“Dearest,” I wrote my infant daughter five years ago, “you will probably never really understand the importance of the events unfolding in the Middle East today. You will be growing up in a world forever changed — for the better, I hope — by the revolutions rocking the Arab world.”
I was a first-time mother and had only just moved to the Middle East after years in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Beirut, my new posting, was meant to be a reprieve from the constant bad-news stories coming out of Kabul and Islamabad. So when Tunisia’s democratic uprising began sending ripples of protest around the Arab world, with Egypt’s peaceful demonstrations on Jan. 25, I was so convinced that things were looking up for the Middle East that I named my new dog Cairo.
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Two weeks later, Egypt’s longtime President, Hosni Mubarak, swore in a national address that he would never step down. I caught the next flight to Egypt. As much as I hated leaving my daughter, I believed that the showdown in Tahrir Square could only end in one of two ways: a violent Tiananmen crackdown, or victory. I had to be there.
So I traveled with a cooler in order to bring my frozen breast milk back to Beirut, and started writing my daughter a letter to explain why I wouldn’t be home to hear her first words. “Much like I cannot imagine a Middle East untouched by the seminal changes of the Iranian revolution, events here will touch off changes in the world you will probably read about in your history books,” I wrote. “So this is why I am away from you once again. Missing your first ‘hi’ and your first ‘no’ and aching to hold you in my arms.”
After dumping my bags, I rushed straight to Tahrir Square to meet up with my TIME colleague Abigail Hauslohner and get some reporting done. It was just before evening prayers, on Feb. 11, and the square was heaving. Small knots of demonstrators huddled around radios. Mubarak’s Vice President, Omar Suleiman, was due to make an announcement. Before we could even make out his words, wild cheers crackled through the crowd. Mubarak, who had controlled Egypt for almost 30 years, was stepping down.
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“Mubarak is gone.” I wrote my daughter later that night. “The people won. Not only the people, but Egyptians — a population that has been tagged (pretty much since the time of the pharaohs) as the least likely to revolt in the Middle East.” I described to her the scenes of exuberance, the sense that a new era was dawning — and her mother was in the thick of it:
For the next couple of days, the standard Egyptian greeting switched from “As-Salaam-Alaikum” to “Mabruk,” or “congratulations.” “There is hard work to be done,” I acknowledged in my letter. “Building a democracy is far more difficult than tearing down a dictatorship. But for a while at least, it is time to bask in the extraordinary events.”
At the time, journalists couldn’t help but think that Tunisia was only the beginning. With success in Egypt, the Arab world’s largest country, it was only a matter of time before tyranny would be a thing of the past in the Middle East. Already protests were rumbling in Bahrain, Yemen and Libya. Syria, we thought, would not be far behind.
A week later I was on a flight to Manama, the capital of the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, and arrived just in time to see a brutal government crackdown on the Pearl Roundabout — that city’s answer to Tahrir Square. This time there was no people’s victory. That night security forces used live fire as well as tear gas, killing seven people. Photographer Yuri Kozyrev and I rushed to the hospital to be greeted by scenes of panic and mayhem. “When you meet a Bahraini,” I wrote my daughter, “you will realize just how shocking it must have been. [They were] unprepared for violence. One man told me today, ‘We are Bahrainis. We are afraid of blood.’”
My Egyptian euphoria had been pierced by the realization that people power was nothing compared to geopolitics. “More than anything,” I mused to my daughter, “Bahrain is a lesson in how to divide and conquer. The royal family pits the Sunnis against the Shi‘ites and manages to stay in power.” It took years for me to reconcile myself with the fact that Tunisia, far from the spark of a larger fire, was the outlier, the only Arab Spring protest that actually blossomed into democracy. But in those early days the hope kept me going, even as my daughter kept me circling back home. “So what’s next?” I wrote her as I waited for a flight out of Bahrain.
There was no other moment in the Arab uprisings as pure and euphoric as the night Mubarak stepped down in Egypt. The brutal crackdowns of Bahrain, the grinding agony of Yemen, the carnage of Syria and the horrors of Libya have all served as powerful antidotes to hope. Egypt’s experiences after the revolution — the election of the divisive Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and the subsequent military coup — offer lessons in unintended consequences. So too does the rise of ISIS, the expansion of terrorism across northern Africa and an unprecedented global refugee crisis.
The Arab Spring will still be a part of my daughter’s history lessons, if not quite in the way I had envisioned at the time. I am still not sure if it has changed the world for better or worse — at the moment it doesn’t look like it. Perhaps those of us in Tahrir Square that night should have been a little more cynical, a little more guarded. The next time, we will be. It’s the next generation of revolutionaries, my daughter’s generation, who will be the ones to take up the mantle of hope, and make sure that this time around, the world is changed for the better.