When the power goes out in South Africa’s platinum mines—as it frequently does—emergency-response plans are activated to evacuate miners ... from the depths. And for every dark day in the mines, people above ground also suffer: businesses shutter their doors, refrigerators stop humming, health clinics go dark, access to financing gets tighter—all as the country’s power system struggles with ageing coal-fired power stations and rapidly rising energy demand.
I will never forget the conversations I had with neighbours around a fire during the cold nights of January 2011, while we were guarding our building.
On 28 January, known as the Friday of anger, police and security personnel all over the country were ordered to retreat, and also to release prisoners to deter protestors from going to Tahrir Square.
Men would go down to protect their buildings, while women would serve tea and biscuits. I was 16 years old at the time. The revolution had begun a couple of days ago, and Egypt – a beacon of stable tourism – had erupted into mayhem.
Who would have thought that Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year empire could be shaken by protests organised via a Facebook page? The page, “We are all Khaled Said” was dedicated to the young Alexandrian who was arrested and tortured by policemen. His torture and eventual corpse was documented and shared across social media, spurring fury and anger.
The page called on protesters to gather on 25 January, a symbolic date as it was National Police Day, a public holiday.
‘Bread, freedom and social justice’
It was a sunny but chilly Tuesday. I spent the day with my parents at Sergio and Valentina’s, my parents’ Italian friend’s house on the island of Zamalek, a bourgeois neighbourhood near Tahrir Square.
Mubarak’s Egypt of “stability and development” had lived its last day. The apartment was located on el Gezira street, with a marvellous view on the Nile and the Maspero Television building (state-owned) that was always heavily guarded.
My sisters and I were always spoiled when we’d go to their house. And due to my age difference with the rest of the crowd, I would often go sit in front of the television. But that day, they kept the national channel turned on for a reason: the Italian couple were aware of the demands to gather to call for: “aish, horreya, adala egtema’eya” (Bread, freedom and social justice).
The reality of life under Mubarak: an unjust society, where social class is passed from parents to children.
In the meantime, many protestors were gathering in key places across Cairo but obviously, this was not what being shown on television due to rigid government surveillance of social media and state TV. But with the passing of the hours, protesters had made so much progress that the press couldn’t contain all the reports.
I remember I was the first to spot the fighting in Maspero, but National television was still showing peaceful streets and that is when Sergio switched channels to verify my claims. It was true, Egyptians were fighting the police, in scenes that had never been seen in Mubarak’s era as president.
Living the (unjust) life
While we were sipping on drinks over on the island, just a 10 minute drive from the surreal scenes of chaos, the stark contrast of the two situations of the reality of life under Mubarak became apparent: an unjust society, where social class is passed from parents to children.
We weren’t out there with the people, because we didn’t have to. And on that day, tens of Egyptians died. The next days grew increasingly tense, with hardcore security appearing across central Cairo, and random interrogations and arrests of so-called “agitators”.
These were important days, because for those like me, who had no idea of what was happening, we were able to educate ourselves on the situation. I went to school on Wednesday, and all of my teachers were extremely worried. All of my classmates who came from families from the regime or closely connected to it, were absent. My father, a doctor, didn’t send me to school on Thursday, something that had never happened before.
And then came along Friday’s day of anger.
‘It was uncontrollable anger’
I woke up to see my father in shock. He was off that day, as any other Friday, so he normally wakes up early to check in on his patients. But that morning he was home, in his pyjamas with his eyes glued to the television screen. And unfolding before him was The Revolution.
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We could see Mubarak’s NDP (National Democratic Party) building on fire, we could see how his police were unable to control the protests even though snipers were positioned and bullets flew. In order to discourage people from gathering, the government switched off the internet at a national level as well as the mobile lines. This only further infuriated people who gathered after Friday prayers.
It was uncontrollable anger, and it was met by Mubarak’s regime sole strategy to quelling popular unrest: bullets, mass arrests and torture. The slogans had already changed since Tuesday, and the crowd was roaring and the demand was clear: Leave you bloody dictator!
‘Join the march!’
It took 18 days to force Mubarak to step down, but it took one day to get a 30-year old regime down on its knees, this is how powerful the protests were that day.
My mother had left for work two days earlier and had supposedly landed in Egypt, but we couldn’t get in touch with her. My father grabbed me and my sisters and we went to the nearest supermarket to buy food, but the shops were already empty.
You could feel the panic, the chaos. I was scared because all that I had known had fallen. But when a group of protesters began to make its way down our street, I saw up-close the people in it. It was then that the worry and chaos evaporated.
I knew nothing of politics and had very little understanding of the scope of injustice in Egypt, but I still wanted to join them.
There were people around me who were 40 and 50 years older, and had endured three decades of Mubarak’s rule. For the short 16 years I had lived, I only knew Mubarak as a leader.
Someone in the group yelled to those on the streets: “Join the march, we all have Mubarak inside us and we need to get rid of him. This is for Egypt, for your children, join us!”
And in that brief moment, we were free. Free to scream, free to walk the streets safely, free to lead chants. And this scene affected me instantly, because we grew up in a society that taught us to obey authority and limit our ambitions as this country was not really ours.
28 January 2011 became a memorable day because despite its violence and the loss of national heroes, the whole world saw how determined Egyptians were despite relentless attempts to terrorize the population.
…What matters most in a revolution is what happens afterwards – Lina Attalah
The reality is that this movement has created byproducts, and the latter are journalists, human rights workers, lawyers, teachers and a generation that dares to dream knowing profoundly that the power lies in the people’s hands. Have we achieved a fair society, a more equal economy, and created more justice? No, not yet.
Despair has been a key factor for Egyptians since 2011, who have witnessed massacres, terrorist attacks, and state sponsored violence and repression. But the people on the ground are still hustling to make this land better.
Speaking to French national radio France Inter, Lina Attalah, a prominent Egyptian journalist and editor in chief of Mada Masr – an Egyptian independent news website – said: “The revolution was a very touching moment in my life, but I think that what matters most in a revolution is what happens afterwards. The revolution is a moment in history that has a sequel, and that sequel is not over. And if you ask me what remains of the revolution? We do.”
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