On January 14, 2011, the Arab world watched in amazement as longtime Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in the wake of mass opposition protests. For the first time in modern history, an Arab ruler had been toppled by his own people, and people across the Middle East began to believe in their power to shape their destinies. As one blogger wrote, “Let the Tunisian people show the example for the Arab world – no more dictators!”
In Egypt, anger over a stagnant economy, widespread corruption, government neglect, foreign policy, and political repression had been intensifying over Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year presidency. Many Egyptians were suffering from unemployment, inflation and skyrocketing food prices, and a low standard of living; indeed, over 40 percent of the population was scraping by on less than $2 a day. Meanwhile, after years of election rigging, the regime surpassed itself in fraud and voter intimidation as the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) unabashedly stole a sweeping “victory” in the November 2010 parliamentary elections.
At the same time, bloggers were using the internet to document human rights violations and publicize incidents of police brutality. In June 2010, when a young Egyptian named Khaled Said was beaten to death by police in Alexandria, activists spread images of his battered face across the internet and founded a Facebook page called “We Are All Khaled Said,” which quickly became a major hub for mobilizing support and spreading the news. Opposition groups such as Kefaya and the April 6 Youth Movement also organized protests and developed online networks through Facebook, blogs, and Twitter. Finally, in the wake of the Tunisian uprising, young Egyptians decided to seize the opportunity to push for a democratic breakthrough.
On January 20, some 30 leaders from these groups, including Kefaya, the April 6 youth, and other left-wing groups, met in Cairo to organize a mass demonstration against the regime. In close coordination with the protest organizers, the “We Are All Khaled Said” group spread the call to protest on the national holiday of Police Day, January 25. “Our mass protest on the 25th will be the beginning of the end, the end of all the silence and submission…and the beginning of a new page,” the group auspiciously proclaimed. “We’ll reclaim all our rights and refuse to be silent after this day.”
As planned, thousands of protesters converged on Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, declaring that “they [would] not leave until their demands [were] met.” Although riot police dispersed the protests that night, Tahrir Square would go on to become a symbol of the revolution, a central gathering place for the thousands of Egyptians who came out day and night for weeks demanding change.
“The people want the downfall of the regime” was the main chant of the protesters, as President Mubarak’s departure became their first demand. They also demanded an end to the official “state of emergency” that had given the regime a legal pretext for its repression for decades. Another goal was the dissolution of both houses of Parliament and the formation of a new transitional government, followed by free and fair elections for a new parliament, whose representatives would in turn amend the Constitution to allow for substantial electoral reform. Finally, Egyptians demanded justice for all the victims of the regime, via judicial proceedings against corrupt officials and police officers.
In order to achieve these goals, the protesters laid out a series of objectives, which included seizing control of major government buildings, bringing the police and army over to their side, and protecting their fellow demonstrators. They used the days after the January 25 protests to prepare for a “Day of Anger” on January 28 meant to express “the frustration all Egyptians felt towards…corruption, tough living standards and injustice.” Activists circulated a manual on “How to Protest Intelligently” with planned marching routes and coordination tactics, lists of clothes to wear and tools to use for protection from tear gas, and engagement strategies for attracting people to join the protests. Protesters threw off the police by announcing that protesters would gather at certain locations, then congregating elsewhere, at neighborhood mosques and churches. In this manner, they amassed huge numbers that were able to overwhelm police stations and NDP buildings across the country.
Meanwhile, police were withdrawn, jails were opened, and criminals flooded out, while looters began a wave of theft and destruction. Many speculated that the regime had organized this chaos as justification for a crackdown and a show of how bleak Egypt’s future would be without Mubarak. In the absence of the police, the army was sent out, and crowds welcomed them, cheering, “The army and the people are one hand” and calling, “We are your brothers!” While soldiers and protesters on the streets hugged and shook hands, military leaders were reluctant to abandon Mubarak after decades of support to the regime. However, as the protesters grew in number and momentum, the military recognized that Mubarak’s days were numbered and shifted its support accordingly, thus helping to topple the regime.
The revolution that brought down Mubarak was launched by young, tech-savvy Egyptians in youth groups such as April 6, Kefaya, left-wing groups like the Revolutionary Socialists, supporters of Mohamed ElBaradei’s candidacy for president, and opposition parties such as Al-Wafd, Al-Ghad, Al-Karama, and the Democratic Front. The movement also received support from famous figures such as the novelists Alaa Al-Aswany and Ahdaf Soueif, the actors Amr Waked and Khaled Abol Naga, the feminist Nawal El Saadawi, and the mother of Khaled Said. Although the youth wing of the Muslim Brotherhood also joined in, the group’s leaders officially opposed the protests at first, only throwing in their support days later. While the Brotherhood ultimately assisted in bringing out protesters and providing them with supplies, they were not a leading part of the movement’s coalition. Despite the involvement of a variety of civic groups and actors, the revolution lacked a single identifiable leader. The decentralized nature of the movement appealed to many young Egyptians who distrusted authority after years of repression. It gave citizens a chance to take ownership of their neighborhoods, as they formed their own popular committees to protect their homes and shops: “We want to show the world that we can take care of our country, and we are doing it without the government or police.”
Ultimately, it was Google executive Wael Ghonim who became a symbolic leader of the revolution. As one of the founders of the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook group, he had already played a role in the organization of the protests. After the “Day of Anger” on January 28, he was imprisoned for 12 days; immediately after his release, he recorded an emotional interview on live TV in which he declared, “We are all young people who have done this because we love Egypt…I am not a hero. The heroes are the ones who took to the streets, who joined the demonstrations, who sacrificed their lives.” At the same time, Ghonim maintained that he was merely one out of many: “I say that our revolution is like Wikipedia…Everyone is contributing content.”
While the Mubarak regime historically allowed a certain margin of freedom to the press and democracy activists, it was notorious for stifling coverage of such topics as Mubarak’s health, the military, and the planned succession of Mubarak’s son Gamal as president. The regime also cracked down during elections, as plainclothes police and paid thugs (baltageya) would attack, arrest, and in some cases even torture nonviolent protesters. Mubarak’s government intensified this approach from January 25 onward, as police used excessive force, from tear gas and water cannons to rubber bullets and live ammunition, against largely peaceful demonstrators. Meanwhile, the Battaglia launched carefully coordinated attacks against protesters, using clubs, rocks, knives, and firebombs; in the infamous “Battle of the Camel” on February 2, they even charged their targets in Tahrir Square on horses and camels. Ultimately, at least 840 Egyptians were killed, with around 6,500 injured. Thousands of activists and demonstrators were also detained and tortured, not only by state security but also by the army.
In an unprecedented step, the regime also shut down Internet access and mobile phone networks across Egypt on January 26 in an effort to hinder the organization of protests and the exchange of news. The government cut off nearly all internet traffic through international portals, limiting access to a tiny number of domestic e-mail servers and websites; it also prevailed on internet service providers and mobile networks to shut down service. In reaction, protesters simply shifted their communication to in-person efforts, distributing the printed “How to Protest Intelligently” manual and congregating at the homes of neighborhood leaders.
At the same time, the regime waged war on its opponents through the media, casting its opponents as spies and troublemakers paid by foreign powers to destroy Egypt, part of an improbable alliance between Israel, Iran, Hamas, and the United States. Frantic callers on state-controlled TV stations claimed that Tahrir Square had been overrun by English-speaking foreigners and armed Islamists. “They have killed us with police bullets, they have sent thugs against us, and now they have launched a propaganda campaign against us,” said a protester. “And still millions come.”
While the January 25 protest was initially led by tech-savvy, upper-middle-class youth, the movement swiftly grew to encompass all sectors of Egyptian society. Activists strove to spread the message that “We have rights…and we will gain our rights by demanding them.” They were determined to reclaim Egypt from the Mubarak regime: “This country is our country,” declared Wael Ghonim, “and everyone has a right to this country. You have a voice in this country.” Indeed, Ghonim’s TV interview played a significant role in outreach; not only did it reinvigorate protesters, it also reached a new audience and won over viewers who had previously felt ambivalent about the movement.
While the Internet, especially Facebook, was a cornerstone of activists’ outreach efforts, they also sprayed graffiti, distributed posters and flyers announcing the January 25 protests, spread the word among friends and family, and even sent teams to ride taxi cabs, where they would discuss the protests on their phones, knowing the driver was listening and would pass on the information to other riders. During the five-day Internet shutdown, activists placed an even greater emphasis on in-person outreach, distributing their protest manual in person and warning against putting it online.
Rather than focusing on upscale neighborhoods, protest organizers launched their marches from poor areas, where they divided into two teams, one focusing on one-on-one outreach in cafes, and another that went down streets calling out to people in their apartments to convince them to join the protests. Rather than discuss democracy, they used economic issues to rally support, chanting slogans like, “They eat pigeon and chicken, and we eat beans all the time.” Starting from alleys, the protesters gathered supporters and momentum, progressing to main streets as their numbers grew. “Everyone used to say there is no hope, that no one will turn up on the street, that the people are passive,” said Asmaa Mahfouz. “But the barrier of fear was broken!”
Egypt’s uprising quickly attracted enormous, sustained international media coverage; in the United States, it became the lead international story of the previous four years and accounted for 56% of all news stories in the first week of February. In an effort to stifle this international coverage, police and Battaglia targeted foreign journalists, physically assaulting and detaining American reporters and attacking Al Jazeera’s headquarters.
Still, international media outlets aired inspiring images of the masses at Tahrir Square, and Twitter disseminated continual updates from protesters in Egypt, bolstering international solidarity for Egyptians. European internet service providers freed up Internet lines for Egyptians to use free of charge; an American graduate student used landline phones to collect updates from his friends in Egypt and post them on his Twitter account; and Google launched its Speak2Tweet initiative, allowing Egyptians to call a phone number and leave a message that would automatically be posted to Twitter.
Ultimately, millions of Egyptians united to demand the end of Mubarak’s regime. As Ahmed Maher said, “When I looked around me and I saw all these unfamiliar faces in the protests, and they were more brave than us – I knew that this was it for the regime.” Meanwhile, insulated from reality by his son Gamal and other top aides, Mubarak clung to the belief that he could remain in office by offering feeble concessions: sacking his cabinet, appointing a vice president, and offering not to run for president again. But the military had been growing more impatient with Mubarak’s failure to end the turmoil; expecting his imminent resignation on February 10, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued a statement recognizing the legitimacy of protesters’ demands. Mubarak had intended to resign that evening, but under his son’s influence, he made a last effort to cling to power, refusing to resign. Protesters were infuriated, and the military’s patience was now exhausted; on the next day, Mubarak stepped down at last.
As celebrations broke out across Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took power. It chose a new prime minister, assembled a council to amend the constitution with provisions for fairer elections, then held a referendum on the amendments in March. Eager to move forward towards greater stability, the majority of Egyptians voted yes, clearing the way for parliamentary elections that September, then the writing of a new constitution and presidential elections. Mubarak himself faced trial on charges of corruption and murder of protesters.
Despite the turmoil and uncertainty of the post-Mubarak era, the youth behind the revolution continue their work to create a new, democratic political culture in Egypt. As Ahmed Maher put it, "[The] real change that we speak about...is changing the regime, and changing the rules of the political game. It is changing the mentality and culture…Our dream of democracy is not easy. It takes many years."
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