CAIRO – A decade after the revolution in Egypt that overthrew the long-time dictator President Hosni Mubarak, many of those who took part in the 2011 Arab Spring popular protests have gone into exile. Some were forced to flee the persecution they suffered following the uprising, while others left out of frustration and disappointment that their dreams of a better life went up in smoke.
Particularly since the arrival of current president Abdel Fattah al Sisi in a military coup d’etat in 2013, which put an end to the first attempt at a civilian, democratic government that took over following the revolt, many of its leaders and protagonists have left their homeland, with no idea when they might return.
Tamim Heikal, 42, left for Paris in July 2017, after he felt “threatened” by the infamous Egyptian State Security apparatus, whose agents began calling him to arrange a meeting “to drink a coffee.”
“In Egypt, that means that maybe I would go and never come back,” he says in an interview with EPA-EFE.
Heikal took part in the protests calling for Mubarak’s ouster that began on Jan. 25, 2011. By the 28th, the protests had grown into a full blown revolution.
That day, Heikal went to Tahrir Square where a protest camp had been set up, and there he stayed: “For me, I never left the square, because I have not stopped working in politics since that time,” he says.
After Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11, after nearly 30 years in power, Heikal founded a political party, won a seat in the first post-revolutionary Parliament in Egypt and has continued in politics, even from exile in Paris, where he promotes freedom of speech in the Arab world.
“Of course there are no politics to do abroad, but there are a lot of activities that we can do to support our aims and dreams from Tahrir Square.”
He remembers how one night a “random guy” on the square convinced him that they could indeed overthrow Mubarak: “Until that moment I didn’t have the confidence that we would stay to that point, that we could do it, but the insistence I saw in his eyes and the confidence he had, (…) on that night, I believed that we could do it, he gave me this energy.”
“At that time our expectations and hopes were very simple. That we needed change,” he says. “Just to have justice, freedom, just to live our lives in a good way, to have rights to build our country the way we want – it’s our future.”
“We still have these dreams, but of course we have changed a lot and we have a lot to learn in politics,” says Heikal, who admits that the youth movement on Tahrir and liberal political forces were unprepared: “We wanted to do a revolution but we did not have the tools to govern or to organize ourselves after.”
Over the past 10 years, Heikal has felt a range of mixed emotions, but on this landmark anniversary he is optimistic: “The revolution succeeded in a way. Not politically, but it succeeded in changing a lot” in the minds of its protagonists in Egypt and in other parts of the Arab world.
“Now we understand exactly what we want for our future, we know what it means to have a leader, to have a government, to have a democracy, and how we can build it,” he says with a hopeful glint in his eye.
From Madrid, however, Belal Darder would have preferred that the revolution had never happened. He blames the uprising for her having to flee Egypt in 2016 to avoid a 15-year prison term for documenting the tumultuous political events that followed, especially during 2013.
“Sometimes I wish that the revolution had not occurred. I miss a lot of things, my family, my mother (…) I would have liked to have spent these years at home,” says the young reporter, who could not travel home to see his mother before she died for fear of being imprisoned.
“It hurts me that the situation in Egypt is so unjust that I think this way. The revolution was a noble thing, to demand freedom, rights, social justice,” he says. Although he did not take part in the uprising on Jan. 25 himself because he was still a child, he followed the events “with enthusiasm” on television.
“The hope did not last long, in 2011 and 2012,” says Darder, who was 16 and 17 years old at the time.
After the coup d’etat in 2013, he bought a camera and started a blog, and was soon working with international media to report what was happening on the streets of Egypt.
“I really liked my work, but it barely lasted two years,” he says. The penny dropped when a lawyer called to inform him that he had been sentenced to jail because of his work, accused of “conspiring with foreign entities” and “spreading false information,” among other charges.
“I knew activists and journalists, and I knew how horrible prison in Egypt is,” Darder says, who decided to flee the country. A few days later he flew to Hong Kong, then Malaysia, where a friend put him up while he requested political asylum.
In 2017, Spain granted him asylum, and in October 2019 he arrived in Europe. He learnt the language, found work and “the love of his life” in Madrid, where he feels “integrated” and “a fortunate refugee.”
With a mix of pride and nostalgia, he insists he has “no reason to return to Egypt” and, 10 years after the uprising, he has learned an important lesson: “We are more realistic, we have more knowledge and awareness. It is the only positive thing, but we have lost a lot along the way. We have lost friends, relatives, human lives.”
For Mina Thabet, there is no doubt: “We did the right thing. I would do the same again,” says the 30-year-old defender of Egyptian ethnic minority rights, who joined the movement soon after it began in January 2011.
In March of that year, he joined the protests for the first time to denounce the burning of a church and an attack against the Christian community, which makes up around 10% of the Egyptian population, and to fight for the full rights, equality and security that he had never found under Mubarak’s dictatorship.
To that end, he and other activists founded the Maspero Youth Union to shed a light on the discrimination and repression faced by coptic Christians.
The group called a protest in October 2011, a demonstration that was met with a brutal crackdown by the army. The large march was broken up with gunfire and military vehicles. Thirty people died, including some who were crushed by army tanks.
“I thought that I could make a change in my country, where military vehicles drove over people, killed tens of people and injured hundreds in the most peaceful protest that I had ever been at,” he remembers.
“We just wanted to make things better. We wanted to make change. We wanted to feel better, to claim our rights,” he says.
Despite the violent repression of peaceful protesters, he continued his activist work defending the rights of Egypt’s marginalized people until 2016, when he was detained and held in custody for a month in 2016 on charges such as “inciting to overthrow the government” and “joining a terrorist group.”
Thabet left Egypt in 2017, first to study in Scotland before choosing to remain in the United Kingdom for fear of returning home.
“What happened to us made me believe in the work that the activists and human rights groups are doing, in the need to keep doing what we do to keep speaking up for those who are in prison” in Egypt. Ten years on, and with a number of activists, politicians, union leaders and journalists in prison, Thabet says: “We didn’t succeed, we made a lot of mistakes, we tried to learn from that but it comes at a huge price.”
With a healthy dose of skepticism but without losing faith, he says that “the revolution started long before Jan. 25, and in some form still continues” to this day.