By Andrew England
Activists and revolutionaries reflect on their struggles for reform in the countries they fought to free.
There was a chill in the air as Mona Seif walked to Cairo’s Tahrir Square from a protest outside the heavily guarded state television office known as the “fortress of lies”.
Eighteen days into Egypt’s “January 25” revolution in 2011, President Hosni Mubarak stubbornly clung to power and the mood, though defiant, was subdued.
As Seif reached the neoclassical Egyptian Museum on the edge of the square, crowds of people began to scream deliriously. It took the 24-year-old activist a split second to comprehend what was happening: after three weeks of extraordinary highs and deflating lows, punctuated by state-sponsored violence, Mubarak had finally bowed to popular pressure and ended his 30-year reign.
Hundreds of thousands of people exploded in a frenzy of celebration. Women leapt in the air and men pumped their fists. Others knelt and faced Mecca in prayer. “I just remember I cried,” says Seif. “I kept on screaming with people around me and some started hugging me.
I wanted to reach my parents, but the phones were completely down, there were so many people calling. So I started . . . to look for familiar faces — my brother, my father.”
In that giddy moment, it was easy to believe the Arab world had fundamentally changed. Never in modern times had the region been gripped by such expectation.
In December 2010, 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi fatally set himself alight in an act of despair that resonated across nations.
The subsequent mass protests forced the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile on January 15 2011 and triggered a wave of popular uprisings as the Arab spring unfolded.
If Bouazizi’s tragic act sparked the revolutions, it was Mubarak’s fall that truly emboldened protesters throughout the Middle East, breaking a decades-long veil of fear and reinforcing the belief that the people could make a difference.
As the region’s most populous nation, Egypt was traditionally its trendsetter, and Mubarak was the doyen of Arab despots. If he could fall, who was safe?
For millions determined to shake up the old order, it was the moment the impossible seemed possible.
“We felt so empowered that we believed we would be able to deal with anything that came next,” says Seif, who spent the revolution shuttling between Tahrir Square and a “citizens’ journalism hub”, as activists used social media to mobilise and spread their message around the world. “We also knew that there’s something else to deal with,” she says.
“But I don’t think we understood the magnitude of it.” We felt so empowered we believed we’d be able to deal with anything. . . But I don’t think we understood the magnitude of it Mona Seif, Egyptian activist It was a prescient sentiment.
A decade on, Seif has never felt more fearful for the future. Her older brother, Alaa, an icon of the revolution, and her younger sister, Sanaa, are among tens of thousands of people jailed since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seized power in a popularly backed 2013 coup that ousted the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government. Egypt is more oppressive than ever.
A withering crackdown that first targeted the Islamist movement has evolved into an assault against all forms of critical debate. “I don’t operate on hope any more.
I’m mostly motivated by household survival,” Seif says, her speech racing with emotion. “The current state of things is too violent, too nightmarish.” Her family’s experience epitomises a decade of shattered dreams.
Rather than ushering in the freedoms many Arabs yearned for, the uprisings exposed the difficulty of fostering change in nations long ruled by despots who had hollowed out state institutions and built predatory patronage networks.
The Arab spring also highlighted the struggles of popular movements in transforming people power into institutionalised political influence.
Today, it is the strongmen who still dominate, while the grievances that inflamed millions of Arabs, from systemic unemployment to corruption and yawning inequalities, remain.
In many cases, they have worsened. Young revolutionaries whose courage drove the uprisings have been persecuted, with many seeking exile, exhausted by waves of crackdowns.
Syria, Yemen and Libya are ripped apart by conflict, with hundreds of thousands dead and millions forced from their homes. Even in Tunisia, which has managed a successful transition to democracy, there is an aching sense of unfulfilment.
“The revolution raised the slogans of freedom, dignity and employment . . . It was carried out by the defeated, the excluded and the marginalised,” says Olfa Lamloum, a regime opponent who returned to Tunisia after Ben Ali was deposed and now runs an NGO.
“Ten years after the revolution . . . they’re still marginalised. They’re still excluded. They’re still without dignity.” She could be speaking about any of the countries where uprisings erupted.
In 2011, there were about eight million people in the Middle East and North Africa living below a poverty line of $1.90 a day.
By 2018, that number had swelled to 28 million, according to the World Bank, in a region with the world’s highest youth unemployment rate.
Ten years on from that hopeful day in Tahrir Square, a recent survey of young Arabs found that nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds had considered leaving their countries.
In Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, many predicted protests could erupt again, citing corruption and lack of job prospects as the main causes of instability.
Lamloum points to the thousands still making the perilous journey to Italy in boats as a sign of this despair. “This confirms they believe there is no hope left for them in Tunisia,” she says.
Andrew England is the Middle East editor. He was previously MIddle East and Africa news editor. Prior to that, he spent 17 years based in the Middle East and Africa as a foreign correspondent.
His posts included Southern Africa bureau chief, Abu Dhabi bureau chief and Middle East and North Africa correspondent.
He joined the Financial Times in 2004 as East Africa correspondent. Before joining the FT, he was East Africa correspondent for the Associated Press.