Essay: #Jan25 - Ten Years After Egypt's Revolution

A revolution is a dare to the future as much as it is a reckoning with the past. It is a message in a bottle flung at our future selves that challenges us to remember. 

“Your imagination brought you to the streets. Your disobedience kept you there,” the message from the revolution insists. “Remember how you felt when you knew that you deserved to be free!” 

That is where liberation begins: imagination. And that is what filled Tahrir (translation: Liberation) Square and so many other squares across Egypt 10 years ago: disobedience. 

Ten years ago, a mistake by the then dictator, Hosni Mubarak, became a revolutionary opportunity: he cut off access to the internet in a bid to quash protestors’ mobilization via Twitter and Facebook. Instead, he inadvertently forced more people into the streets against him.

Over the past 10 years, a mistake by the current  dictator, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, became a revolutionary opportunity: he shut down the streets in a bid to quash protests. Instead, he has inadvertently forced people online to the internet to mobilize against not just him but other iterations of the conservative, patriarchal authoritarianism he represents.

None of the revolutions that began when a man set himself on fire in Tunisia in December 2010 have been about gender equality. But if a man began the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, it will be women who will complete them.

The vanguard now are women and queer people who have been using social media to say “I count” in ways that mirror how Generation Facebook flexed its muscles in the only space available to them pre-Jan25. 

Tahrir Square became the contested offline space in 2011. Bedrooms and living rooms are the contested spaces in 2021. The revolution has gone home, the hardest of all revolutions because all dictators go home. 

Who does the revolution liberate? Who is the revolution for? The revolution asks difficult questions and we are tasked with coming up with necessary answers.

None of the revolutions that began when a man set himself on fire in Tunisia in December 2010 have been about gender equality. But if a man began the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, it will be women who will complete them.

Although women marched alongside men in the uprisings, in the aftermath, men remain at war with men (literally or politically) as they jockey for power, while few gains are made for women in the conservative societies of the region. The millions of us who dreamed of a revolution all our lives did not dream of the cishet dick-swinging contests that so many of the revolutions devolved into.

A feminist revolution disobeys all those who insist “People are not ready,” because as revolutionaries we must recognize that if our communities are ready for us, we are too late

When I say the revolution must be feminist or it is not my revolution, I am often told “This isn’t the time,” as if women are a special interest issue that is a distraction to the revolutionary struggle and not half of humanity. We are low on the list of “our” priorities — a list determined by men. 

It is true that our dictators oppress everyone, men and women. But while the State oppresses men and women, the State, the Street and the Home together oppress women, creating a Trifecta of Misogyny. That trifecta, and not just the State alone, is the true structure of our oppression.

When we target that trifecta we target patriarchy. And that is happening in Egypt now. Does it come with a price? What revolution does not?

Women and queer people have taken the revolution home. The State is under the control of the ex-army chief who in March 2011, less than a month after the revolution forced Mubarak to step down, greenlit the sexual assault of female activists in the form of “virginity tests.” That same dictator--Sisi--in 2017 carried out the worst crackdown against the LGBTQ community in modern Egyptian history

In Egypt, as well as the region, increasingly bold expressions of sexual freedom are clearly unsettling a regime accustomed to being the guardian not just of “national security” but also of our bodies and sexualities. 

A revolution is not a season or a colour. It is the feet on the ground of astonishingly courageous people who dared to demand the fall of a regime that had robbed them of so much, including the right to imagine. 

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A feminist revolution targets patriarchy in the State, Street, and the Home because it recognizes that there is no liberation without sexual liberation, without gender liberation, without queer liberation. It states as a revolutionary statement: I own my body, not the State, not the Street, not the Home. I do.

A feminist revolution dares to imagine liberation from the militarism of the State and from its echo in the conservatism of the Street and the Home. A feminist revolution recognizes that the hardest revolution is the one at the Home because all dictators go home. 

And a feminist revolution disobeys all those who insist “People are not ready,” because as revolutionaries we must recognize that if our communities are ready for us, we are too late

A revolution does not happen overnight. And because, as Audre Lorde insisted, “Revolution is not a one-time event,” I will not write its obituary. 

I rarely say “Arab Spring.” That is the preferred term of those who had no skin in our revolution, who shed neither blood nor tears on its streets, and who were not the ones who when faced with bullets, could not imagine anywhere else they would rather be than confronting the regime which fired them. Those who prefer“Arab Spring,” have too flippantly written countless obituaries to what they declare a winter of failure. 

A revolution is not a season or a colour. It is the feet on the ground of astonishingly courageous people who dared to demand the fall of a regime that had robbed them of so much, including the right to imagine. 

Our autocrat is a coward who has built more prisons than hospitals or schools since the revolution because he is scared of us and of our insistence that we count.

“The people demand the fall of the regime!” echoed unceasingly across Tahrir Square.

The demand was clear. Only one man fell - Hosni Mubarak, who spent 30 years of his life stealing from, torturing and holding Egypt captive. Five U.S. presidents --Democrat and Republican-- propped him up. In fact, during our revolution, Joe Biden - the current U.S. president who was at the time Barack Obama’s vice president - refused to call Mubarak a dictator.  

The regime remains. For almost every year since 1952 when a coup/revolution ended the monarchy and British occupation, Egypt has been under the domestic occupation of a military-backed regime. Sitting atop it now is our current dictator, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. Donald Trump, whose presidency ended just a week ago, used to call Sisi “my favourite dictator.”

Remember that, when you ask over and over “What happened? Why are you still not free?”

We the unarmed people of Egypt are faulted for not being free of the rule of the 10th most powerful army in the world that is armed by the most powerful country in the world as well as the European Union and a host of allies whose calculation has always favoured the stability of the regime over the freedom of the people.

Mubarak killed some 900 people during the 2011 revolution. Sisi killed more than 800 in one day in 2013. 

And still we rise, to borrow and adapt from Maya Angelou.

From Tahrir Square to the whole world, from Egypt in 2011 to all revolutionaries in 2021, from ACAB to Defund and Abolish the Police, you cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.

Liberty is not just freedom from the violence of a military regime and its brutal police force. Poverty too is violence. Capitalism too is violence. The ostentatious mega-projects that reflect the ego of our military dictator--at twice his natural size-- too are violence in a country of 100 million of whom almost a third live on less than $2 a day. 

In a 1982 address called “Learning from the 60s,” the Black, feminist lesbian poet Audre Lorde was clear: “The 60s should teach us how important it is not to...believe that revolution is a one-time event, or something that happens around us rather than inside of us. Not to believe that freedom can belong to any one group of us without the others also being free.”

You will not see millions packed into Tahrir Square for this 10th anniversary of our revolution not just because there is a pandemic that is decimating Egypt’s already crumbling healthcare system, but because our autocrat is a coward who has built more prisons than hospitals or schools since the revolution because he is scared of us and of our insistence that we count.

The 17th century Sufi poet Bulleh Shah implored “...don't break a human heart, for that is where God resides,” 

Our broken and impatient hearts are where revolution resides. Our broken and impatient hearts are where Tahrir Square still demands the fall of the regime.

“Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed,” the Chicanx labour leader and activist Cesar Chavez said. “You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”

We will never unsee what we saw in Egypt ten years ago. Even in countries in the region that did not have revolutions of their own, the sight of disobedient millions rising up in Egypt saying “Enough!” and demanding freedom and dignity set their imaginations, too, on fire. 

A revolution that so many of us dreamed of our entire lives rose up on Police Day--January 25--to protest police drunk on power who protect and serve only the regime and its cronies.

From Tahrir Square to the whole world, from Egypt in 2011 to all revolutionaries in 2021, from ACAB to Defund and Abolish the Police, you cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.

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Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author, commentator and disruptor of patriarchy. Her first book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (2015) targeted patriarchy in the Middle East and North Africa and her second The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls (2019) took her disruption worldwide. Her commentary has appeared in media around the world and she makes video essays and writes a newsletter as FEMINIST GIANT.  

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