By: Robin Yassin-Kassa
In January 2011, days after the first uprising in Tunisia and the protests in Tahrir Square, the Guardian invited leading writers from across the Arab world to reflect on the revolutionary fervour sweeping the region.
Then, they expressed great optimism for the future. Here, they revisit their responses and ask, is there still room for hope?
Five years ago the Guardian asked me to evaluate the effects of the Tunisian uprising on the rest of the Arab world, and specifically Syria. I recognised the country was “by no means exempt from the pan-Arab crisis of unemployment, low wages and the stifling of civil society”, but nevertheless argued that “in the short to medium term, it seems highly unlikely that the Syrian regime will face a Tunisia-style challenge”.
That was published on 28 January 2011. On the same day a Syrian called Hasan Ali Akleh set himself alight in protest against the Assad regime in imitation of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia. Akleh’s act went largely unremarked, but on 17 February tradesmen at Hareeqa in Damascus responded to police brutality by gathering in their thousands to chant “The Syrian people won’t be humiliated”. This was unprecedented. Soon afterwards, the Deraa schoolboys were arrested and tortured for writing anti-regime graffiti. When their relatives protested on 18 March, and at least four were killed, the spiralling cycle of funerals, protests and gunfire was unleashed. In 2011, I wrote that Assad personally was popular, and so he remained until his 30 March speech to the ill-named People’s Assembly. Very many had suspended judgment until that moment, expecting an apology for the killings and an announcement of serious reforms. Instead, Assad threatened, indulged in conspiracy theories, and, worse, giggled repeatedly.
I underestimated the disastrous effects of Assad’s neo-liberal/crony-capitalist restructuring during the previous decade. I was soon to be wrong about many other things too. In April the regime made conciliatory gestures to Islamists and Kurds. At first I thought this showed how hopelessly out of touch it was – the protest movement at this stage was pan‑Syrian and non-sectarian. Then I understood its misinterpretation was deliberate. In the following years the regime would stick to reading the revolution through ethnic and sectarian lenses; and largely due to its own efforts, these eventually came to dominate the field.
“Bashar al-Assad is the leader of the revolution,” one young Damascene told me. “Every time he kills someone, every time he tortures, he creates 10 more men determined to destroy him.” At first the regime’s resort to the “security solution” made me think I had overestimated its intelligence. Then I realised I had underestimated it. Knowing it couldn’t survive a genuine reform process, it provoked a civil war.
The future of the Egyptian revolution
First, the savage repression of peaceful, non-sectarian activists. Tens of thousands were rounded up, tortured, killed or disappeared. At the same time jihadists were released from prison. Then, in response to the revolution’s inevitable militarisation, the regime applied a scorched earth policy. Soldiers burned crops and killed livestock. Civilian neighbourhoods were blasted by artillery, fighter jets, Scud missiles, barrel bombs and sarin gas. A string of regime-organised sectarian massacres in 2012 irretrievably hardened the mood.
The Syrian people’s supposed “friends” failed to seriously arm the revolution, or to protect the people from slaughter. With Assad’s indirect aid, foreign jihadists stepped into the vacuum. Until July 2014, the regime and Islamic State enjoyed an unstated non-aggression pact. Even today, when Isis is fighting the Free Army, the regime (and Russia) bombs the Free Army.
An arsonist posing as a fireman, Assad tells the world his survival is indispensable to defeating jihadism. Too many commentators agree with him, perhaps because commentary in general has tended to ignore the travails and achievements of the Syrian people in favour of the terrorism story and proxy-war chess. As a result, the general public in the west seems to think Syria’s choice is between, as one man recently told me, “President Assad” and “the nutters”.
Since 2011 I have learned to distrust the grand pre-existent narratives of both left and right, to fear the dead(ly) ends of identity politics and to focus instead on the human facts. Like the 300,000 dead and 11 million displaced (the worst refugee crisis since the second world war) – the vast majority at his hand. Plus the more positive realities, such as the revolutionary local councils, usually democratically elected, which do their best to keep life going and which should be part of any settlement. Or like the revolution in culture that has produced groundbreaking music, poetry, critical radio stations and newspapers.
The people practised democracy where they could. Yet by August 2013, counter-revolution seemed to have won, both regionally and globally. In Egypt, that month’s Rabaa massacre began the liquidation of the Muslim Brotherhood, then the repression of everyone else. In Syria, as Barack Obama’s chemical “red line” vanished, Assad killed 1,400 people with chemical weapons. Assad continued to receive Russian weapons; the Egyptian army received theirs from America.
Iran and then Russia rescued the Assad regime from military collapse, although in a way it has collapsed already, subcontracting its powers to foreign states and local warlords. And it has lost four-fifths of the country. Some of “liberated Syria” is held by beleaguered democratic nationalists, Arab or Kurdish, and a lot is strangled by transnational jihadists.
The crisis increases exponentially. The only thing sure about Russia’s invasion is that it is expanding the war in space and time.
So, a five-year accounting: friends and relatives have lost homes, witnessed atrocities, been forced into clandestine migration. Nothing unusual – every Syrian family, from whatever side, has trauma tales to tell. Most are mourning their dead. I will never show Palmyra’s temples or Aleppo’s Umawi mosque minaret to my children – these monuments that survived earthquakes and Mongol invasions are now razed, and the complex social fabric of the country irreparably torn.
Syria has witnessed the depths of human depravity. Syrians have also demonstrated the most inspiring creativity and resilience in the most terrible of circumstances.
Change in Syria and the wider region is running at breakneck pace, and heading in contradictory directions. As to the final results, this time I’ll say it is far, far too early to tell.
Alaa Abd El Fattah (Egyptian blogger) is serving a five-year sentence in Tora prison, Cairo, under the protest law
The only words I can write are about losing my words. Five years ago, on what would turn out to be the last normal day of my life, I sat down at my desk in a small IT firm in Pretoria and pretended to be working while I was writing a short article for the Guardian. It was about why the Egyptian revolution should be taken seriously. Or at least that’s how I remember it. I can’t get back to that article now; it’s been more than a year since I had access to the internet. In Egypt, prisoners aren’t even allowed a phone call. But I shouldn’t complain: at least I get to see my family two or three times a month. Other political prisoners (mostly Islamists) are not allowed visits at all.
On that day five years ago I first engaged in the battle over the narrative of the revolution, a battle that would consume me completely for four years. But on that day I wasn’t even sure a revolution was happening in Egypt; I feared it would fizzle out even as I wrote about a new form of youthful pan‑Arabism.
It would take me another day to fully accept that it was for real and three more before I could fly back to Cairo and join Tahrir. I moved from doubting the depth of the uprising to worrying about arriving too late and missing out on all the action.
After the fall of Hosni Mubarak the battle over narrative grew in importance. The state was forced to compromise with the revolution while trying to contain it by appropriating its story. We articulated why we continued to protest and indeed why we ever protested at all. Are the kids who threw stones at the police revolutionaries or saboteurs? Should the prisoners who died in prison riots be counted among the martyrs of the revolution or not? What is the role of the military in the Mubarak regime? Should education continue to be free in public universities? Do we need a new constitution? If so, who should write it? And so on. I wrote and wrote and wrote, mostly in Arabic, mostly on social media, but sometimes for a national daily. Mainly, I was talking to fellow revolutionaries and, increasingly, my voice became cautionary: how fragile the revolutionary moment was and how precarious our situation were my main themes. And yet I couldn’t shake off the sheer sense of hope and possibility: despite setbacks our dreams continued to soar.
It may have been naive to believe our dream could come true, but not to believe another world was possible
People talk of a barrier of fear but to me it always felt like a barrier of despair and, once removed, even fear, massacres and prisons couldn’t bring it back. I did all the silly things over-optimistic revolutionaries do: I moved back to Egypt permanently, had a child, founded a startup, engaged in a series of progressive initiatives aiming at more popular, decentralised and participatory democracy, broke every draconian law and outdated taboo, walked into prison smiling and walked out of it triumphant.
In 2013 we started to lose the battle for narrative to a poisonous polarisation between a rabidly militarised pseudo-secular statism and a viciously sectarian-paranoid form of Islamism. All I remember about 2013 is how shrill I sounded screaming “A plague on both your houses”, how whiny and melodramatic it felt to complain about the curse of Cassandra warning of an all-consuming fire when no one would listen. As the streets were taken over by rallies that raised the photos of policemen instead of their victims, sit‑ins were filled with chants against the Shia, and Coptic conspiracies flourished, my words lost any power – and yet they continued to pour out of me. I still had a voice, even if only a handful would listen.
But then the state decided to end the conflict by committing the first crime against humanity in the history of the republic. The barriers of fear and despair would return after the Rabaa massacre. Another battle of narrative would start: getting non-Islamists to accept that a massacre had happened at all, to reject the violence committed in their name.
Three months after the massacre I was back in prison, and my prose took on a strange new role. I called on revolutionaries to admit defeat, to give up the optimism that had become dangerous in its encouragement to choose sides: a military triumphalism or an unpopular and impractical insistence on complete regime change. What we needed was all the strength we could muster to maintain some basic defence of human rights.
I narrated defeat because the very language of revolution was lost to us, replaced by a dangerous cocktail of nationalist, nativist, collectivist and post-colonialist language appropriated by both sides of the conflict and used to spin convoluted conspiracy theories and spread paranoia.
Alaa al-Aswany interview: ‘I do not believe the revolution is a political change; it is a human change’
In early 2014 it was still controversial to ask revolutionaries to engage in a human rights campaign limited to revoking the protest law and the release of political prisoners. Most still believed the revolution was winning (defining winning as either the demise or the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood) – the idea that the state of emergency was the new normal was rejected by most.
Today it seems like we won that final battle for narrative. While the state still has its supporters their numbers are shrinking rapidly, especially among the young. Most people are no longer debating the nature of the events of summer 2013. The coup versus revolution debate is passé. Even Sisi supporters don’t really believe that prosperity is coming soon. It is harder to gauge the sentiment among supporters of the Islamists: sympathy with their plight is certainly increasing but faith in their ability to organise an effective unified front against the regime is probably scant. Despair prevails.
I spent most of 2014 in prison, yet I still had lots of words. My audience was much diminished, my message not one of hope, and yet it felt important to remind people that even after admitting defeat we can still resist; that going back to the margins we fought from during Mubarak’s time was acceptable as long as we continued to fight for basic human rights. But by early 2015 as I heard my sentence I had nothing left to say to any public. I could only write personal letters. The revolution, and indeed Egypt itself, would slowly fade out even from those letters, and by autumn 2015 even my personal words dried up. It has been months since I wrote a letter and more than a year since I’ve written an article. I have nothing to say: no hopes, no dreams, no fears, no warnings, no insights; nothing, absolutely nothing. I try to remember what I wrote for the Guardian five years ago on the last normal day of my life. I try to imagine who read that article and what impact it had on them, I try to remember what it was like when tomorrow seemed so full of possibility and my words seemed to have the power to influence (if only slightly) what that tomorrow would look like.
I can’t really remember that. Now tomorrow will be exactly like today and yesterday and all the days preceding and all the days following, I have no influence over anything.
But one thing I do remember, one thing I know: the sense of possibility was real. It may have been naive to believe our dream could come true, but it was not foolish to believe that another world was possible. It really was. Or at least that’s how I remember it.
After Tunisia: Ahdaf Soueif ( Egyptian novelist and commentator) on Egypt in 2011
I’m by the river on a sunny, gentle morning in January. All taken for granted, utterly dependable for thousands of years. The Nile, running south to north, opening up into the delta, the sun sailing across it, east to west. Together, they make the sign of the Ankh: the symbol of life.
Now the river is polluted with everything from sewage to factory chemicals, and, soon, we shall see the effects of the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: the river will run low, maybe it will dry out. Our rich land, the black soil that gave Egypt its first name of Kemet, is being degraded, no longer replenished by the silt of the river, encroached and built on. We refuse to treat the sun as our friend and draw energy from it, instead we sign deals to import coal and deals to build a nuclear energy plant while our basic infrastructure is collapsing with lack of care and maintenance.
In the surge of action and optimism that came with the revolution in January 2011, people’s delegations headed south to mend relations eroded by three decades of prideful neglect, to explore common development with the countries of the Nile Valley. All this is now gone – as has so much else of January 2011: lives and livelihoods, ideas and energy and hope.
Meanwhile, the ruling regime is trying to have it every which way. It affiliates itself with “The Glorious Revolution of 25 January” but pincers it between Police Day – also on 25 January – and the “Revolution of 30 June” when the people came out against the Muslim Brotherhood and the door was opened for the general to seize power. It sings the praises of “Egypt’s youth”, but wages a lethal war against every one of them identified with the revolution. Hundreds of them are behind bars. Dozens are disappeared. And, in an escalation last month, one was stabbed and left for dead in a central Cairo metro station. And these young people are virtually invisible; world governments and media insist on the old dichotomies: the military/business regime versus various Islamists.
Three Basic Facts.
One: the people came out in January 2011 under a straightforward banner: “Bread. Freedom. Social Justice”.
Two: despite all claims to the contrary, no one made the people come out. Yes, activists articulated and politicised their demands; facilitated the protests and the sit-ins; tried to protect and save individuals from Mubarak, the police and the military; but the people – under a certain confluence of circumstances – came out of their own accord. And they knew what they wanted.
Three: the people are realising that they are further than ever from their aims. The killings they suffered, the fascist phase when they colluded in the killing of others – all count for nothing. The grand projects touted by the government – even if they are real – will have no effect on the lives of the poor. The number of ordinary citizens detained and ill-treated by the security services is higher than ever. Even in its chosen war, the “war on terror”, the regime fails: our soldiers and citizens are killed in Sinai every day. The infrastructure of people’s daily lives – hospitals, schools, transport, employment – is getting worse. The reasons people came out in 2011 are still there – are more acute.
But there are also differences between now and then. The euphoric hope generated by Ben Ali’s swift departure from Tunis has been replaced by horror at the spectacle of Libya, Syria and Yemen. People feel they have tried what is available – revolution, political Islam – and nothing has worked. Where is the alternative, they ask.
The regime is trying to ensure that there is no alternative: associations are outlawed; student elections are cancelled; cultural spaces closed. Journalists and photographers and students and doctors and engineers endure harsh conditions in jail.
And so the eruption, when it comes, will be born of despair rather than hope. It will be the eruption of people who have borne witness to or averted their eyes from murder for five years – people who are no longer innocent. It will not be amenable to calls for non-violence, and anyway the most effective of the non-violent activists are dead or in prison or have left the country. As our fifth anniversary draws near, the dread in which the ruling regime holds it becomes more palpable by the day.
Personally, all I want for the revolution’s fifth anniversary is that it should end without more young people murdered, detained or disappeared; that on 26 January the Nile and the sun are still in place. Then we will simmer along like this for a while and see what we look like when we come, once again, to the boil.