Before the revolution, Ali Hassan Ali was no activist, no protester. Born in 1963, he lived in the Cairo neighborhood of Shubra, working long hours as an accountant. 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.
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. 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.
But that was before the wave of protests that would become known as the Arab Spring touched off in nearby Tunisia in December 2010. By Jan. 14, Tunisia’s autocratic leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had been forced to flee his country. An Arab strongman as seemingly invulnerable as Mubarak had fallen. Egyptian activists saw a window of historic opportunity and mobilized for a protest set for Jan. 25.
Mohab wanted to attend the demonstration with his father, but Ali hesitated. It wasn’t the 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.”
On the 25th, 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 him to go out again. His father hesitated, now worried for his son’s safety. But he agreed to attend the next big demonstration, which opposition groups had called for Friday, Jan. 28, dubbed the “Friday of Rage” at the Mubarak regime.
They left their home on the afternoon of the 28th after attending Friday prayers. Mohab bought Pepsi and vinegar—items that a 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. As they approached the downtown, they could hear the sound of explosions. By midafternoon they had arrived at Abdel Moneim Riad Square, a huge open area adjacent to Tahrir. 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, which 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, forcing them to flee. 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.
Later Ali and Mohab arrived home dirty and exhausted. While Ali showered to wash the film of tear gas from his skin, Mohab left to upload his videos at a friend’s house. The sound of gunfire rang in Ali’s 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 a nearby 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.
How does a protest become a revolution? Five years after the Arab Spring began, Egypt is still trying to answer that question. One reason is death. During the first four days of the uprising, thousands of Egyptians had violent encounters with Mubarak’s police state, battling security forces—and 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. Death lent dire urgency to the calls for change, which eventually helped lead to the occupation of Tahrir Square and Mubarak’s shocking departure from power on Feb. 11, 2011.
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 Egypt. For many, the traumas catalyzed a sense of personal transformation, as Egyptians with little or no experience in politics, who had adapted to life under 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. 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 destroyed 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. But Ali and other activists made the case for the most ambitious possible interpretation of the protesters’ deaths. The killings were not simply a tragedy. They were a crime. “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 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.
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. Afterward, Ali reports 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 size of the political chasm that opened in Egypt in the wake of the uprising. During the uprising, thousands of people witnessed the CSF trying to quell the demonstrations with tear gas 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. 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. It was Morsi who had established the high-level fact-finding committee tasked with investigating the events of the revolution. But though the report was sent to the state prosecutors, 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.
In July 2013 the unpopular Morsi was overthrown by the military following a wave of mass protests. 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 Raba‘a al-Adawiya square and elsewhere in Cairo on Aug. 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 re-emergence of Egypt’s security state and effectively ended any chance of real democracy or real accountability. The charges against Mubarak for the protesters’ deaths in 2011 were later dropped. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the military chief who presided over Morsi’s removal and who was one of the architects of the 2013 clampdown, was inaugurated President in 2014.
Looking back, Ali says that the fact-finding commission was 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.
Shortly after the January 2011 uprising, someone took a marker and re-labeled the overhead strip maps in every train car in the Cairo subway system, crossing out what had been Mubarak station and replacing it with the word shuhada, or “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 aftermath of the revolt. Ordinary Egyptians created martyr posters bearing portraits of the dead. They painted martyrs’ murals, scrawled graffiti on underpasses, hung martyrs’ banners outside mosques and corner shops.
Since the 2013 military takeover, the authorities have removed most of 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 burned-out ruins of the headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, removing one of the last visual reminders of the uprising.
Five years after Tahrir Square, the Egyptian state is arguably more repressive than it was under Mubarak. According to the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, the security agencies detained or indicted more than 40,000 people, including students, activists and even bystanders to protests, between July 2013 and mid-May 2014. Hundreds were 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.
Al-Sisi’s administration argues that it is acting to preserve stability and combat extremism, invoking the chaos in nearby Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq. In an interview published in February 2015, during which Der Spiegel asked al-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.”
President al-Sisi warned the public not to participate in any protests on the anniversary of the Arab Spring. The security forces 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, but his passion still lies in writing and speaking about the uprising. He sees Egypt’s 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 revolution in any way he can. “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 that five years ago ushered in the brief Arab Spring—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.”
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