My Arab Spring: Egypt’s silent protest
Five years after the uprising, the solution to Egypt’s political impasse may not be radical or revolutionary.
In June 2010, Khaled Said, a young Egyptian citizen of Alexandria, was beaten to death by plain-clothes police officers outside a local internet cafe. At the time, the Ministry of Interior said that he died of asphyxiation caused by swallowing a bag of narcotics, but a picture of Said’s battered face began circulating online. A Facebook page entitled We Are All Khaled Said attracted hundreds of thousands of followers and has been viewed as a catalyst for the 2011 revolution, as it increased awareness of police brutality under former President Hosni Mubarak’s rule. On the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian uprising, Abdel Rahman Mansour, one of two administrators of the page, spoke to Al Jazeera about a key moment in the revolution.
Contrary to the dominant perception, the decisive moment in the Egyptian revolution, in my view, predates January 25, the day mass protests took over Tahrir Square. Khaled Said’s murder at the hands of the police left many of us young men and women consumed by anger and frustration in the days that followed. We spent countless hours thinking about ways to channel this anger, and the idea of a Facebook page that sheds light on all cases of police brutality and torture was born out of those discussions.
In June, we set up the page, and in August 2010, we decided to call for silent protests across the country against police torture. We wanted it to be silent so as to not provoke the police and invite them to arrest us. At the time, I was a student of mass communications at Mansoura University.
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We were so worried that people might not respond to our calls and that people might not show up in good numbers. To our surprise, there was an overwhelming turnout, and we were encouraged by such a response to call for another silent protest. Thousands of young men and women showed up in Cairo, Mansoura and many other places across the country. This was the first time I realised that there was simmering discontent that was not being expressed politically, and that this discontent was increasing, particularly among the young men and women who were not politicised but were part of a larger rights movement.
At the time, there were other voices of opposition against the Mubarak regime, like the Muslim Brotherhood, Kefaya and the April 6 Youth Movement, but our Facebook page stood out because nobody knew who was behind it.
We chose to remain anonymous so as to not get arrested, which could have caused our nascent protest movement to be aborted prematurely – but also because we did not want to be associated with any political party or movement. So we opted out of the media attention.
These silent protests turned out to be a rehearsal to January 25.
On January 17, 2011, we posted an event on Facebook calling for protests for “a revolution against poverty, torture and injustice”. We wanted primarily to mobilise people against police torture, and this is why we marked it for January 25, which was National Police Day.
In retrospect, the revolution did not happen in a vacuum; it existed in the people’s collective psyche for a long time. There were manifestations of the revolution in the bread uprising of January 1977, and it was also reflected in the labour strikes, such as in the Mahalla textile factory in 2008, and in 2003, when protesters occupied Tahrir Square to protest against the US invasion of Iraq.
Personally, I have always believed that a revolution was bound to happen in Egypt, regardless of what shape or form it was going to take.
What made the revolution a success and what made it work were those invisible citizens whose names we do not even know.
I was raised in a politicised family. My parents were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and I was also a member of the movement until 2007, when I decided to leave. I was 18 at the time, and I decided to defect in protest against the movement’s first political platform. This notion that women and Copts were not, in the Muslim Brotherhood platform, eligible to run for presidential elections was not acceptable by a number of young men in the group, including myself. We met with Mohamed Morsi to discuss the issue, but he insisted that this was the movement’s political stand, so we decided to defect.
At the beginning, people were asking “Why Khaled Said?” since he was not the first victim of police torture. The simple answer to this question is that Khaled Said resembled many young men, and they can easily relate to him. Young men felt that what happened to Khaled could happen to them, so we insisted on focusing on Khaled Said. We used to get solidarity letters from many people. One woman sent us an image of her yet-to-be-born baby and said she would call him Khaled Said.
These ordinary people are what I call the invisible actors. Nobody believed that there were at least 200,000 Egyptian young men and women who could join or work with the human rights movement. Nobody knew they existed. Those “invisible actors” were the result of the political conditions the country experienced.
They were the core of the protest movement, and we managed to embrace them and represent their interests. At the time, of course, we were not conscious of that fact, but in retrospect, what made the revolution a success and what made it work were those invisible citizens whose names we do not even know.
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I think there are radical differences between 2010 and 2015, despite the widespread police brutality and oppression. I think the collective psyche of the Egyptian people is waiting for a moment, an opportunity, because you cannot achieve success twice with the same tools, and I think this is a good sign. The low turnout in the last parliamentary elections is a reflection of people’s understanding of what type of regime they are living under.
The low turnout was a silent protest on the part of the Egyptian people against the regime. When they see that the moment is ripe to defeat the police again, they will take to the streets to do so. January 25 came about because people believed in their ability to achieve victory. This moment is yet to come, and waiting for it is not a mistake. The onus is on the ordinary people who can make meaningful change.
Now, five years after the revolution, I think the solution to Egypt’s political impasse may not necessarily be radical or revolutionary. I’m of the view that, eventually, Egypt’s political forces will sit at the negotiation table in what I call the “negotiations of the defeated”, meaning that in 2011, Mubarak was defeated; in 2012, the military establishment was briefly defeated; in 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood was defeated – and current leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, will be defeated at some point.
This will happen sooner or later, when Sisi is viewed as a liability to the state and no longer serves whatever interests he was brought to serve. I do not agree that if Sisi is gone, another Sisi will come from the generals’ ranks.
So much has been invested in manufacturing an image and an icon out of Sisi, and that is not likely to happen with any future president, even if they come from army ranks. But again, no one at this point can decide when the next phase of the revolution will come about, or what form it will take.