What Happened to My Revolution

Five influential Egyptian protesters look back on a tumultuous year.

On Jan. 25, 2011, Egypt erupted into the now iconic uprising that raged for 18 days. The protests were the culmination of decades of frustration with the country's authoritarian regime, its stranglehold over political freedom, and growing economic inequality. The thousands, and ultimately millions, of bodies occupying downtown Cairo and city squares around the country represented every segment of society, uniting around the demand to topple the regime.

On Feb. 11, 2011, Egyptians made history: Hosni Mubarak stepped down as Egypt's president, handing authority to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. As Cairo's Tahrir Square emptied, however, divides emerged within the protest movement over the timing of elections, when Egypt should draft a new constitution, and whether continued street protests were necessary.

On the first anniversary of the uprising, five influential participants reflect on the last year, Egypt's future -- and how revolution is a lot more complicated than they thought.


In the run-up to the Jan. 25, 2011, protests, Gigi Ibrahim -- like everyone else in Cairo's activist community -- was walking on eggshells, expecting the worst from Hosni Mubarak's famously repressive security forces. The motley crew that made up Cairo's opposition movement was making its first attempt at simultaneous, coordinated protests throughout the country, and she had no idea whether it would succeed.

On Jan. 25, Ibrahim began protesting in the Cairo neighborhood of Shubra and arrived in Tahrir Square around 4 p.m. -- when tear gas and street clashes already ruled the day. Over her upper-middle-class family's objections, Ibrahim became one of the revolutionary firebrands to regularly appear on Western media -- even making an appearance on Jon Stewart's Daily Show.

Ibrahim remains active in citizen journalism and is a grassroots coordinator for the Revolutionary Socialists, where she works with labor groups to hike the country's minimum wage -- a cause she sees as vital to the revolution's continued success. "For the movement to grow is do or die," she says. "If we're not able, as Revolutionary Socialists, to mobilize and organize labor and bring them into the revolution, if we're not able to expand our revolutionary ideas, not just we will be crushed -- the revolution will be crushed."

Ibrahim and the Revolutionary Socialists boycotted Egypt's latest parliamentary elections, arguing that the elected assembly has no real power. They will be out in full force this Jan. 25 to renew their call to strip away the vestiges of the Mubarak-era political system.

Egypt's political climate has transformed radically from last year, Ibrahim notes. The tight-knit activist community has split into larger politicized groups, but the main demands of the revolution remain the same.

"When you look at the list of demands and see what we achieved and what we didn't, of course we didn't achieve anything other than toppling Mubarak," she tells me. "But what we were able to achieve [is] to break that fear barrier, to put Mubarak in a cage."

Mosa'ab Elshamy


Zyad Elelaimy was a member of the 17-person "Revolutionary Youth Coalition" that organized the Jan. 25, 2011, protests, holding secret meetings and coordinating over social networking sites like Facebook to set the time and location of the small marches that would culminate in Tahrir Square.

Now, the 31-year-old lawyer is one of the youngest of the 498 elected representatives in Egypt's new parliament -- and he has already proved his determination to shake up the established order. On Jan. 23, during the chamber's opening session, Elelaimy threw proceedings into disarray by demanding to pledge an oath of loyalty to the Egyptian revolution, rather than to the state and constitution. He was sworn in wearing a yellow sash that read: "No to Military Trials."

Elelaimy's path to parliament was far from inevitable. Believing the new body would be a sham without a new constitution, many liberal activists called for a boycott. While Elelaimy agreed with his compatriots that the revolution was incomplete, he couldn't justify leaving parliament to supporters of the status quo. He ran as a liberal standard-bearer in the district of South Cairo. One of his campaign platforms was the irrelevance of the same chamber that he sought to join.

It was an uphill battle. Elelaimy appeared to be on the wrong side of the secular-religious divide that defined much of the election, which saw Islamist parties win two-thirds of the vote. "The Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood were trying to say we are Christians, we are godless. They gave papers to the people and told them Zyad used to drink and all these kind of things," he remembers. "It was hard for me to tell people, 'I have a program. You have to look at my program; don't look at me.'"

After his first week of campaigning, deadly clashes broke out in November between protesters and security services near the Interior Ministry. Civilians once against faced off with security services, and scores were killed. Elelaimy suspended his campaign in protest and joined the activists in Tahrir Square. He still won.

Elelaimy plans to work inside the parliament to advance the demands of the revolution: lifting the country's draconian emergency law, abolishing military trials for civilians, and ending the rule of the military caretaker government. He also remains a member of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, which is trying to mobilize masses of people on the Jan. 25 anniversary.

He's not convinced, however, that they will be able to pull it off. "Last year, I thought we would be in jail in the first 10 minutes. I can't expect anything. You work for something, but you can't tell the result," he says. As for the final revolution: "We'll start it on the 25th. I don't know when we'll end it."

Mosa'ab Elshamy


Mohammed Abbas, then a member of the Muslim Brotherhood Youth, remembers being shocked by the sheer number of bodies in Tahrir Square on the afternoon of Jan. 25, 2011 -- estimated at 50,000. Abbas helped mobilize his group's members despite the Muslim Brotherhood's official ban on joining the early protests, and he fell to his knees to "thank God" for the turnout, he says.

These days, things have changed. Abbas is no longer in the Brotherhood Youth, nor is he impressed with just 50,000 people in the street. In June, influential members of the Brotherhood Youth broke with the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, over what they saw as a lack of internal democracy within the 84-year-old Islamist group. Thirty ex-Brotherhood Youth members founded the Egyptian Current Party, which works to mobilize youth in support of a civil state that protects individual civil liberties and embraces Islamic values, but does not enforce Islamic law.

The Brotherhood leadership promptly launched an investigation and booted the participating members. Abbas received the call that he had been kicked out when he was at a leadership conference in Malaysia.

Abbas ran for parliament as a member of the Current Party in Banha, the capital of the Qalyubiyah governorate, north of Cairo. His party was trounced, however -- contesting 10 seats but winning none. Despite losing, Abbas remains hopeful. "I think our party will be a leader in a few years," he says.

Although Abbas understands the importance of street mobilization and will be out again this year, he's unconvinced continued protests will bring about much-needed systemic changes. "It's also time to be realistic and pragmatic. The majority of us took part in the elections because we realized how important it was and how important the parliament is to achieve the demands of the revolution and to remove the power of the military rulers," he says.

While the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces have decided to commemorate the anniversary of the revolution, Abbas is skeptical that there is much to celebrate. "We only achieved a step or two from our demands. We are still under military rule which applies emergency law, detains activists, and applies military trial for civilians," he says. "I think anyone who intends to go and celebrate on Jan. 25 needs to go and reconsider this choice because we still have a long way to go."

Mosa'ab Elshamy


Like Abbas, Ali Khafagy was a Muslim Brotherhood Youth member who went down to Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, against the official position of the Islamist organization. "After hearing the chants for toppling Mubarak and the people demand the toppling of the regime, I knew it was a revolution that was going to achieve what it wanted," the 29-year-old activist says.

While Abbas split with the Brotherhood, however, Khafagy rose through the ranks over the past year to become one of the rising stars of the organization's youth wing. He joined its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), as a deputy youth organizer in Cairo's sister city of Giza.

While liberals and leftists kept up a steady drumbeat of protests in Tahrir Square, Brotherhood members like Khafagy once again proved the edict that "all politics is local" -- campaigning in their electoral districts for the parliamentary elections, in which the FJP took 47 percent of the seats.

Like many of the young activists in the movement, though, Khafagy has misgivings about the slow reform process in the Brotherhood. His main goal is to work within the group to separate the political party from the social movement. "Honestly, up until now there has been no separation between the FJP [and the Brotherhood]; it's just cosmetic," Khafagy says. "All the activities or responsibilities must be coordinated between the guidance office [of the Muslim Brotherhood] and the elected parliamentarians."

Khafagy echoes the Brotherhood's stance that this Jan. 25 is a celebration -- not the beginning of a second revolution. "We will celebrate accomplishments, such as the parliamentary elections, dissolving the [deposed President Hosni Mubarak's] National Democratic Party (NDP), and toppling many of the corrupt figures."

Khafagy thinks that a three-day sit-in at Tahrir Square, between Jan. 25 and Jan. 27, should be enough. After that, he argues, it's time for Egypt to get back to the political process set down by the country's military rulers. "We think it's important to be patient with the road map that's been planned for now," he says.

Mosa'ab Elshamy 


One of Egypt's most subversive and prominent bloggers looks back on Jan. 25, 2011, as the culmination of years of frustrated political activism against the Mubarak regime -- and a moment to "play with the police." When the irreverent 30-year-old writer known to his readers as "Sandmonkey" found access to Tahrir Square blocked, he chartered a small speedboat to bring himself and a few friends across the Nile. When Mubarak stepped down 17 days later, Salem and his friends celebrated with two bottles of champagne and two boxes of beer in front of Starbucks.

As the revolution moved haltingly forward during the following months, Salem decided to run for parliament in the middle-class neighborhood of Heliopolis. "I looked at the people who were supposedly running [as representatives of] the revolution, and I wanted to kill myself. I decided someone must run that actually wants to go in there and do something different, not be an idiot," he says in his trademark caustic style.

Salem, a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston, ran as a representative of the secular Free Egyptians Party founded by prominent Christian businessman Naguib Sawiris. Salem says his intention was to stand as a bulwark against the growing power of Islamists, especially on issues of freedom of speech, including pornographic websites. He soon found, however, that activists' favorite hobbyhorses -- judicial reform, civilian oversight of the military, and police reform -- were divorced from the concerns of the Egyptian street. He finished in third place, winning 16,000 votes.

Salem wanted to see exactly how the system worked and found himself critiquing the mindset of his revolutionary clique. "Your biggest problem as a revolutionary is your access to information," he explains. "Revolution becomes a subculture; you don't hang out with people who disagree with you after a while. You speak of the people, in the name of the people, without actually knowing the people."

Salem blames the Islamist parties and the military caretaker government for preventing the progress of the revolution, and he gleefully predicts they will perish from their inability to halt the economy's downward spiral. "The people who stunted the revolution in order to maintain the status quo will reap what they sowed," he insists.

Salem will once again take to the streets on Jan. 25, 2012, as the coordinator of the Free Egyptians Youth Party. He is also working on opening two art centers for teaching graffiti artists to cultivate revolutionary culture, and he is in negotiations for his own television talk show aimed at the country's youth.

"Revolution is more than just an uprising. It's changing the way people act and behave," he says. "Change the values and you change the system. Top-down reform never actually works."

Mosa'ab Elshamy 

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images


The Army and the People Were Never One Hand

Maikel Nabil, the atheist, pro-Israel Egyptian writer who was released from prison today, was right all along.

CAIRO - In a country that has seen its fair share of polarizing figures since the fall of octogenarian autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Maikel Nabil Sanad might be Egypt's ultimate iconoclast. The 26-year-old veterinary school graduate hails from the country's Coptic Christian minority, supports secularism, loudly proclaims his atheism, and condemns the Coptic pope's hypocrisy. He calls himself a feminist and is open to gay rights. And in a country where support for Israel is the third rail of politics for mainstream politicians and street activists alike, Nabil proudly self-identifies as "pro-Israel."

But on one issue, Nabil's convictions have become steadily less controversial. In the revolution's earliest days, he criticized the army's political takeover in Cairo. While most Egyptians were still chanting, "The Army and the people are one hand," Nabil cautioned that the military was no ally of the protesters -- a warning that, after a year that has seen a stalled democratic transition and over 12,000 Egyptians sentenced in military tribunals, appears remarkably prescient.

Nabil's attacks on the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) led to his arrest on March 28 on charges of "insulting the military." For more than 130 days of his detention, Nabil went on a hunger strike to protest his treatment -- living on juice and milk, at times coming close to death. For months, he was kept in solitary confinement in a one meter by one meter cell and, even after he was transferred to a group cell in Tora Prison in December, the conditions were still cramped and unsanitary, according to his younger brother Mark.

On Saturday, SCAF chief Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi pardoned Nabil, along with 1,959 other prisoners subjected to military trials. Adel al-Mursi, the head of the military prosecution, said that the decision to pardon the detainees was taken to commemorate the revolution's anniversary. He was released on Jan. 24, flashing the "V" for victory signs to photographers as he marched out of prison.

While Nabil's release was greeeted with joy by the Egyptian activist communisty, he has not always been embraced by Cairo's revolutionaries -- to say nothing of  Egypt's broader population. He was arrested at his home in the Ain Shams neighborhood of northern Cairo for writing a blog post on March 8 titled "The army and people wasn't ever one hand." The blog post describes how the army worked constantly to "circumvent the demands of the revolution," exhaustively listing examples of the military's torture of activists, its attempts to forcibly evict protesters from Tahrir Square, and its "passive neutrality" during attacks on demonstrators by thugs. "In fact, the revolution has so far managed to get rid of the dictator but not the dictatorship," Nabil wrote.

Such views were decidedly out of the mainstream in the revolution's early days. On Jan. 28, when the Egyptian military deployed across Cairo, most people greeted the men in khaki and camouflage as saviors because, unlike the police, they did not attack protesters. Young men posed for photographs in front of tanks, families asked soldiers to hold their babies, old women kissed uniformed military police on the cheek.

Nabil never bought into the "one hand" rhetoric. On Jan. 30, he went to Tahrir Square carrying a sign that read, "We refuse to allow the army to steal the people's revolution."

While most activists saw Hosni Mubarak and his cronies as their primary target, Nabil, a pacifist, bore a grudge against the Egyptian armed forces that stretched back before the revolution. In November 2010, he was briefly arrested for his campaign against compulsory conscription. "I hope that the day comes when the Egyptian military goes back to its barracks and to stop interfering in politics, so Egypt would be transformed into a civilian country without powers of military people on civilians," he wrote in October 2010.

The past year's events have brought many Egyptians around to Nabil's point of view. In addition to the widespread use of military trials, the military's security forces have killed scores of civilians and injured hundreds more since February. The political transition has also been ill-defined and characterized by backroom deals, as the military junta looks to entrench its power and prevent oversight of their activities. This month, Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a leading voice of the revolution, withdrew from the presidential race in protest of the military's grip on power.

Egypt's military leaders sought to quell public discontent by cracking down hard on its most implacable critics -- and Nabil, though hardly the only activist raising concerns about the junta's rule, made the perfect target because of his idiosyncratic views.

"The regime before and after the revolution always functioned with setting examples. So they set an example and it was very astute on their part to take this guy who they knew no one would support," Aalam Wassef, an activist who organized calls for Nabil's release, told me a few days before news came that his sentence would be commuted.

Egyptian state media and SCAF statements pushed a narrative that the persistent protests were part of a foreign plot, and the protesters were no longer the true revolutionaries that took to the streets during the first 18 days. "Maikel was the dream case," Wassef said. "He was an activist, he was an atheist, he was supportive of Israel. They didn't even need to put any subtitles."

His thoughts on Israel also did little to win him much support among Cairo's activist community -- a development Wassef called "disappointing." Nabil's case was, for the most part, not talked about for months. Alaa Abd El Fattah, a prominent activist who became a cause célèbre after being arrested in October, has energetically rallied support in favor of Nabil's release. However, when asked on Twitter how revolutionaries would welcome Nabil once he was free, he responded on Jan. 21, "[H]e is a zionist, my support for him ends when he is finally released."

Over time, many activists did warm to Nabil's cause. In December, as Nabil escalated his hunger strike, Wassef and others launched a campaign to gather support for him, organizing a march in Tahrir Square that saw more than 1,000 people attend.

"He's courageous to express his ideas that are unacceptable to the extremists," a friend of Maikel's, an unemployed 24-year-old who blogs under the pseudonym Kefaya Punk, said. "Some people, because of the propaganda against him, think he's the kind of guy who wants to show off, that he says his ideas to become famous. But he's not." (Kefaya Punk doesn't want his real name published. "I'm not as courageous as Maikel," he told me over cups of anise tea at a sidewalk café in downtown Cairo.)

Prison has done nothing to slow Nabil's pen. Throughout the past 10 months, he has composed dozens of statements -- written in his thoughtful, at times lawyerly, style -- that were smuggled out and posted on the Internet. His brother Mark, who often speaks on Maikel's behalf, said it is a secret how the statements made it out of prison. The statements ranged from scattered "fragments," covering everything from vegetarianism to Lisa Simpson, to longer meditations on Israel and Palestine or letters to SCAF members.

In one dispatch from prison, Nabil addresses the age-old issue of balancing an individual's rights against the good of society -- a particularly meaningful issue for someone like himself, whose views are often at odds with those of most Egyptians. "In my lectures on liberalism I always said that if the individual was at odds with society, as liberals we should take the side of the individual against society," he wrote.

While Nabil's stay in prison has ended, the same cannot be said for the more than 10,000 other Egyptians jailed under the questionable authority of Egypt's military tribunals. Early on the morning of Jan. 22, roughly 20 of Nabil's friends and supporters -- reacting to reports that Nabil's release was imminent -- gathered outside the ragged walls of the Tora Prison complex on the southern outskirts of Cairo. Mark Nabil, shivering against the cold wind, answered incessant calls from prison officials, human rights lawyers, and journalists. The crowd wore stickers bearing the slogan he carried to Tahrir almost a year ago: "We refuse the military's theft of the people's revolution."

"When we were saying the army and the people are one hand, Maikel was writing the opposite," said Marina Kamel, a 25-year-old young woman waiting outside the prison who has never met Nabil personally. "I came to say thank you for the information."