As the year 2010 drew to a close, the unprecedented happened: mass anti-government protests began in Tunisia – soon lighting the spark for a series of revolts in countries across the Middle East and North Africa, notable among them Egypt.
On January 25, 2011, marches, demonstrations and civil resistance began in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and continued for 18 days until Hosni Mubarak – who had been in power for 30 years – finally succumbed to mass pressure and stepped down.
Almost 10 years since the Arab Spring began, the wave of protests that toppled veteran leaders across the region has led to a more complicated political reality than the first demonstrators anticipated. From Libya to a still continuing war in Syria, there have been countless losses. But in the early days of Egypt’s revolution, the period between January 25 and February 11 still stands as a testament to the power of common people.
As the country says its final goodbye to Mubarak, who died in Cairo on February 25, at the age of 91, Egyptians who protested in 2011 reflect on his rule and the protests that led to his political demise.
‘You could feel the anger when Mubarak insisted on remaining in power’
It was January 25 on the streets of Cairo. You could see the protest getting bigger and bigger. We did not know where the protest began and where it ended. It was not planned – it just kept growing. We’d walk, and people on the streets would join in. Others would call out, “ya ahaleena endamo leena!” (our families, come join us). People looked at us – some hesitantly – then they would get up, leave the coffee shop, and join us.
It was the biggest protest I had ever been to in my life, the chants shook the ground. You could hear the protesters at the front with different chants to the ones behind you, yet they did not interfere with each other.
Then, suddenly, we looked up and all we saw were rocks, glass bottles, filled plastic bottles, raining down on us. Thugs began attacking the protesters with sticks and swords, and people started to disperse.
Everyone retreated, but one man suddenly ran all the way to the front. People tried to hold him back, but he ran up to the thugs while holding an Egyptian flag and raised it to the thug’s face. The thug raised his baton (to strike the flag) and at that moment, you saw everyone go crazy. We all charged forward.
A lot of the people we were close to were killed, exiled, imprisoned. The only positive thing that happened during the revolution was Tahrir. Everything that came after that was mistake after mistake.
Tahrir remains the purest moment of my life – the sense of security, unity, bond, brotherhood, sisterhood, the way people helped each other regardless of faith or politics. Everyone was on the same page for once, nothing else mattered. We all wanted Egypt to be its best, we knew the potential was there. We saw that potential on January 29 – the night that police forces completely disappeared from the streets, yet the city never felt safer.
Tahrir resembles a perfect moment in Egyptian history that showed all the good Egypt has to offer.
Systems were put in place by common people to keep their neighbourhoods safe; I had to pass 20-30 “checkpoints” to get home. People took it upon themselves, someone from the first committee would walk you to the second search point. They used secret code words to communicate with each other and confirm they had come from the first checkpoint, they verified where you lived before giving you access – the framework was so elaborate and secure, yet astonishingly, organic.
Tahrir resembles a perfect moment in Egyptian history that showed all the good Egypt has to offer. In Tahrir, people picked you up, pushed you out of the way when tear gas was fired, handed you rocks, motivated you – you couldn’t possibly feel alone.
You could feel the anger in the square on February 10, when Mubarak gave his speech and insisted on remaining in power. At that moment, everyone’s response was the same – they held up their shoe.
The announcement of his resignation came the next day while people were in the middle of prayer, and you could just hear the shouting, the screaming – people even broke out of prayer. The military had sent a mass text message to our phones, and Tahrir just exploded. The celebrations were electric. I had been queueing with my sister to use the toilet when the announcement came, and when it happened we all broke out in celebration. I did not use the toilet again until the next day.
I remember waking up the next day, and half the people had already packed, others were packing to leave. Every time I go back to that moment, I hate myself for leaving. I yell at myself to stay.
I go through different phases of love and hate for Egypt. I love Egypt so much. The moment the coup happened, every beautiful thing about Egypt was countered by something terrible that made you hate it equally. Yet, deep down, no matter how much you hate it when you are exposed to the dark and ugly face, you have already been exposed to its beauty – to the purity you saw in Tahrir. I keep reminding myself of that – of how there is no way that could not have been genuine – and if it was there then, we can get it back. The million-dollar question that remains is “how”.
‘Mubarak died without being held accountable’
I was always active in the student scene and the civil one, but I strongly believed that for January 25, we should not go down as individuals. We needed to come together, so a group of active youth leaders got together and planned how the day would go.
We publicly announced certain gathering points, while the actual gathering point was in one of the low-income areas in Giza. We knew security officers would surround those areas, so we planned accordingly; the actual meeting point was only spread by word-of-mouth to trusted individuals. Of course, we also had to plan for some strong-hearted volunteers to turn up at the formally announced gathering point, in case there were people who were first-time protesters and heeded the January 25 calls.
We were about 400 youths who walked around the neighbourhood shouting, “come out, we’re going to get your rights”. We left Nahya – the actual gathering point – with 15,000 people.
I was standing by the bridge, looking at the sheer magnitude of people. We had said before that 5,000 protesters would have been a historic moment, but suddenly there was a sea of people. People were hugging each other, falling to their knees in gratitude. We soon got word that the other protest – people who had gathered at the formally announced point – were joining us. It was indescribable.
We started walking towards Tahrir Square, making sure that we took the busiest, most crowded streets – and as we walked, people kept coming and joining. We entered Tahrir with more than 50,000 people.
It was a historic day. Call it Intifada, call it a revolution, call it whatever you want, but that day was truly revolutionary and will go down in the history books.
I knew things had changed. This was the revolution. Mubarak was over. It is a reality that no one can take away from us. We brought down a regime.
There was an officer who had interrogated me before. He suddenly crossed paths with me, and I will never forget the moment when I was able to order him to get out of the way. He warned me that this will not pass, but I retorted that their days were over. People in the square started demanding, “the people want the fall of the regime”. It was no longer us setting plans, the people had set their demands.
When police tried to empty Tahrir Square and fired endless rounds of tear gas, people simply split into hundreds of protests. Forces tried to fire into the streets to clear the protesters, but the only thing they did was send gas into people’s homes, forcing them out on to the streets to join us.
When I saw other people simply sidestep the tear gas canisters thrown at them, or bend and throw it back at the officers and continue marching forward, that was the moment I knew – the barrier of fear was well and truly broken, and I knew things had changed. This was the revolution. Mubarak was over.
It is a reality that no one can take away from us. We brought down a regime.
I was on stage when Mubarak was giving his speech, and I noticed two men had taken off their shoes. Everyone was expecting him to resign – and when he did not, I lifted my shoe up on stage and everyone took their shoe and held it up. I made a statement then – I do not know if I should have – I called on the Egyptian army to make a decision: either to side with the people, or the police. At that moment, I believed this message needed to be delivered to the army. They needed to make a choice.
I felt everything at that moment. Mubarak was gone, we were victorious. It was a dream. We used to chant in 2004, “tomorrow the revolution will remove you all”. I had been protesting for years and years. We used to chant it while laughing, not really knowing if it would ever happen. And then it happened. We did it.
But at the same time, at that moment, I remembered every single person that fell. Everyone that was killed. It was bittersweet – this was the moment people had died for, and this was their right. In a way, it felt like their lives had not gone in vain, we had continued the fight.
The only sadness I feel now is that Mubarak died without being held accountable for the hell he put people through. The horrors that people have lived through in the past seven years have made some forget Mubarak’s 30 years of atrocities, but the unprecedented crackdowns in Egypt today are only possible because of what Mubarak created.
Can you imagine where Egypt could have been in 30 years, and where he left it instead – with arrests, torture, killings, a state of emergency, poverty, poor education and crumbling infrastructure?
‘My birthday became the day Mubarakism died’
Growing up under Mubarak, it was very much ‘keep your head down’. We did not criticise too loudly, and kept our opinions to ourselves. This feeling was amplified only after my brother was arrested and imprisoned when security forces scanned university campuses for active students. He was never charged, but imprisoned under precautionary measures under the emergency law Mubarak imposed – a law which remained in place for the next 30 years with Mubarak.
My brother’s wife was pregnant when he was arrested – and he stayed in prison for 16 long years, seeing his family only during visitation.
The experience definitely made us a family very cautious, and after leaving to live in the United States, I began to see freedom of speech as something that exists outside Egypt. The status quo when I was visiting Egypt was to stay quiet, to not criticise; outside, I could talk again.
I clearly remember the night before the revolution. We were all gathered around a TV, anxiously watching, wondering if anyone would heed the protest calls, if people would actually take to the streets.
When they did, there was a sense of bewilderment, shock, excitement and nervousness all at the same time. I remember I kept repeating “they did it, they did it” – the people had actually rejected oppression, they had actually gone out, despite the stronghold, despite everything, they did it.
Before, February 11 was my birthday. From that moment on, it became the day Mubarakism died ... It was the day fear broke.
It was then that the thought crossed my mind, that we could actually, potentially, one day be free as Egyptians.
My birthday was coming up (February 11) and my husband and children kept asking me what we were going to do to celebrate.
Reports of the deaths of protesters in Cairo were filtering through, and I could not possibly imagine doing anything for my birthday. I kept telling them that I could not celebrate, that the only true celebration was when Egypt was free. Then it happened.
Before, February 11 was my birthday. From that moment on, however, it became the day Mubarakism died. I turned to my family and said, “now I can celebrate”.
It was the day fear broke, the day the barrier of fear was broken down. That was the phrase that stayed on our lips as we repeated it: “The fear has broken.” There was no more fear.
Now every year on my birthday, I do not think of my birthday. It is a day where I remember and believe that freedom can exist in Egypt one day.
‘When Mubarak resigned, the only thing I could think about were the people that were killed’
I was walking with a friend on the night of January 24, when a police officer stopped me and asked if we were going to a meeting. I told him, “No, we were returning from one.” He asked me if something was happening tomorrow, and I responded: “I hope so.”
The police officer replied, “Nothing will happen, the regime is strong.” He was an officer who recognised us, one who was always around during protests. He said, “good luck to us all tomorrow” and I joked back, asking “are you one of the good ones that will have a good position when we change the regime”.
The movement did not start in 2011. We had been talking about it, protesting, for years. The only difference was in 2011 we wanted to do something different, something bigger. Different groups came together to put forward what they wanted – but nobody had any expectation of anything happening.
No one dared to dream, yet at the same time, there was a feeling that something big could potentially happen. I told my employer two days before that I was not able to come in to work during that period, and we took the necessary and usual precautions, leaving our houses the night before, staying with someone else in case security forces tried to prevent us from mobilising.
No one dared to dream, yet at the same time, there was a feeling that something big could potentially happen.
I was in a cafe on the morning of January 25 when a group of boys and girls entered excitedly. It was as though they were going on a school trip – they had pens, posters, and were getting ready to join the protests. I quickly left the cafe. The entire group was arrested.
So many times I have wished that I could draw, just to capture the scene of the protesters from Nahya, swelling towards us, joining together to become bigger than we thought we could be. Up until the moment of gathering, I expected it to be like any other protest we had organised, maybe a little bigger – 5,000 would be a victory. But it was a scene I will never forget, like the earth itself was pushing out more and more people. It was like a dream coming true.
Before, we used to go down and protest in tens, get arrested, beaten up. That day, it was like people were rising from the earth, they just kept coming, the protest kept swelling. We started crying, hugging each other, shouting “we’ve won, we’ve won”, there was a sense of victory in the air, based just on the number of people. While, at the same time, there was complete shock and uncertainty about what we were victorious over.
The best moment during that time was seeing police officers retreating and stripping in the streets on January 28, discarding their uniforms in a hurry, knowing that the balance of power had shifted, it was no longer with them, it now belonged to the people.
But the hardest thing was the responsibility. We took people to the streets. We were used to protests, we were used to being roughed up, arrested, attacked by thugs, but what about the people that we convinced to come and protest with us? There were ugly moments, like when security forces opened fire during a funeral. People started dying. They came out for a funeral, and they were killed.
When Mubarak finally resigned on February 11, the only thing I could think about were all the people that had been killed.
During the 2011 protests, it was the first time I made peace with the idea of dying. Suddenly, there was something so much bigger. All you can see is the brutality of the system – police, bullets, tear gas – but they all melt, and you have a goal. Your life finally has a meaning. You think to yourself clearly, “I could die.” And suddenly, it does not matter.
In front of your eyes flash all the moments of injustice: the beatings, the torture, the humiliation, the anger, the pain, the prison. Your entire existence rebels against you. You do not think of consequences then; you have chains and, suddenly, your only objective is to break those shackles free.
*Last names have been omitted for security reasons
Editor’s note: These accounts have been edited for clarity.