Ali Hassan Ali was no activist, no protester. Born in 1963, he lived in the working-class Cairo neighborhood of Shubra and worked long hours as an accountant for an international firm. A divorced single father, with soft eyes and a quiet, raspy voice, Ali spent his free time looking after his two young daughters or playing PlayStation with his college-age son Mohab.
Ali had worked hard all his life to stay out of poverty, taking jobs in a shoe factory and a restaurant after returning to school in his mid-twenties and finishing his bachelor’s degree. His son Mohab was smart—no one doubted that. But like many young Egyptians of his generation, Mohab saw few prospects for his future in a country where, by 2011, one out of every three young people lacked a job. He often skipped class, and when a low score on Egypt’s national college entrance exam kept him out of the more prestigious universities, he enrolled in a technical institute.
Instead of school, he poured his time into the Internet and video games. He often fixed his friends’ computers, but pushed aside his father’s advice to turn his repair skills into a business. Yet Mohab also had a determined streak. When other kids teased him about his weight, he set himself on a strict fitness regime. With his mother and father divorced, he became a surrogate parent to his two younger sisters.
Mohab had lived his entire life under President Hosni Mubarak, the autocrat who had ruled Egypt since 1981. During those years, Mubarak expanded Egypt’s already robust police state into a vast empire of state control. Police helped rig elections. Police collected bribes. Security officers held sway over faculty promotions in universities. By the last decade of his rule Mubarak presided over a security apparatus whose ranks swelled to approximately two million people policing a population of roughly 83 million. Harassment was a part of life—while heading home one night, Ali and his son were stopped and searched by the police. Mohab was furious and his father tried to calm him down. Like any ordinary Egyptian citizens, they were at the mercy of the state.
On weekends, Ali liked to entertain his coworkers. A colleague would visit from Tunisia, bringing along his teenage son Ahmed, who befriended Mohab. The two kept in touch and chatted online during Tunisia’s uprising against the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in December 2010, the events that mark the beginning of what would become known as the Arab Spring. As the protests in Tunisia gathered strength, so too did the sense that events could spill over into Egypt, the Arab world’s largest country. The two young men had a running bet about which nation would “explode” first. With Tunisia in open revolt, Ahmed called on New Years Eve to declare he’d won.
Ben Ali was forced to flee Tunis on January 14, boarding a jet to Saudi Arabia. A seemingly invulnerable Arab strongman had fallen. Egyptian activists saw a window of historic opportunity, and mobilized for a protest set for January 25, which happened to fall on an Egyptian national holiday: Police Day. Mohab wanted to attend the demonstration with his father, but Ali hesitated. It wasn’t the possibility of danger that deterred him, he said later, so much as the prospect of another failed protest, more disappointment. “Nobody expected anything to happen,” he later recalled. But Mohab was adamant, telling his father: “If you’re not coming with me, I’m going alone.”
When the 25th arrived, the pair joined a small group from their neighborhood, walking toward downtown Cairo, chanting slogans, and waving Egyptian flags. Thousands of others also heeded the call to protest. After staying with the protesters for a time Mohab and his father hurried home when security forces began spraying the crowds with water canons. In Tahrir Square, downtown Cairo’s massive focal point, the protesters managed to hold their ground until late at night, when the police drove them out.
The protests continued the next day, and Mohab called his father, who was at work, urging them to go out again. “It’s bigger than we thought,” he said. His father hesitated again, now worried about his son’s safety. But he agreed to attend the next big demonstration, which opposition groups had called for Friday, January 28. It was dubbed the “Friday of Rage” at the Mubarak regime. Father and son would go together.
They left their home on the afternoon of the 28th after attending Friday prayers. Mohab bought Pepsi and vinegar—items that Ahmed, his Tunisian friend, had told him could counteract the effects of tear gas. They had heard that the plan was for the protesters to re-take Tahrir, so they went in search of a route to the square. They talked their way through a police checkpoint, claiming they were on their way to work, and hiked through a tunnel, surfacing on Ramses Street, a broad thoroughfare where they joined thousands of people marching on the city center. As they approached the downtown, they could hear the sound of explosions.
At midafternoon they had arrived at Abdel Moneim Riad Square, a huge open area adjacent to Tahrir. The demonstrators massed on the edges. Straight ahead, Tahrir was in sight, but the way was blocked by legions of security men in riot gear, firing tear gas. Overhead was the Sixth of October Bridge, a massive concrete flyover that spans the Nile. Security forces careened past, shooting into the crowds. Protesters atop the bridge ripped iron bars off the railings and tore concrete from the road, hurling chunks down on the security men.
Then Mohab and his father did something they had never done before: they reached down and picked up rocks, joining the other demonstrators as they threw them at the police. Facing a hail of projectiles, the security men were forced to pile back in their vans and flee. Nearby, flames and smoke rose from the looming office building that housed the headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.
Around 5 p.m., on the other side of the Nile, on the Qasr Al-Nil Bridge, demonstrators also forced the police to retreat under a hail of stones. A roar went up and the protesters streamed back into Tahrir Square. After decades of autocratic rule and daily intimidation, Mubarak’s police had been defeated in battle.
Then something mysterious happened. The police began to disappear. Word spread through the crowds assembled downtown that the army would be deployed and a curfew enforced. Ali insisted they head home, worried his son might be arrested for videotaping the protests on his phone. He remembered scenes from the military crackdown during Egypt’s bread riots in 1977, when more than 800 people were killed. “There’s no need to stay now that the army’s here,” he told his son. “We’re leaving.”
The pair arrived home dirty and exhausted. Ali got in the shower to wash the film of tear gas from his skin. His son knocked on the bathroom door to announce he was going to a friend’s house to upload his videos to a hard drive. “I’m going down to Shubra Street,” he said, and left.
Ali finished bathing and dressed again. For about 45 minutes, he sat in the stillness of his house. The sound of gunfire would have rung in his ears as he recounted the day’s event to the elder of his two daughters, Rahma. Then he heard a knock. A group of his neighbors stood at the door. Mohab and two other young men had been shot and were in the hospital, they said. The young men had ventured a few blocks from home and at some point encountered the security forces. Mohab had been shot twice, in the chest and shoulder.
Ali and his daughter raced to nearby Islah Al-Islamy Hospital. There, in the intensive care unit, lay his unconscious son, bandages on his chest and left arm. A surgeon was summoned from another hospital to see if he could save Mohab’s life. Another hour and a half passed, and then one of the doctors emerged from the ICU. Mohab had died. Overcome, Ali lost consciousness.
BIRTH OF A REVOLUTION
The protests that took place in Egypt on January 28, 2011 were vast and sudden. In their recollections of that day, people often use nature metaphors to describe the demonstrations: It was an earthquake, a tidal wave, a tsunami. It was only on that day that it became clear that what was taking place in Egypt was not merely a set of demonstrations with limited demands, but a revolution. By the 28th, an iconic slogan was on the lips of tens of thousands of Egyptians in public squares across the country—Ash-Shab! Yureed! Isqat an-nizam! (The people! Demand! The fall of the regime!)
The clashes that day led to the occupation of Tahrir Square, and eventually to Mubarak’s shocking departure from power. For 18 days, the demonstrators held Tahrir Square, fighting off pro-regime thugs. Elsewhere in the country, protesters blocked roads, torched police stations and staged vast demonstrations. On the evening of February 11, 2011, Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak had stepped down, leaving a council of generals in charge of the country.
How does a protest become a revolution? In Egypt, part of the answer was death. During the first four days of the uprising, thousands of Egyptians had violent encounters with Mubarak’s police state, battling security forces—and sometimes paying with their lives.. In 2011 a panel of judges reported that 846 people died in the initial days of the uprising. More than 6,000 people were injured. More than a thousand people were reported missing, with many believed to be forcibly disappeared by the regime.
The security forces attempted to quell the protests with the massive and public use of force. They failed, and that failed crackdown laid bare the brutality of the system. The killing of protesters triggered further mobilization. Death lent dire urgency to the calls for change.
It was a moment of extremes: the euphoria of a triumphant revolt tempered by the sorrow of loss and the anxiety about the uncertain road ahead. For many, the traumas catalyzed a sense of personal transformation, as Egyptians with little or no experience in politics, people who had acquiesced to the regime for decades, came to think of themselves as revolutionaries.
Ali was one of those people. He went straight from his son’s funeral, on the 29th, to Tahrir Square. All the talk of “heroes” and “martyrs of the revolution” was surreal. Seeing his son’s face among the printed images of the martyrs was painful. Hearing his son’s name was pain. “I don’t want to hear that he died, and I don’t want to see his picture as a static image,” Ali says now. “That means Mohab is not here.”
He went home. Unable to eat or sleep, frozen in grief, his health deteriorated. He later spent 21 days in a psychiatric hospital where he underwent shock therapy. When he emerged, he went back to the square, returning there whenever he could gather the strength.
Ali stopped using his given name, and began introducing himself exclusively as Abu Mohab, or “the Father of the Martyr Mohab.” Over the months, he rebuilt his strength, and found meaning in his activism. If the revolution had been his son’s cause, he would make it his own. From that point on, only two things mattered to him: Caring for his two daughters and completing the revolution. “After what he did in his life and after what he did for the country, I belong to him, all the Egyptians should belong to these martyrs,” says Ali.
Completing the revolution meant bringing the killers of those 846 people to justice, but it was a daunting task. The uprising had overthrown Mubarak and dismantled his party, but it left in place much of the police state he had presided over. The security forces continued to shoot and beat protesters and to torture detainees, sometimes to death. The military retained its autonomous power within the state. The legal system, including key prosecutors and judges, maintained close ties with the security establishment.
None of that could stop Ali. In April 2011, some of the families of slain protesters launched the first of a series of sit-ins in Tahrir to demand trials for the police and security officials who killed their sons and daughters. Ali joined them, and it was there, while sleeping in tents in the square in the spring heat, that the families of the martyrs began to form a loose political network. Ali became a de facto spokesman, forming relationships with opposition groups and speaking to the media. He spent his days at protests and his nights at meetings.
The families had not yet settled on a single set of demands, or even a single interpretation of their relatives’ deaths. Some stressed the larger battle for justice and the revolution. Some wanted to press the government for financial compensation. Others simply wanted to move on with their lives. “There are a lot of people, when their children died, or when their siblings died, they didn’t care, didn’t show interest,” says Tareq el-Khatib, a lawyer whose brother was also killed on the 28th. “They said, ‘He’s dead. Yeah, he’s dead. God is sufficient for us, and He is the best disposer of affairs,’” reciting a passage from the Quran.
Ali and like-minded activists made the case for the most ambitious possible interpretation of the protesters’ deaths. The killings were not simply a tragedy to be endured. They were a crime to be avenged. “What [Ali] represents is the most everlasting effect of this uprising,” says Rabab El Mahdi, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. “People who had nothing to do with politics became politicized and changed on a very deep level, not just that they have views, but that the public became the private in every sense of the word. This is something that no level of repression and no setbacks can take away from us.””
The black-clad riot troops lined the sidewalk outside Cairo’s High Court building, their helmets flipped upward, their riot shields leaning on a metal barricade. It was a bright, windy day in January 2013 and the Central Security Forces (CSF) were deployed for a demonstration by the relatives of protesters killed nearly two years earlier in the 2011 revolt.
Down the street, also waiting for the demonstration to begin, was Ali. He had helped organize the rally to demand action on the findings of a nearly 800-page report on the events of the revolution recently completed by a high-level commission that Ali had helped advise. He wanted to pressure the authorities to prosecute police and military officials for the killings of demonstrators based on the report’s findings.
Around two in the afternoon, protesters begin to fill the courthouse steps and the sidewalk. They were long-haired activists in their 20s, human rights lawyers in suits, and mothers and fathers of martyrs carrying framed photographs of their sons. Some unfurled tall, flowing white banners bearing the faces of slain demonstrators. Most of the parents stood in silence, except for one woman in a black dress who sobbed, “We don’t want any more blood! We don’t want more children to die!”
Ali moved through the crowd and up the steps, where he took hold of one end of a large banner. A tall, ruddy-faced CSF officer edged toward him and the two began arguing, the officer stabbing the air with his index finger, Ali gesturing with his free hand and holding the banner with the other. Afterwards, Ali says they were fighting about who shot the protesters. “His opinion is the Central Security in particular wasn’t shooting or anything. They didn’t have the weaponry,” he says. “I told him that the report says that according to the Ministry of Interior’s own records, they had the weapons.”
This dispute over the most basic facts of the uprising is one measure of the depth of the political chasm that opened in Egypt in the wake of Tahrir. During the uprising, thousands of people witnessed the CSF attempting to quell the demonstrations with teargas and gunfire. But without a full, public accounting of the events of the uprising, the essential facts of what took place during the revolution and the status of the protesters as “martyrs” remains a matter of bitter contestation.
For a brief moment after Mubarak’s departure, a degree of accountability seemed to be in Egyptians’ grasp. Even though the legal process was halting and imperfect, investigations took place and trials were held. After a year in court, Mubarak and his interior minister Habib al-Adly were convicted and sentenced to life in prison in June 2012 over the killing of the 846 protesters in the uprising. But the verdict was incomplete, as four top Interior Ministry officials were acquitted, including those actually in command of the security forces during the revolt. Two years later only two individual police officers were jailed for the killings.
When Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected president in the summer of 2012, some rights advocates saw a new opportunity for justice. Before being sworn in, Morsi personally met with Ali and a group of other victims’ relatives, promising trials for the killers. “I will not forget the blood of the martyrs and the injured and the demands of those who have been affected,” Morsi said in an address in Tahrir Square. “Punishment is a debt on my neck.”
Morsi established the high-level fact finding committee tasked with investigating the events of the revolution. But though the report was sent to the courts, it was never released in full to the public. Portions of the report leaked to the Guardian in April 2013 implicated the military in torture and forced disappearances. By then, Morsi’s Islamist-led government was facing intense public opposition, and the president had decided to stand with the generals. No military officials faced trial for any abuses. Many experts believe Morsi’s administration kept the full report from the public in order to avoid further alienating the generals, in an effort to maintain his shaky hold on power.
It didn’t matter—in July 2013 Morsi was overthrown by the military following a wave of mass protests. Morsi’s administration had alienated sections of the public by enacting a controversial constitution drafted with narrow support, while failing to fix a flagging economy or end the abuses of the security state. The military-backed government that replaced Morsi launched a lethal crackdown on his Islamist supporters and other political opponents. The clampdown resulted in three mass killings, culminating in the security forces’ attack on pro-Morsi protest camps in Rabaa Al-Adawiya square and elsewhere in Cairo on August 14, 2013. Around 1,000 people were killed in the single deadliest instance of political violence in Egypt’s modern history.
The massacre marked the full reemergence of Egypt’s security state and effectively ended any chance of real democracy or real accountability. The security forces that participated in the Rabaa killings were specifically told they would not face prosecution. In the months that followed, the last trials of police from the 2011 era wound to a close. Mubarak was cleared in the trial over the killing of protesters. Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, the military chief who presided over Morsi’s removal and who was one of the architects of the 2013 clampdown that lead to the mass killings, was inaugurated president in 2014.
Looking back, Ali now says that the fact-finding commission was effectively set up to fail, just as the revolution itself had failed to uproot the institutions of the old regime. “What happened in the trials was that the regime was judging itself and there is no regime that can judge itself,” he says.
‘IF YOU WANT TO DREAM, YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE NIGHTMARES’
Shortly after the January 2011 uprising, someone took a black marker and re-labeled the overhead strip maps in every train car in the Cairo subway system, crossing out what had been “Mubarak” station on and replacing it with the word shuhada (martyrs). In May 2011, a court ordered the Cairo Metro authorities to officially rename the station. Maintenance workers removed the old signs and replaced them with new ones that read Mahatet Shuhada—Martyrs’ Station.
The subway graffiti was an act of revolutionary memorialization, part of an outpouring of informal memorials that appeared in the immediate aftermath of the revolt. Ordinary Egyptians created martyr posters bearing the portraits of the dead. They painted martyrs’ murals, scrawled graffiti on underpasses, hung martyrs’ banners outside of mosques and corner shops. Hundreds of Facebook groups appeared with effusive poetry and artwork dedicated to specific martyrs.
Since the 2013 military takeover, the authorities have removed most of those those memorials one by one. In an effort to project an image of stability, they have washed away much of the graffiti that spattered downtown Cairo. Last year the government finally demolished the burnt-out ruins of the NDP building, removing one of the last visual reminders of the uprising.
Following the 2013 takeover, the Egyptian state launched a massive wave of political repression, arguably worse than the regime overseen by Mubarak. According to a count overseen by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, the security agencies have arrested more than 40,000 people, including students, activists and even bystanders to protests. Hundreds have been sentenced to death. Rights groups have documented an upsurge in cases of torture and forced disappearances. Egypt now has more journalists in its prisons than any other country on earth aside from China—a nation nearly 16 times its size.
President Sisi’s administration argues that it is acting to preserve stability. The new government has labeled Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and says it is combatting extremism. The government frequently invokes the chaos in nearby Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq as evidence that it made the right decisions in the campaign against Islamists. In January 2015, when Der Spiegel asked Sisi about the 2013 military takeover and subsequent massacres of protesters, the president responded: “Had the army not intervened, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, would have died.”
While it hasn’t suffered the all-out collapse of Syria or Libya, the reality is that Egypt’s security situation has not improved since the military takeover. Following Morsi’s removal, jihadist insurgents accelerated their attacks on the security forces and recently expanded their targets to include civilians, culminating with the downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula in October 2015, which was claimed by militants linked to ISIS.
After the military takeover, President Obama—who publicly called for Mubarak to step down in the early days of the Tahrir protests—initially withheld shipments of weapons to Egypt, which is the world’s second largest recipient of American military aid after Israel. Ultimately, though, the pressure of the war against ISIS and the need to keep Egypt as a friendly ally in the Arab world led the Obama administration to restore arms shipments in March 2015, overriding the objections of human rights groups who opposed arming an autocratic regime.
Egypt will mark five years since the 2011 uprising this month. President Sisi has warned the public not to participate in any protests on the anniversary. “Why am I hearing calls for another revolution? Why do you want to ruin [Egypt]?” he said in a speech last month. The security forces have intensified the crackdown in the run up to the anniversary, arresting activists and journalists, raiding news organizations and publishing houses.
But for Egyptians who lived through the tumultuous years of 2011 through 2013, the memories of the uprising persist, despite the bitter disappointment. Those who protested remember the gunfire and the roiling crowds. Even those who opposed the protests—and there were many—remember their sense of fear and apprehension. “There is no family that doesn’t have a member who supports the revolution and always argues with his family,” says Ali.
“Those traumas don’t go away,” says Aida Seif El Dawla, a human rights activist and psychiatrist who works with victims of torture. “The deeper they are, the closer they are to people’s lives, personal lives and experiences, the less they are likely to be forgotten or overlooked.”
Ali returned to work in 2013, becoming a shareholder in a business purchasing items confiscated by the customs authorities. But his passion still lies in writing and speaking about the uprising. He sees Egypt’s current political situation as a mere setback in what he still believes is a long and ongoing revolution. He says Mohab’s death places an inescapable burden on his shoulders to continue the project of that revolution in any way he can. The living have an obligation to the dead. “You can’t imagine, the responsibility toward the martyrs and the prisoners makes me sleepless,” says Ali. “Death is a relief that I don’t wish for because I believe in God and I believe I should live my life until God decides it’s over.”
The underlying causes of the aborted Egyptian revolution—social deprivation, economic decline and a lack of political freedom—have not been resolved. Ali predicts another eruption of protest, though it is impossible to say when or how. One of the lessons he takes from the experience of revolution is a profound sense of patience—and endurance. “If you want to dream,” he says now, “you’re going to have nightmares.”