On the 25 January each year, the family of Mostafa Ragab visit his grave in Suez. Killed by several bullets to the chest and head, Ragab, 21 and who worked in a cement factory, was the first casualty among hundreds of civilian protesters shot by the police in Egypt during the 2011 Arab Spring revolution.
“Now the situation is even worse. I wish he never joined.”
His family commemorates his legacy by putting flowers on his grave and giving bread to the poor. However, his family and friends say that he died for nothing. Survived by four sisters and his mother, he became the breadwinner of the family after his father died when he was 14.
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“He only wanted to demand a better life. He and his friends heard that there will be protests to demand jobs and better living conditions, so he joined,” his sister tells The Africa Report. “Now the situation is even worse. I wish he never joined.”
The 2011 revolution saw for the first time in decades millions of Egyptians from all political and religious affiliations not only protesting police brutality, corruption, poverty and nepotism but also demanding a halt to former president Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year presidency and stopping any attempt to pass on the power to his son. After 18 days of demonstrations, Mubarak resigned and delegated his powers to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, ending a major chapter in Egypt’s modern history.
Died for nothing
Ragab’s family lives in the slums of Suez. His relatives say they like to think their son died for a good cause, but Egypt’s neoliberal economic policies since 2013 have struck a harsh blow on them and millions of others living under the poverty line.
“Ten years after the revolution, the government is enslaving the people, and no one can raise their voice to complain. Most of the families that managed to live on a low budget are now literally living on charity,” his sister adds. “It is as if his blood spelled for nothing.”
In the slums of Talbiyah in Giza, lives Mohamed Awad, 40, a school teacher who actively participated in the protests as part of the 6 April Youth revolutionary movement.
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“Currently, politics is a privilege. One has to work 24/7 to support his family,” says Awad, who also works as a deliveryman and cleaner to support his family.
“The revolution seems now like a romantic dream and quickly vanished, and we woke up to the harsh reality that nothing had changed,” adds Awad, who lost two friends during the protests.
“It is as if his blood spelled for nothing.”
“Hundreds have died and thousands went to prison. For what? The poor are getting poorer and the rich continue to become richer.”
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Awad is yet to turn the page on 2011 and what he calls revolutionary dreams. “I am still haunted by those 18 days. We have failed the ongoing generations, just like our parents’ generation failed us. But at least we tried.”
A vendetta that never died
At least 846 protesters were killed during the 2011 revolution, which extended throughout the country. But Egypt’s security forces have continued to deny any responsibility. Although dozens of officers were arrested for the cold-blooded murder of protesters, all of them were released, and later reinstated.
One of the slain protesters was Mohamed Mahmoud, an 18-year-old technical education student who protested in Alexandria, joining dozens of his friends. He died of a bullet in the head.
“We have failed the ongoing generations, just like our parents’ generation failed us. But at least we tried.”
His father has lost all hope of justice to be served. “We know the officer who shot him and others. We filed dozens of complaints and lawsuits,” the tearing-up father tells The Africa Report while looking at a picture of his son.
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“The officer was in jail for one month and was released for lack of evidence,” the father says, vowing that he will not accept any condolences until the security officer is brought to justice.
Currently in Suez, posters in the main Arbain Square where the deadly violence between the police and protesters took place, leaving dozens killed, celebrate National Police Day, also on 25 January.
Living with the legacy
The 2011 violence left a lot of antagonisms that remain to this day. In 2013 and 2019, Suez also witnessed deadly clashes between young protesters and police forces, leading to hundreds of arrests.
“Till now, the police cannot forget that we made them abandon their positions and run away,” argues Essmat, an online salesman from Suez who participated in the 2011 revolution when he was 20.
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“They have become more violent with the common people. However, there are whole neighbourhoods that have a vendetta from the police. When they want to arrest someone, they do not dare come at day[time]. They either come at dawn or come in armoured military cars,” Essmat adds.
The same antagonism remains with the police in several working-class areas all over the country, despite continuous PR campaigns showing a more human side of the security forces. Many describe them as ‘the regime’s bodyguards’.
“The police cannot forget that we made them abandon their positions and run away.”
Post-2011 dreams crushed
Egypt’s short-lived democratic experienced lasted one year, starting in 2012 with the presidential election victory of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi.
Morsi clashed with the military, leading to a military coup in 2013. This signalled the start of a monstrous wave of counterrevolution led by President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, where the opposition was legally crushed and the public sphere militarised.
Ten years on, activist Esraa Abdel Fattah, one of the first young faces to post a video of herself encouraging people to demonstrate for “bread, freedom and social justice” remains in prison after she was arrested in 2019 for allegedly spreading false news.
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Dozens of other prominent activists who launched the youth movement that directed the protests were also imprisoned, like Alaa Abdel Fattah, Ahmed Maher, Khaled Dawoud and Ahmed Douma.
A friend of Abdel Fattah who requests anonymity tells The Africa Report: “For Esraa to be in prison while Mubarak, his sons and ministers, and security apparatus walk free is a clear message from Sisi’s regime that the January revolution was a mistake.”
“Currently Mubarak era ministers are enjoying the free air while thousands of civilian activists remain in prisons under sham trials by a highly politicised judiciary,” adds the friend.
The Egyptian authorities regularly use unfounded “terrorism”-related charges to imprison human rights defenders and to subject them to punitive measures without trial, according to Amnesty International. According to some estimates, around 60,000 political prisoners are currently being detained.
Despite the obvious triumph of the counterrevolution, the current regime is still attempting to erase any positive memory related to the revolution.
In several public speeches and press interviews, Sisi, who led the military intelligence apparatus during in 2011, described the revolution as a conspiracy by Islamists and enemies of Egypt to spread chaos and divide the country.
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In a 2018 speech, Sisi said: “What happened seven or eight years ago will never happen again in Egypt […] What failed at the time will not succeed now.”
Sisi has a militarised grip over the press, unions, politics and society, but protests and dissent continue to take place. In September 2020, dozens of protests led by apolitical civilians demanded the fall of the regime and more economic reforms in favour of the masses. Thousands were arrested in a matter of two months.
Kareem Sayed, 37, a construction engineer who participated in the revolution, predicts that effective dissent will take place through the action of angry masses driven by social and economic reasons, not by political objectives.
“No political player is strong enough to invite people to protests, but poverty, police brutality and house demolitions will be the fuel,” argues Sayed.
No margin of freedoms
Sayed says that Mubarak at least enabled a “margin of freedoms”, which allowed for the mobilisation of youth movements and organisation among professional syndicates. “But Sisi is determined to monopolise all aspects of the public sphere, leaving the masses to either radicalised ideologies or violent spontaneous protests.”
“Despite all my negativity, those 18 days are the only ones where I felt I mattered and that I had a voice and say regarding my life.”
Despite growing poverty – 27.8% of the population in 2015 versus 32.5% in 2017/2018 – a water crisis on the way due to the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and an active insurgency in North Sinai, Egypt is currently focusing on building megacities and highways, beaches and amusement parks, ignoring different signs of dissatisfaction among the masses.
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In the posh streets of the Zamalek district of Cairo, Salma, 34, a dentist turned graphic designer who participated in the 18 days of the revolution, asserts that the revolution has been overrun.
“Despite all my negativity, those 18 days are the only ones where I felt I mattered and that I had a voice and say regarding my life,” concludes Salma.
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