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Egypt’s Dystopia Is a Lesson for the World

Article written by Jack Shenker and published in Vice on 25 January 2021

Ten years after the revolution, Tahrir Square is sanitised, the dictatorship in place harsher than the one it replaced. But while the revolutionary generation came from ruins, it is not ruined.

“Is this intensive care?” someone shouts, as the hospital corridor convulses with panic. Medics rush from room to room; crowds of concerned relatives begin to gather; an equipment trolley has spilled to the floor. Amid the commotion, some patients are bent over, seemingly gasping for breath. Others are surrounded by hospital staff, who are desperately attempting resuscitation. Some are alone, lying completely still. “You filthy government,” cries a woman. “They killed my mother.”

These are the scenes in a video that emerged in early January, appearing to show the awful, angry moments after oxygen supplies first ran out at a major Egyptian hospital, ending the lives of COVID patients who were hooked up to respirators. It wasn’t the last. Just hours later, 40 miles east across the Nile Delta, an almost-identical scene unfolded. “Everyone in the ICU is dead, it’s only the medical staff left,” says a man who has just lost his aunt and is filming the aftermath on his phone. The footage shows manual pumps being used in a final effort to get air into patients’ lungs. Next to them, bedside monitors have flatlined.

At one point in the clip, a nurse is seen slumped on the ground and hugging her knees to her chest, apparently overcome with shock and exhaustion. That image went viral too.

“It’s iconic,” says Rana Mamdouh, a journalist for Mada Masr – one of Egypt’s last remaining independent media outlets – who has been reporting on the oxygen supplies scandal.

“The first instinct of the government in these situations is always to deny that there is a problem, to investigate and arrest anyone making allegations, to frame everything as a security issue. But the picture of the nurse revealed something else: the real suffering experienced by medics in this crisis, the lack of resources, the negligence shown by the state when it comes to people’s lives. Her figure captured all of this.”

Ten years on from the start of a revolutionary uprising that gripped the planet and toppled one of its most entrenched dictators, today there are a great many Egyptians who know what it’s like to be neglected by the state, and who are intimately familiar with shock and exhaustion.

Over the past decade – as different political actors jockeyed for control of the Arab world’s most populous nation, and short-lived democratic hopes gave way to counter-revolution and a brutal military autocracy – it has been ordinary citizens who have borne the brunt of state violence, whether that has come at the hands of a security apparatus accustomed to torturing the regime’s enemies, or whether it’s been inflicted by a healthcare system long starved of investment in order to free up funds for well-connected generals and vainglorious national mega-projects.

The ousting of autocrat Hosni Mubarak – who ruled the country for 30 years and was the only president most Egyptians had ever known – set off a turbulent transition period overseen by Egypt’s gerontocratic martial leaders, culminating in a presidential election run-off in which Mohamed Morsi, a hugely-divisive candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood movement, narrowly triumphed over a figurehead from the old regime.

Popular discontent at Morsi’s administration, which combined some efforts at meaningful reform with repeated crackdowns against ongoing revolutionary protest, provided the army with an opening to move in and regain control for themselves. The dictatorship of former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which followed Morsi, has, in nearly every respect, proved to be harsher and more deadly than anything that came before.

It all feels a far cry from the heady hours of the 25th of January, 2011, when protesters in Cairo broke through line after line of armed police to seize Tahrir Square, the sprawling plaza at the heart of Egypt’s capital that swiftly became synonymous with mass rallies for radical change across the globe. “Aish, horreya, karama insaniyah!” they yelled, in one of the revolution’s most famous chants: “Bread, freedom, human dignity!”

As Egypt correspondent for the UK’s Guardian newspaper at the time, I was marching with them, sharing in the sense that something epic was unfolding around us, and that history was tilting. Back then, as demonstrations swept the Middle East, as the Occupy and Indignados movements erupted in Europe and North America, and as hundreds of thousands took to the streets in countries like Russia, India, Chile and Côte d’Ivoire, it seemed as if Egypt’s turmoil might epitomise a new reckoning for tired elites, whose economic policies and political vocabulary had nothing to offer young people – as well as a new dawn for a generation no longer willing to tolerate the status quo.

In 2021, Egypt represents something different, and darker – although just as tangled up with people and politics beyond its borders.

“The narrative that what happened in Egypt was a total failure, that things just returned back to exactly where they started, is pushed by those who are unable to understand or accept the challenge posed by those 18 days,” says Professor Khaled Fahmy, an Egyptian historian now based at the University of Cambridge, referring to the period of revolutionary protest in Tahrir that brought Mubarak’s reign to a close. “It was an effort to imagine an alternative form of society, one that had implications not just for Egypt, but for societies everywhere. It tried to make a space where those conversations could happen, and in that it succeeded. It was possible. And precisely because it was possible, it was dangerous.”

In Tahrir – the Tahrir of 2011, that is, back when the square heaved with humanity, when makeshift music stages, hairdressers, cafes and classrooms dotted the asphalt, when people and events moved at such a pace that the ground itself seemed to disappear beneath your feet – it was the field hospitals that saw the best and worst of things.

“They don’t stand a chance,” one volunteer doctor told me at the time, as he carried out emergency surgery on young boys who had been running in waves towards the Interior Ministry, just to the east of Tahrir, flinging stones, which were met with gunfire. We were in an alleyway mosque at the back of Hardees, a burger joint, and the prayer mats were soaked through with blood. Patients who survived were always determined to rush back to the frontline, where a complex, chaotic network of lookouts and barricade-builders and rescue motorbikes tumbled into clouds of tear-gas, while others waited with soothing liquid to squirt into stinging eyes as soon as the revolutionaries were beaten back. When someone died – and on the bad days, someone was always dying – their clothing might be hung reverentially on a fence, or hoisted on a stick and marched defiantly around the square, provoking a roar of remembrance for the martyrs.

“From a medical point of view, we’ve done amazingly,” said a cardiologist who was manning a field hospital on the other side of Tahrir, by the Egyptian Museum, the morning after men riding horses and camels laid siege to the crowd with clubs, machetes and shards of glass. She had treated about 200 patients on the pavement that night, two of whom died in her lap. Demonstrators defended themselves with whatever they could lay their hands on, donning impromptu helmets made out of colanders, cardboard, or even loaves of bread, and eventually managed to repel the attackers – but still, the injuries mounted. “At one point a bus of baltagiya [pro-regime thugs] drove right up to us and we had to flee and scatter, each carrying our patients,” the cardiologist explained, calmly.

This 30-year-old woman had been living a comfortable life abroad when the revolution began, but flew back the moment she saw what was unfolding on TV. Upon arriving at her family home in Cairo, her relatives – terrified for her safety – had stood in front of her car in an attempt to physically prevent her from reaching Tahrir. “People ask me why I’m here, and there’s only one answer,” she told me. “I’m not here as a protester, I’m not here as a doctor, I’m just here as an Egyptian. We all are.

”Protecting human life, and the integrity of Egyptian bodies, was always a core element of the revolution – ranged as it was against a state that viewed Egyptian bodies as disposable. Corruption during the Mubarak era took many forms, from the cheap acquisition of lucrative desert land and entire public industries by regime-friendly business tycoons, to the bribes citizens were expected to pay to police officers, permit-granters, traffic wardens and any other official representative they encountered. But it manifested itself most blatantly in moments of fatal disaster, such as the infamous Red Sea ferry fire in 2006 – when a boat owned by a senior lawmaker for Mubarak’s ruling party ended up sinking in the waves, killing more than a thousand passengers. There weren’t enough lifeboats or lifejackets onboard, and a subsequent investigation found that the owner had collaborated with the maritime authorities to ensure the ferry could sail, despite not meeting minimum safety standards. He was allowed to leave the country soon afterwards, and has never returned to face justice.

Those who dared to speak out about these abuses of power often found their bodies broken in a different way: with ropes, whips and electrodes, in jail cells that could be found in far-flung military bases, downtown police stations and everywhere in-between.

Fighting for a world in which Egyptians could go through the day without fearing arbitrary assaults on their bodies meant fighting for a political system that wasn’t designed to exclude Egyptians from decision-making. In Mubarak’s Egypt, you could petition the state – for attention, resources or forgiveness – much as a child might appeal to a parent. But you could never impose demands upon it as a citizen, as someone with as much right to shape the way in which official power was exercised as anyone else. “We had an enormous sense that we were being deactivated,” observedthe Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif. “The message which was coming to us constantly was: ‘You can’t do anything. You have no agency. You are powerless.’”

Tahrir was a living, breathing rejection of that sentiment, a place where hipsters shacked up in tents next to devout Islamists, and political debate pulsed through the throng like an electrical current. The Mubarak regime’s complete domination of the physical landscape was a hallmark of its authority, so the existence of this messy, unsanctioned human sprawl struck at the very foundations of his dictatorship – upending the notion that sovereignty could only ever be locked away in a private citadel, and that ordinary Egyptians could never scale the walls.

One of the most spine-tingling moments of the 18 days came at the end, just after Mubarak had finally fallen, and a wild, triumphant march began from the presidential palace in Cairo’s suburbs back towards the square. As the vast mass of demonstrators passed the Ministry of Defence, the occupants of which had now assumed formal control of the country, we came to a stop, and thousands of voices began to chant in unison towards the building’s darkened windows. “Ahum, ahum, ahum, el-masryeen ahum,” they thundered, pointing down at the street below. “Here, here, here, the Egyptians are here.”

Those on the other side of the glass understood the message, and they have been working to obliterate it ever since. Today, Tahrir has been remodelled and sanitised: new railings and an underground car park entrance have been installed to prevent protesters from congregating in the square; armed security forces are stationed at every corner; in the middle, where revolutionaries have tried to lay flowers in memory of those killed during the uprising (one young poet and mother, Shaimaa el-Sabagh, was gunned down by police while attempting to do this in 2014), an ancient 90-ton Egyptian obelisk now stands, surrounded by four giant sphinxes. The protest graffiti that once blanketed this part of the city has long been scrubbed clean.

“This is where people exchanged ideas – not in a mosque, or a university, or a shopping mall, but somewhere that was democratic and open to all,” recalls Professor Fahmy. “It is no accident that they are trying to eradicate the memory of what happened here.”

And yet, the truth is that Egypt’s revolutionary unrest was never confined to Tahrir Square – and nor is the counter-revolution that continues to rage against it. The genesis of what people around the world saw on their television screens back in January of 2011 lay far away from central Cairo, in places where news cameras rarely ventured: villages where residents had been cutting off motorways in protest at spiralling food prices; factories where tens of thousands of workers were walking out on strike to resist privatisation and insecurity; informal urban settlements, out on the fringes of major cities, whose inhabitants burned tyres and did battle with the security forces sent to evict them.

The thread that bound together all these grievances was a national economic makeover aimed at scaling back welfare provision and the public sector, selling off nationalised industries and creating new investment opportunities in the global marketplace – one that was sponsored by international financial institutions and pushed by leading countries in the global north.

Its proponents competed with one another to lavish ever-greater praise on the reforms, and on the authoritarian reformers determined to carry them out, regardless of the human cost. “I really consider President and Mrs Mubarak to be friends of my family,” said then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009 (Egypt is one of the largest beneficiaries of US aid on Earth, receiving $1.3 billion a year from Washington in military funding alone).

In the run-up to revolution, the IMF hailed Egypt’s economic policies as “prudent”, “impressive” and “bold”, and the World Bank labelled the country its “top Middle East reformer” three years in a row. Even as the 2011 uprising began, and Egyptian security forces bore down upon demonstrators with deadly force, former UK prime minister Tony Blair hit the airwaves to describe Mubarak – a key partner in the US-led so-called War on Terror and extraordinary rendition programme – as “immensely courageous” and “a force for good”. “I don’t think the West should be the slightest bit embarrassed about the fact that it’s been working with Mubarak,” Blair said.

A decade later, with a brief flurry of pro-revolution platitudes now long forgotten – “We should teach the Egyptian revolution in our schools,” remarked then-prime minister David Cameron in February of 2011, shortly before he made an “inspiring” visit to Tahrir Square as part of an arms-sales tour across the region – western leaders have reprised their role as staunch defenders of Egypt’s dictatorship, whose interests are increasingly entwined with their own.

Sisi, Egypt’s current president and the man who oversaw the massacre of nearly 1,000 protesters during a single day in 2013 (shortly after he deposed Mohamed Morsi, who later died in jail), is a regular presence on the red carpet in European capitals. Considered a bulwark against both violent extremism and mass migrationfrom the region, despite there being scant evidence of his effectiveness on either front, Sisi’s security forces are equipped with French fighter jets, Italian frigates, German submarines and British assault rifles,. Last month, President Emmanuel Macron awarded him France’s highest order of merit, the Légion d’honneur.

But for Sisi, even more vital than cutting-edge weaponry and prestigious photo-calls is the growing entrenchment of his regime in a globalised financial system, which helps ensure that his own stability – and, consequently, the suppression of any future revolutionary challenge – is aligned with the economic concerns of western states and some of the world’s biggest multinational forces. A huge surge in both international loans (Egypt’s external debt has doubled as a proportion of GDP since Sisi assumed power) and foreign direct investment, particularly in the oil and gas sector (BP, Britain’s biggest company, pours more money into Egypt than any other country), has helped drive rising inequality, as ordinary Egyptian taxpayers shoulder a disproportionate strain when it comes to paying back the interest-heavy loans and the related government cuts to social spending. Ten million Egyptians have been newly dragged down into poverty over the past half-decade; meanwhile, the number of “ultra high net worth individuals” in Cairo is rising faster than anywhere else on the planet.

“The Egyptian government’s fiscal and economic policies are accelerating the transfer of wealth from lower and middle classes to itself and business elites, with likely devastating consequences,” warned Maged Mandour, an analyst for the Carnegie Endowment, in a report last year entitled “Sisi’s war on the poor”. He went on to note that higher levels of deprivation could be detected most clearly in areas like healthcare – where spending as a proportion of GDP has plummeted, leaving less money for doctors, nurses, hospital beds, COVID tests and oxygen tanks. None of this appears to trouble Egypt’s enthusiastic foreign backers; business media giant Bloomberg recently lauded the country as an “emerging market darling”.

On the ground, this emerging market darling is responsible for an estimated 60,000 political prisoners currently languishing behind bars, more than 3,000 civilians killed by the security forces since 2013, hundreds of forced disappearances every year and an epidemic of state torture that one international rights group believes may amount to a crime against humanity. Mass trials, in which dozens or even hundreds of defendants at a time are sentenced to capital punishment, are not uncommon. In an upcoming report, the campaigning organisation Reprieve warns that “the use of the death penalty in Egypt has spiralled out of control”.

Children are among those routinely targeted as suspected dissidents. “Security officials forcibly disappeared Abdullah for more than six months,” claimed Human Rights Watch in a 2020 investigation, which detailed the beatings, electric shocks and waterboarding suffered in detention by one boy from the northern Sinai town of al-Arish, whose brother was suspected of terrorism. “Interrogators lit a fire under an iron bedframe and forced Abdullah to lie on the hot metal,” the report added. At the time of his arrest, Abdullah was 12 years old.

In Sisi’s Egypt, it doesn’t take much to come to the attention of the authorities: a risqué joke, a cheeky memesong lyrics that could be construed as seditious. Human rights activists, unsurprisingly, have borne the brunt of recent crackdowns: late last year, three members of staff at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights were taken into custody and held in solitary confinement at a poorly-conditioned prison while being questioned about their organisation’s “false” reports on the country’s poor prison conditions. Journalists are being repressed, too; after China and Turkey, Egypt is now the third-biggest jailer of reporters on the planet, and members of the press attempting to conduct unauthorised interviews risk endangering not only themselves, but also the safety of anyone they speak to.

Yet, among those who have found themselves summoned to a police station – or stopped at the airport, or bundled into unmarked cars while doing their shopping – are also many Egyptians who have done little more than amassed significant followings for themselves on TikTok; Egyptians who have raised a rainbow flag at a music concert; Egyptians who have accused men from well-connected families of rape. As the writer Wael Eskandar puts it, unlike in Mubarak’s era, the aim now is not just to win the political battlefield – it is to eliminate the battlefield altogether.

For many of those who participated directly in the tumultuous events of early 2011, and the dizzying, see-saw months of political drama that followed, this ten-year anniversary is a weird and contradictory marker: a reminder of something that feels both impossibly distant and, simultaneously, like it never went away.

“That year came with so much – so much promise, and so much trauma,” says Noor Noor, a revolutionary protester whom I first met on the 25th of January, 2011, as we were both being carted off to the desert in the back of a police truck. That night, shaken by their momentary loss of control at the centre of Egypt’s capital, the security forces had unleashed a massive assault on Tahrir, scattering thousands into the backstreets and pinning down anyone left behind. We had endured a long drive into the darkness together alongside 42 others, in a space that could comfortably fit no more than ten. Many were bloodied and bruised, but none that I spoke to held any regrets. We ended up escaping en masse upon arrival at our destination, a state security headquarters on the outskirts of Cairo. Three days later, Egyptians descended in their hundreds of thousands all over the country, from Alexandria to Aswan, and beat the police off the streets.

“When I reflect back on that time, it doesn’t really feel like the faraway past,” Noor told me on the phone recently. “It feels like looking at physical and emotional scars that are there every day. There’s a shit-ton of survivor’s guilt, because so many others have died, so many others are in prison.”

Some of the most prominent anti-regime figures from 2011 got out and are now exiled from the country they tried to remake. Friends who have remained in Egypt navigate a surreal terrain, in which some form of disassociation and escapism from the revolution is an essential part of maintaining one’s sanity, and yet where symbols of its defeat – the informers sitting watchfully at the local shisha café, the security checkpoints that now litter most neighbourhoods, the portraits of Sisi plastered onto 20-foot billboards – are everywhere.

An officer can demand to search your phone on a whim; a knock at the door could be the milkman, or the beginning of an armed raid. “We’re still standing, you say,” wroteYasmine Zohdi, a Cairo-based translator and editor, late last year. “And we are. But we’re never really on solid ground, are we? It’s precarious, you know. We’re teetering on the edge, but not falling.”

Thirty miles east of Cairo, way out past the first ring road, and then the second ring road, and then the mash-up edgelands where urban blocks give way to desert dunes, a concrete forest is soaring into the sky. “Our aim is to build a new Egypt,” Sisi told the United Nations soon after assuming the presidency in 2014. Here, as far away from Tahrir as possible, his vision is becoming a reality. This is the country’s future administrative capital, being constructed in the sand from scratch at an estimated cost of nearly $60 billion (about £44 billion). Once it’s completed, the freshly-minted city will supposedly house more than 6 million people, along with the entire machinery of government, a giant diplomatic quarter and the second-tallest dancing fountains on Earth.

“The term ‘revolution’ has been weaponised and fetishised, and it’s become very triggering,” remarked Noor. “The apparatus of the state has done everything it can to associate the revolution with pain and regret.” Nowhere does that pain burn brighter than inside the corridors of power. Memories of the 18 days may have been bleached from the walls of downtown Cairo, but for those doing the bleaching, the 2011 anti-Mubarak uprising remains a permanent trauma. That’s why they are determined to turn their backs on the places where it happened, replacing the labyrinthine alleyways where protesters outfoxed the security forces with broad, straight avenues that lack any natural focal point upon which people might converge. In Cairo, revolutionaries strung up bedsheets between balconies and hijacked the electricity supply from lamp posts to project video footage exposing the army’s role in attacking civilians. In the new capital, that kind of illicit, grassroots media won’t be feasible: the electricity supply in lamp posts will be inaccessible, and the balconies will be spaced too far apart.

“At best,” says Fahmy, the historian, “we – the Egyptian people – are a nuisance to the regime. At worst, we are a danger. In either case, we are a burden. This new city is an escape from us, a Versailles to which the elites can withdraw and surround themselves with fences.

”According to the government, Egypt’s COVID death toll currently stands at just under 9,000, including more than 300 doctors – but several medical experts (including some from the World Health Organisation) have cast doubt on the reliability of those figures, and at least one foreign journalist has been expelled from the country after reporting on doubts over the official infection rate. In the midst of this crisis, Sisi’s prime minister visited the site of the administrative capital and declared that the country’s “biggest challenge” was to “stick to the original construction schedule”.

“The failures of our healthcare system, and the failures of our political system, are part and parcel of the same thing,” Rana Mamdouh, the Mada Masr journalist, told me. “The outcome of the revolution ten years ago has led us to where we are today.”

“This promise of revolt remains ever-present in the political moment – it extends beyond the Middle East, and belongs to all who seek a different world.”

As those terrible videos from inside COVID intensive care units first began to circulate, showing patients on respirators dying all at once as their oxygen supplies gave out, the state responded quickly – by arresting some of those who had shot them. Government officials explained to sympathetic newspapers and talk show hosts that the footage had been fabricated by individuals who were in the service of groups hostile to the country; the director of another public hospital, who had made a frantic appeal for local oxygen canisters on Facebook after his own started to run perilously low, was detained for questioning. He was eventually released after a popular outcry, but dozens of other healthcare workers have fallen foul of the security forces since coronavirus landed in Egypt, and a new criminal offence – “spreading false rumours about the pandemic” – has been added to the statute book, punishable with a hefty fine. “The fact is, this is not our regime,” says Fahmy. “This is not our state, it is not answerable to us, it is not doing our bidding. It’s not ours.”

What gives Fahmy hope in the long-term, as well as the sporadic – albeit quickly contained – protests that have continued to flare up in different parts of Egypt over recent years, is the regime’s own lack of imagination: the absence of any promise for the future, beyond blind obedience to the dictatorship on the part of Egyptian citizens. “In Sisi’s eyes, Egypt is to be managed like a military camp; in a military camp, you follow orders, and you certainly don’t use your imagination,” he says. “That’s not a vision. There’s nothing there that even pretends to be inspiring.”

As a historian, Fahmy sees similarities between Egypt’s revolution – and counter-revolution – on the one hand, and events in Europe in the late 1840s on the other, when political upheavals roiled the continent, challenging the power structures of monarchical empires in a push for independent nation states and new democratic freedoms. In the short-term, the uprisings were subdued; in the long-term, they are credited by many with sounding the death knell for an outdated form of politics, paving the way for seismic, progressive reforms a quarter of a century later.

“2011 wasn’t just a political uprising,” says Noor, my companion from the police truck. “There was a plethora of tiny revolutions on the social and cultural front, things which shook up family and intergenerational dynamics in unpredictable ways. Rather than just talking about regime change, I think of the revolution not as an outcome, but as a process.”

Egypt’s revolutionary moment – broadcast live to the world in real-time ten years ago – has been drawn decisively to a close for now, a process aided by many western governments, who were only too happy to publicly applaud the “Tahrir spirit”. Perhaps that is in part because they saw something in it that threatened more than just a single, ageing Egyptian autocrat: a movement that connected the dots between political and economic injustice, at a time when rampant inequality was compelling many others, in the global north and the global south, to do the same.

Aish, horreya, adela igtimaiyah,” ran another version of that famous Tahrir chant calling for bread, freedom and human dignity. This one, even more popular, demanded bread, freedom and social justice. The past decade has seen more global proteststhan any period since the 1960s, often driven by young people who have come of age in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and who know from lived experience that “business as usual” is no longer tenable, either for themselves or for the fragile planet that surrounds them. The devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic has only illuminated that fact more sharply.

Egypt’s trajectory since 2011 offers a window, onto both a dystopian future in which those with power and money retreat into armoured enclaves and develop ever-more innovative strategies of control and repression for the rest of us, and also onto an alternative path, where collective imagination from below is capable of plunging even the hardiest of dictatorships into disarray. That matters, especially for a generation who, in the words of the philosopher Marshall Berman, come from ruins, but are not ruined.

“The Arab uprisings point to the hope, necessity and potential that rebellion holds,” Adam Hanieh, a Middle Eastern scholar, wrote several years ago, as the early political gains of Egypt’s revolution began to falter. “This promise of revolt remains ever-present in the political moment – it extends beyond the Middle East, and belongs to all who seek a different world.”

-Published in Vice
-January 2021

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