Ten years ago, she was celebrated as a heroine for helping to spark the 2011 uprising that unseated then-President Hosni Mubarak. But Asmaa Mahfouz, a political activist and one of the founders of the April 6 Youth Movement (credited with mobilizing the mass protests that ousted Mubarak), is today struggling to gain acceptance in her society. Ironically enough, she has been shunned and marginalized for the very reason she won acclaim as an icon of the Egyptian revolution a decade ago.
In a video published on YouTube on Jan. 18, 2011, Mahfouz had made an impassioned plea to fellow citizens to join her in protest in Tahrir Square to demand their rights.
“I am making this video to give you one simple message: We want to go down to Tahrir Square on Jan. 25. If we still have honor and want to live in dignity on this land, we have to go down on Jan. 25. We'll go down and demand our rights … our fundamental human rights.”
The video quickly went viral on Egyptian social media, inspiring others to post similar appeals. A week later, on Jan. 25, 2011, as Cairo was preparing to mark National Police Day, thousands of Egyptians marched to Tahrir Square, chanting the revolutionary slogan “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice.” They also called for “an end to corruption and police brutality” and the “downfall of the regime.”
Ten years on, Mahfouz, one of the recipients of the 2011 Sakharov Award for Courage, admits that the unprecedented turnout on Jan. 25, 2011, had astounded the young pro-democracy activists that led the movement for change. The protests would quickly gain momentum in the coming days, turning into a full-fledged revolution that 18 days later would force Mubarak to step down.
“We were totally unprepared for the developments that followed Mubarak's ouster,” Mahfouz recalled. “That is my one regret.”
Dramatic changes have taken place in Egypt since the uprising, but the one thing that has remained constant is the repression, which according to Human Rights Watch has escalated under the rule of military strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who took power in 2014.
With many of her colleagues imprisoned, killed or living in exile, the once outspoken Mahfouz has, not surprisingly perhaps, been forced into silence.
“The fear was always there, but in the past I was able to take a stand against injustice,” she told Al-Monitor. “If you are passionate about a cause, you speak out even if you know you may be harmed for expressing your grievances.” Now a single mother of two, Mahfouz has had to reset her priorities, placing her children's safety and well-being above all else.
“If you know that your hands are tied and there is nothing you can do to change a particular situation, you choose to remain silent,” she said.
Unlike most other revolutionary activists who played a leading role in Mubarak's ouster, Mahfouz is lucky to have narrowly escaped the fate of imprisonment that befell many of her colleagues. Tens of thousands of opposition figures have reportedly been detained in a sweeping security crackdown that since 2014 has targeted dissenters of all stripes. While most of those languishing behind bars are members or sympathizers of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, many secular activists, journalists, researchers and artists have also been targeted.
In mid-August 2011, Mahfouz was interrogated by military prosecutors on the charge of inciting violence against the military. This, after she had lambasted the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, calling the interim government that oversaw the country's transition post-revolution “a council of dogs” in a Facebook post. Her prosecution coincided with a media defamation campaign, depicting her as “a traitor” and “foreign agent.” But a public outcry over subjecting civilians to military trials helped reverse the plan to have Mahfouz arrested. She was acquitted, and the charges against her were dropped.
While Mahfouz remains at large, she is not entirely free. She has been banned from leaving the country since 2014.
“I have exhausted all possible channels to have the travel ban lifted, but to no avail,” she lamented. She has also realized that it is futile to call for the release of her jailed colleagues, many of whom have either been re-arrested or have had their detention extended on new charges after their release. Shying away from politics, Mahfouz has instead resigned herself to the role of mother, raising her two children on her own since her divorce several years ago. "I tell them freedom comes at a price and teach them democratic values."
Mahfouz has not been able to get a job as "employers fear that hiring me would land them in trouble with the authorities."
Like Mahfouz, activist Samira Ibrahim continues to live in fear of arrest. Ibrahim rose to prominence during the 2011 uprising after accusing a military doctor of performing virginity checks on several female protesters (herself included) who had been briefly detained for setting up camp in Tahrir Square and refusing to leave until the demands of the revolution were met.
After the tests were allegedly conducted on the young women in the corridors of the Egyptian Museum on March 9, 2011, Ibrahim filed a lawsuit accusing the senior military generals running the country at the time of ordering the humiliating tests to be conducted in a bid to break the will of female activists.
Although the doctor was acquitted, a Cairo administrative court officially banned virginity tests in Egypt. Euphoric over the December 2011 milestone ruling, Ibrahim headed to Tahrir Square to celebrate her victory with a small group of secular activists.
Ten years on, Ibrahim's hopes for a civil, democratic state have all but been completely dashed and the revolution has become a distant, dreamlike memory.
“The repression continues, and the revolutionary goals of freedom and a democratic, civil state have yet to be realized,” she told Al-Monitor. The arrests of fellow revolutionary activists have left her feeling estranged in her own country. Refusing to concede defeat, Ibrahim contested legislative elections in 2015 and again in the fall of 2020, running as an independent in her constituency of al-Omrania el-Talebeya in the hope of “serving my community.” On both occasions, however, Ibrahim was defeated by rival candidates from pro-government parties.
“The winning candidates in the latest parliamentary election were handpicked and appointed by the state to reward them for their loyalty,” she claimed, clearly dismayed by her defeat at the ballot box.
Bahia Shehab, an artist and a professor of the practice of design at the American University in Cairo, also reminisced about the revolution, recalling a brief period during and right after the uprising when she could take her art to the streets of downtown Cairo to raise awareness about rights violations happening at the time.
Shehab's trademark “No” stencils in various calligraphy styles, spray-painted on the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, never failed to spark interest among passersby. They would stop to gaze at them, contemplating the dramatic events that were unfolding, including recurring sexual assault incidents and military trials for civilians. But the restrictions on artistic freedom of expression (and other freedoms) in place since mid-2013 have spelled the end of the street art movement that flourished in the wake of the uprising.
The arrests of several street artists, mob assaults on some whose artwork was deemed “offensive” by government supporters, defamation of others like Ganzeer by pro-government talk show hosts and even the killing of at least one artist under mysterious circumstances have combined to stifle creativity and keep artists within the confines of their studios.
The revolutionary murals have been whitewashed in an apparent attempt by authorities to erase all traces of the revolution. Like many of the street artists who now live in exile, Shehab was left with no option but to take her street art overseas.
“In 2013, when I found that Cairo was no longer accessible, I decided to take my street art elsewhere and started painting my messages in different cities around the world,” she told Al-Monitor.
Shehab has also written several books on the Egyptian revolution. The title of her latest book, “At the Corner of a Dream,” was inspired by a poem of the same name written by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, advising people to dream and fight to attain their goals.
“This is precisely what we need to do; we need to dream and to keep on fighting to realize our dreams,” Shehab said. “Books are a valuable medium to preserve memory unlike street art, which can be vandalized and can disappear.”
Despite everything that has happened over the course of the last 10 years, Shehab remains optimistic for the future. “A revolution is a process. It takes time; it needs patience, hard work, perspective and a long-term vision. Changing systems does not happen overnight. It won’t happen if we shout on the streets or paint on the walls.”
She hopes that her books and artwork will inspire the younger generation to continue the work started by pro-democracy activists in Tahrir Square.
Mahfouz, Ibrahim, and Shehab who all played leading roles in the 2011 revolution, agree on one thing: the struggle against oppression can take many forms; each of them is resisting in her own way.