Demonstrators who joined the millions of people in downtown Cairo a decade ago, 25 January 2011, navigated the shifting sands of the regime’s shock, conciliatory tone and anger and steered Mubarak towards his capitulation in what is still today one of the most momentous days in Egypt’s modern history.
Revolutionaries have described the square as a microcosm for what a free Egypt could look like, where people from all faiths and sects stood side by side and momentarily forgot their differences. They shared a common goal, and they weren’t going to give up until they got it: democracy, the rule of law and an end to police brutality.
Reporting from the outside reflected this cohesion. The revolutionaries were captured in a pink light – no one questioned their individual beliefs, their religion, their political affiliations. They were just Egyptians who, weary with autocracy, despised the fact that their dictator had not only ruled over them for 30 years, but also planned to hand over the reins of power to his son.
Many pinpoint the Battle of the Camel, when Muabarak’s government sent in tourist workers from the village of Nazlet El-Semman on horses and camels to attack the protesters, as the day the ruling National Democratic Party reached the end of the line.
The NDP and its supporters openly incited against the protesters. Because it was streamed live on TV onlookers could clearly see who was responsible for the attacks and it galvanised support for the revolutionaries, both within Egypt and across the world.
After Mubarak stood down, 10 days after the battle, opinion splintered. Some were ecstatic about what they perceived to be the end of authoritarian rule. Others feared that with just the tip of the iceberg sliced off, the underbelly of the administration was about to seek retribution. They were right.
READ: 18 days
As the polarisation creeped in among the people, it was sealed first by a coup, then by the regime’s massacres – a shooting at the Republican Guard Headquarters, an annihilation of protesters at Rabaa Square, and the asphyxiation of prisoners inside a police van outside Abu Zabaal Prison.
The media, both inside and outside Egypt, had their part to play. As the cracks appeared among the demonstrators, journalists went on a frenzy. Who was a human rights defender, and who was a political ideologue? That big, inclusive bubble that once bounced around Tahrir Square was now being picked apart and ultimately onlookers were choosing who had the right to be defended. Egypt’s mainstream media became an echo chamber of pro-regime sympathisers.
Despite the fact that the ruling party and their journalists are trying to erase all memories of the uprising, Egypt’s Arab Spring is locked away in the mind of every Egyptian. It is in the revolutionaries, who understand the taste of freedom and their own power, and it is in the generals, who are desperate to replace the lid of fear, and are yet to realise that they can never make people un-forget those 18 days.
One thing is certain, Egypt would not be where it is today if Europe and the US hadn’t smoothed the way for Sisi’s ascent to power. Egypt would not have got away with Rabaa if the UK had taken a tougher stance on one of its closest allies. Giulio Regeni’s family might have some closure, a real conviction, if Italy had held its arms partner more tightly to account.
Last year, France’s President Emmanuel Macron awarded Sisi with the country’s highest honour, the National Legion of Honour, whilst Germany’s Semperopernball Opera House in Dresden awarded the Order of St. George to the dictator in recognition of his peace-making efforts in North Africa. These awards are not only shockingly contradictory, but also deeply sad for the families of the Egyptians who have died, or been locked up, for speaking out against human rights abuses.
Today, several Egyptian revolutionaries say that their only regret from Egypt’s uprising is that they didn’t go far enough, that they didn’t stay in the square until all their demands were met. Many say that if they were given the chance to do it all again, they would. They also have hope that they will overcome the regime, hope that they will be reunited with their families, and hope that the free world will step up to their so-called European values and hold Egypt to account.
Ten years on, the outside world has lost interest in Egypt, but the wheels of Egyptian injustice have ground on. Yet whilst there is a splinter of ice in the heart of the Arab Spring, every so often virtual or street protests erupt that force the government into a U-turn and show that, little by little, it is melting.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.