to Egyptians about those days of turmoil in early 2011, which began on 25 January and culminated on 11 February with the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, many recall above all the feeling of being united as one people fighting together for "bread, freedom and social justice". And they remember how, at least for a brief moment, all social and political divides were overcome.

Back then, the demonstrators who set up tents and stages in Tahrir Square included women with and without headscarves, men wearing traditional garb and others in business suits or work clothes. They all ate and sang protest songs together. When Vice President Omar Suleiman announced Mubarak's resignation on 11 February 2011, they cried and yelled, united in their relief, shot fireworks into the evening sky and waved the Egyptian flag.

They thought they had succeeded. But they were mistaken.


Attitudes toward the military divide society

After Mubarak stepped down, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took control. At first, the army posed as protector of the demonstrators, but that quickly changed. Instead of transferring power to a civilian government without delay as promised, the military gained more and more influence and postponed parliamentary and presidential elections. Revolutionaries who continued to take to the streets campaigning for more co-determination were beaten down with clubs. The soldiers tormented the female demonstrators with pointless virginity tests – ordered by Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, today president of the country.

In June 2012, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, won the presidential election. It was the first democratic election in Egypt, but it brought to power a president who would not govern democratically. He set out to elevate religion to state doctrine. Many mocked the inept autocrat, but others feared that society would regress.

Morsi's term in office was marked by a constant power struggle with the military, which secured ever-greater authority and finally staged a coup in the summer of 2013, unseating Morsi with the support of the populace. For many Egyptians, the army appeared to offer deliverance from the Islamists, while the future President Sisi took on the aura of a saviour. Sisi quickly made clear, however, just how he would deal with his enemies: persecute, arrest, destroy. His motto: whoever is not with me is against me.

In August 2013, police and security forces raided Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in Cairo. Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood had set up a tent camp there from which they protested for weeks against Morsi's ouster. In the end, more than 1,000 people were dead and thousands injured. According to Human Rights Watch, the Rabaa massacre was one of the most horrific mass executions of demonstrators in recent history.

The brutality of the military regime soon divided Egyptian society, with supporters and opponents irreconcilably opposed. The rift also ran through the very same group of the secular democracy movement that had been instrumental in launching the 2011 revolution. Many of the former Tahrir activists felt betrayed by one and all: by the military council, by Morsi, by the Salafists, who had first gone along with the demonstrators but then made pacts with the military, and finally by the military itself, which under Sisi became more influential than ever before.

The truth is that quite a few of the revolutionaries supported the military for a long time, even after its vicious actions against supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Some Egyptian intellectuals, leading figures of the revolution, were incited in part by their hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood, writer Alaa Al Aswany, for example. And many liberals did not realise how dangerous Sisi was until he began to crack down on them as well.

People like Alaa Al Aswany are today bitter opponents of Sisi. The democracy movement did not succeed in converting the protests into a political agenda, nor was it able to mobilise Egyptians who were not as cosmopolitan, well-educated and comparatively wealthy as its members. And yet those in the movement risked their lives so that they and their fellow citizens could live in dignity. Many are still doing so today.

Sisi's dictatorship

Starting in 2014, Sisi rigorously enforced his authoritarian rule. He expanded the security apparatus and state surveillance system and took action against anyone who dared to question him. Bloggers, journalists, human rights activists – many of them former revolutionaries – have been threatened, kidnapped and imprisoned.

And Sisi has also taken pains to re-write history: According to the official narrative, there was no revolution in 2011; the real revolution took place in 2013. This refers to the protests that accompanied Morsi's overthrow. Many democracy activists hence believe that the military may have planned everything from the start: Mubarak's fall, Morsi's seizure of power, the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood – the army's only serious rival – and finally the comeback of the generals.

It is difficult to say if there is any truth to this theory. What is clear, though, is that Sisi has exercised his power according to the principle of "Divide and rule!" He plays the various religious groups off against each other, for example by posing as protector of the Christians against Islamists to boost his image in the West. Anyone who criticises him is vilified as a terrorist and enemy of the state. In this way, Sisi has only managed to strengthen the real terrorists. Some of the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood adherents, for example, ended up joining terrorist groups such as the "Islamic State" (IS) after family members were executed with gunshots to the head. Instead of fighting real extremism, Sisi is using the so-called war on terror to crack down even harder on his own people.


Sisi has done even more damage to his country as well. Under his corrupt leadership, poverty and unemployment have spiralled. Like other oppressed peoples, Egyptians, too, are now trying to cross the Mediterranean in rickety boats in the direction of Europe because they no longer see any prospects for themselves in their own country. The media have been brought into line and the few independent journalists that remain live in constant danger. The courts act as minions of the regime.

Paranoia is all-pervasive

Until 2013, free spaces still existed in Egypt where female photographers, graffiti artists and theatre producers could draft social utopias. Today, leaden fear dominates the everyday lives of Egyptians. More than 60,000 people are languishing in Sisi's prisons for trivial reasons, such as mentioning the high unemployment rate in a Facebook post. Many are tortured, forced to sleep on icy floors without blankets, or die because guards deny them medical care.

Even those who survive detention cannot feel safe. This applies above all to the former revolutionary youth. For example, the photographer Mahmoud Abu Zeid, also known as Shawkan. He was arrested while documenting the savage police actions during the Rabaa massacre. Shawkan was released from prison in March 2019, but is required to report to a police station every night. Or there is the blogger Alaa Abd al-Fattah, an icon of the revolution, who enjoyed a brief spell of freedom in 2019 after five years in prison but was arrested again in September of that year. He has since been subject to torture in the high-security wing of the notorious Tora Prison in Cairo. Or take human rights lawyer Mahinur al-Masri from Alexandria, who has been in prison since September 2019. Many others have experienced the same fate.

Sisi has destroyed civil society. The few organisations that still document the crimes of the regime have to face intimidation. As recently as November 2020, three employees of the internationally respected Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) were arrested. International outrage led to their release, but a fourth employee, Patrick Zaki, is still in custody. In Egypt, no one knows when the next arrest will come. This paranoia has become part of everyday life.

The power of civil society

Two myths colour the Western perception of the Egyptian revolution: First, the myth that it failed. Second, the illusion that people were better off before 2011. Both assumptions are incorrect and even dangerous.


The revolution has not failed once and for all. A revolution does not happen overnight; it is a prolonged process. The fall of Mubarak may not have brought about the hoped-for freedom in Egypt, but it has shown people what is possible when they stand up together for their rights. Those who grew up after the revolution would do many things differently today than their parents did.

Both women and men in Egypt are for example fighting more resolutely than ever before to ensure that incidents of sexual assault are investigated and the offenders punished. Furthermore, many people in the region have had their fill of the corruption and self-enrichment of those in power and the poverty that results from it. This is evident from the protests that keep springing up in Cairo and Tunis, in Baghdad and Beirut, which are often more demanding and persistent than they were before 2011.

These demonstrators are challenging a tacit agreement that Arab despots have used for decades to legitimise their repression: We will supply bread and security, you will keep your mouths shut. Many protesters are not only demanding that the state see to their basic needs; they also want political change. Lebanon is one example, where many want to abolish the decades-old proportional representation system by which government posts are distributed not according to competence but by denomination, leading to extensive nepotism.

Nor were people in the region better off before the 2011 uprisings, at least not most of them. Rather, many Western politicians and diplomats simply accepted that Arab despots ruled with an iron hand, because at least this ensured stability. They tacitly condoned the crimes committed under Mubarak, Ben Ali, Gaddafi and Al-Assad, and they still do. Many Egyptians accuse the German and French governments of acting as accomplices to their country's regime. Despite the dictatorship, German companies still invest in Egypt – in fact, Sisi's regime is one of the German arms industry's best customers. French President Emmanuel Macron said during Sisi's visit to Paris in December 2020 that the poor human rights situation would not prevent France from continuing to supply arms to Egypt.

Many of the grievances that people in Middle Eastern and North African countries protested in 2011 are still prevalent today: poverty and hunger, lack of work and prospects, lack of co-determination. Only today, the belief has grown in wide sections of these societies that citizens can make a difference when their government fails at its duties. Against all odds, people from Tunisia to Yemen are now organising, for example, to advance women's rights, protect the work of journalists, or care for the poor and ill. Civil society is doing valuable work in this region – and it deserves support in its efforts.

In The Square, Ahmed Hassan says of the night Mubarak stepped down: "We took back our freedom." Today, it seems more unlikely than ever that this can happen again. And yet that's what people thought at the time as well.

Andrea Backhaus


Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor


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