Gamal, seated right, with his daughter on his lap, on Feb. 8, 2011. Photo: Thanassis Cambanis.
Thanassis Cambanis was in Tahrir Square in January 2011 to witness first-hand the start of the Egyptian Revolution that toppled the government of then-president Hosni Mubarak.
Today, I cannot help but think of the shock and wonder I felt when I beheld the revolutionary Egyptians fighting their way into Tahrir Square five years ago—as if with each riot policemen they swept aside, they were casting away another piece of foundations of authoritarianism.
We still don’t know how Egypt’s story will turn out. It might not turn out well, but it is not yet over. The aspirations of the Egyptians who demanded a better state are still unmet, and the latest incarnation of military strongmen simply cannot deliver on any front: neither legitimacy nor livelihood nor dignity.
“My body is here but my mind is still in Tahrir,” one of the activists of 2011 messaged me today from exile. Sure, there is ample reason for despair, or even for the silence that has engulfed one of the revolution’s most creative and articulate thinkers, Alaa Abdel Fattah. But there is also reason for patience, even hope.
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s dictatorship believes its own paranoid propaganda. In addition to the actual threat Egypt faces from Islamist insurgents, the security services imagine other, nonexistent threats around every corner. Sisi knows his initial popularity was broad but very shallow. That is why he is so insecure. The military could easily shift its support to some other figure. Sisi has not captured the loyalty of the government bureaucracy, or the wealthy. He doesn’t have a political party through which to manipulate politics. And his legitimacy is subject to challenge from every direction.
As a result of his weak position, Sisi has sadly felt the need to consolidate his power through maximal repression. In the 1990s, Hosni Mubarak put down a far more substantial and violent Islamist uprising with far less force and far fewer indiscriminate arrests. There aren’t credible challenges today from the secular, nationalist opposition, because Sisi has so thoroughly clamped down on freedom to talk and organize. Yet he’s still nervous, because he knows his thin legitimacy and failure to govern effectively will inevitably result in challenges to his authority, or even another coup or popular uprising.
A few days shy of five years ago, a minibus driver from Giza named Gamal sat on the ground in Tahrir Square, in front of a tank, with his young daughter on his lap. It was drizzling. He was wet and cold, but he didn’t care. His extended family told him he was foolish to risk prison joining a protest. He failed to change their minds, but he was invested in his three-year-old daughter. As he wiped her runny nose, Gamal told me cheerfully that he didn’t want his little girl to grow up to be like her parents or think like her parents.
“I want her to see and feel what it’s like to defy authority,” he said.
I don’t know where Gamal is today, or how he views the last five year’s rapid turns of the gyre. But I very much doubt he thinks the same way he did on January 24, 2011, or that he will ever have the same expectations or the same resignation that he did before the January revolution.
Whether that change of heart leads one day to a change of state for Egypt—a change for the better—no one can know. But we can be sure that today’s silence, imposed with a historically unprecedented level of repression by a state ruling from a historically narrow base, tells us nothing about Egypt’s future. It only reveals the fears of its military rulers.