When I first arrived in Egypt as a working journalist it was June 2011 and everyone I encountered was still ecstatic about the revolution. Tahrir Square was still a symbol of the uprising and many Egyptians still held their military de facto rulers in high regard. Even on my way to Tahrir, my cab driver asked me proudly, “So, what do you think of our revolution? Isn’t it amazing?” His smile lit up his eyes. I nodded, saying it was impressive indeed.
This was in stark contrast to my next visit, when I came back for the one-year anniversary of the revolution on January 25, 2012. The growing unemployment and subsequent poverty had finally taken their toll on the people who now cared little about non-tangibles like democracy and freedom and more about making ends meet to buy food. Now on my way to the square, my cab driver asked me, “What good has this revolution brought me? I can’t feed my family!” Many drivers wouldn’t even take me to Tahrir, for fear of I’m-not-even-sure-what.
I interviewed many people who were torn about what to believe of the trajectory this revolution was taking. For every revolutionary who was willing to continue his or her fight with the ruling powers, there was a man or a woman who just wanted a return to normalcy. Some people were tired of protests blocking traffic and disrupting business, and other basic logistical issues you don’t think of when you’re watching a protest on TV from the comfort of your home.
The security vacuum after the revolution certainly helped fuel the idea that the revolution was counterproductive among regular Egyptians, who wanted nothing more than the feeling of safety, which eluded them after Mubarak’s ouster. Indeed, the months after the anniversary of the revolution brought many bizarre armed robberies of banks — something virtually unheard of in Egypt — emails circulating about carjackings on deserted roads, and stories of higher crime in general. Then, the “Port Said Massacre” happened in the beginning of February, when armed soccer fans attacked other fans at the end of the match, leaving more than 70 dead by official reports and many more injured.
The country seemed to plunge into a deep depression. I felt it while interviewing people for work, and while shopping for groceries. I didn’t see many smiles that week or for a long time after. It was as though a darkness had descended over Egypt as a whole. Footage of the dead bodies coming back from Port Said to the Ramses Train Station showed mothers anxiously waiting for their sons in the middle of the night. Some came back alive; others, dead. The cries of their mothers echoed in the station.
Many Egyptians clung to the only thing they had that didn’t cost a penny — faith. It makes sense to hold on tightly to something as personal as one’s religion when the world around you begins to crumbles. I recall visiting a very different Egypt in 2006, where many women wore hijab but not many wore the niqab, the full veil that covers the face. Now, I could easily see double the number of women in niqab. Though historically the Egyptian interpretation of Islam has been a relatively relaxed one, with the influx of Saudi influence as well as the turmoil of the revolution, the Egyptian interpretation had now turned into a much stricter version of its former self.
Since then, on paper, things have gone seemingly well: Mubarak out and in jail; elections in. Egypt held its first “free and fair” presidential election, voting in Mohamed Morsy as president, who created a new cabinet as of August. But for many families used to a much safer Egypt, an Egypt where foreign embassies are left alone, the country has devolved into disarray. And the struggle for a better Egypt without tyranny, oppression and corruption continues.
The revolution was about so much more. It is about so much more. To quote a popular chant, it’s about “bread, freedom and social justice.” These are basic needs echoed in a revolution that asked for the most basic demands to be met. No one was asking for immeasurable wealth — just the ability to know food will be on the table and that free speech is not a crime. Until these very basic demands for many are met, “el sawra mostamerra” — the revolution continues.