Five years on - the Arab Spring and Egypt

Emad Mekay

Memories of the unprecedented changes brought about by uprisings across the region, allied with discontent at the rapid reversion to the status quo, suggests ‘a smouldering fire ready to erupt’

Once a favourite hangout for optimistic young Egyptian revolutionaries, the ‘Communists’ café’ in downtown Cairo is only half-full at the busiest time. The loud cheers heard in the bustling café almost exactly five years ago, from young protestors who celebrated how they toppled one of the most deeply entrenched and brutal dictatorships in just 18 days, have now been replaced by whispers of fear – again.

The few young patrons who stubbornly still come here look over their shoulders and hesitate to talk about politics. After all, café owners in downtown Cairo have all been ordered by the much-feared State Security Police to report suspicious behaviour, such as ‘people talking about politics’ or ‘four or five people sitting on one table’.

This café, with rows of cheap plastic chairs, was one of a series of alleyway venues where young people met and planned their Arab Spring protests over hot drinks of sweet mint black tea and puffs of apple-scented shisha. The atmosphere back then was one of optimism and hope. Five years on, after the fall of former dictator Hosni Mubarak, everything about this place reeks of despair or, at best, anticipation of something unknown and undefined.

When young people finally agree to talk about politics and the Arab Spring, they complain of a botched revolt, infiltration among their ranks by military intelligence, Western powers that turned against their democratic aspirations, and a disappointing runaway leadership.

Egyptian comedian and Jon Stewart-wannabe Bassem Youssef, once a hero for patrons of this café, has left for the US after, many say, making a six-figure income out of television channels backed by the anti-revolution business elites and Arab Gulf monarchies fearful of the spread of revolution to their countries – the very people those young protestors revolted against.

Instead of bashing dictatorship, Youssef routinely ridiculed the country’s first elected president, Mohammed Morsi, and went as far as to celebrate the mass murder of pro-Morsi protesters at Cairo’s Rabaa Square in 2013 with a song that praised the-then army chief, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Now, Youssef rarely makes statements on his social media accounts against the ruling military, even though he still professes to back democracy.

Wael Ghonim, aka the ‘Google Guy’, made famous in the Western press due to a Facebook page he founded that reportedly rallied young people against Mubarak, ended up writing a book, not in Egypt or in an Arab Spring country, but in the US and in English.

Today’s strategy needs to take into consideration the Arab desire for autonomy, high literacy among the youth under 25 years of age and their instant communication via social media

John Vernon
Chair, IBA Human Rights Law Committee

Ghonim, too, lives in the US, and has lost support at home among the revolutionaries for initially siding with the military who ended the country’s first, and only, brush with democracy.

Asmaa Mahfouz, the young woman in a headscarf who famously challenged men to go out to protest against Mubarak on 25 January 2011 in an impromptu homemade video watched secretly by Arabs on their mobile phones, is now happily married. With ‘a cute kid’, those who used to know her say she is now focusing on her new family life as a homemaker. Her once-magical mix of revolutionary talk and a childlike Arabic accent is nowhere to be found, either online or at this café.

The few leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood who took part in the revolution and were not arrested by the military have sought refuge in Turkey, Qatar or Europe under heavy, often bloody, hits from the ruling military.

Internationally, revolutionaries say Western powers turned against them after they suffered unwarranted criticism blaming the Arab Spring for the rise of militancy across the region. Western governments feared the change of the lucrative and often politically convenient status quo in the Middle East, they say. Internally, it was considered by some to be no less than ‘betrayal’.

Many young activists confided that Egypt’s current military, backed by Western powers and oil-rich Gulf monarchies in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, succeeded in two major feats against the Arab Spring.

The first is that they discredited the revolutionaries. The Communists’ café is now known among regime supporters by several alternative names. It’s the ‘atheists café’, or the café for ‘the guys who never shower’, or the ‘guys with the weird hair’, and sometimes even the ‘eccentrics’ café’. All carry negative connotations in Egyptian society.

Secondly, the military managed to recruit many of the young former revolutionaries to spy on other activists, sow discord and spread fear.

‘The military got all the international and financial backing they wanted, and they played it well,’ says one activist who chose to identify himself as Saber.

The 29-year-old, who ‘works with computers’, looks around, feigns a smile and calls the waiter for more of the inexpensive black tea and green mint, as if to add an air of normality to his chat.

Saber says the military screened activists ‘almost one by one’ during many outwardly cordial meetings in the months immediately following Mubarak’s ousting. ‘They carefully pinpointed the ones left on the sidelines who knew they would not benefit under any democratic rule,’ he says, to the agreeing nods of two other activists sitting on the same table. ‘They promised them all sorts of benefits’.

The split was noticeable. Now, the once-free back-and-forth buzz in this café as to the best course of action after the revolution is non-existent. Revolutionary art, music and songs are never seen or heard. The loud slamming of domino pieces found in any other Cairo cafés frequented by pensioner civil servants is the main background sound here too, though customers are much younger.

Social media, where the young had an edge over Mubarak’s ossified regime, is a shrinking space with exhaustive surveillance provided by Western companies and, some allege, by Western governments, willing to lend expertise to authoritarian regimes for exorbitant bills or political favours.

Crackdown on dissent

Owners of the ‘revolutionary’ cafés in downtown Cairo say they have been ordered to install, at their own expense, hidden security cameras that beam directly to secret police offices where café patrons can be monitored.

In December, many said they received new orders from the Interior Ministry to reduce opening hours in a bid to limit the gatherings of young people ahead of the fifth anniversary of Mubarak’s overthrow on 11 February. Some cafés and activists’ venues have been completely shut down on police orders for failing to report ‘political talk’.

Regime supporters, once on the run, are more emboldened than ever by the military crackdown on dissent and opposition. They insist Egypt, the largest Arabic-speaking nation in terms of population, will not get another opportunity for change any time soon.

Many of those who stood to lose under the promise of the Arab Spring, such as the business elite, families of the military and police, much of the official Al-Azhar Islamic establishment and the official Christian Orthodox Church, have formed a formidable alliance behind the now ruling military. On social media, like the revolutionaries once did, they say they will fight tooth and nail to protect the current regime.

In early January, Egypt’s Minister of Religious Endowments, Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, warned in his Friday sermon that calls to go out and protest against the government to mark the fifth anniversary of the 2011 events are no less than ‘a call to betray the homeland’. He ordered all mosque preachers to label street protests as ‘un-Islamic’.

Talk show hosts on state media or allied private  television channels have devoted hours to warning young people against going out in the streets against the government or the military. Those who dare protest will ‘face the consequences and will be crushed’, as television anchor and advocate of military rule Mostafa Bakry said on his show.

But, in the face of this turning tide and intimidation, that some young people still show up at the Communists’ Café at all betrays remarkable defiance and potentially a smouldering fire waiting to erupt. ‘We thought it was only Mubarak and his family. We now know it’s the ruling elite and their supporters.’ says Saber. ‘We also know that the Muslim Brotherhood is weak and unable to stand up for anybody’s rights in the next revolution. We learned that the next revolution should not, and will not, leave any old regime institutions standing.’

Young café patrons hail either from lower middle class or poor backgrounds, and their situation has deteriorated under military rule as the economy worsens. They still do not like groups that anchor their ideology in religion. They hate Mubarak. They do not respect the military, and most certainly they still feel restless – all the ingredients of the 2011 anti-Mubarak protests.

In defiance of social stigma, young women come here to smoke shisha publicly as if to maintain an air of rebellion against social norms. The precedent of being able to topple several regimes is still inspirational.

Sherouk, a young woman who says she took part in the widespread 2011–2012 street protests, is waiting for a ‘real’ revolution. ‘There are more hurting now than are benefiting from the status quo. Those who say they support the current regime will run away like they did before,’ she says, recalling how the once-feared Mubarak police force buckled under street protests in the first three days of the 2011 protests.

John Vernon is Chair of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee. ‘The Arab Spring is not over per se, merely smouldering,’ he says, ‘waiting for the kind of leadership and reform that will topple the types of governments that exist now: tyrannical, anarchical and theocratic and provide jobs for the young, literate masses.’

Vernon – a keen observer of the human rights situation in the Middle East who teaches a university class on the Arab Spring – added that Western nations fail to see the desire for change in young Arab people, or the profound changes that are underway. They are still siding with old regimes. ‘Oil booms and tyrants will no longer bring stability to the MENA countries,’ he says. ‘Western nations are pursuing a useless analogue governance model in a rapidly growing digital world. The Arab world is too dangerous for the Western nations’ propped-up, medieval theocratic-dictator model. Today’s strategy needs to take into consideration the Arab desire for autonomy, high literacy among the youth under 25 years of age, and their instant communication via social media.’

For Saber and Sherouk and others at the Communists’ Café, the future of the Arab Spring is a lot simpler, if not more clear. Sherouk puffs out a steady stream of apple-scented shisha smoke. Her features toughen. ‘Everybody knows there will be some sort of a new revolt. We do not know when, where or how. We come to this café because we are waiting – on our toes. It will be the real thing.’ 

Emad Mekay is a freelance journalist. He can be contacted at emekay@stanford.edu