In January 2011, anti-government protests began in Egypt, inspired by the uprising in Tunisia a month before. At the same time similar demonstrations started across the Middle East and North Africa. Ten years on, photographers who documented the Arab Spring reflect on what they saw and what the events of the time meant to them.
Mosa’ab Elshamy, an Egyptian photojournalist whose career began in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, witnessed the first 18 days of protests that toppled then-President Hosni Mubarak on February 11. He reflects on the birth of the revolution and the tumultuous months that followed.
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I joined the revolution in January 2011 as an Egyptian citizen. As a 20-year-old student in pharmacy school, photography was just a hobby at the time.
Everyone in my generation had a reason to take to the streets. After 30 years of Mubarak rule, almost everyone had a grievance. It wasn’t just about the social and economic situation, it was about the fact that no one felt safe or secure, and no one could speak freely. After what happened in Tunisia some weeks before, people thought is there a way we can replicate that here?
Still, I don’t think many of us believed it would be a real revolution at that stage. People predicted the protests would be bigger than normal, but they also knew that protesters in Egypt were usually outnumbered by the security forces. But from the very first day, we felt that things were different.
On February 11, victory and euphoria overtook everything as we watched Mubarak being overthrown and the military declare its support for the revolution.
Walking down the streets of Cairo on January 25, after following the slightly odd call on a Facebook page asking for people to gather at one of the meeting points in the neighbourhood of Mohandessin, I saw a wave of people filling the streets, all calling for change and the end to Mubarak’s rule. It only escalated from there, hundreds of people going through police cordons that had been erected to stop them advancing. It was beyond belief. The turnout was so big it even surprised the protesters.
By January 28, the “day of rage”, things were even more unbelievable. On the 25th people did not manage to hold their place even as they took over Tahrir Square. But the 28th, the million man march, felt serious. That’s when it really felt like an uprising.
From then, for nearly three weeks, people lived in Tahrir Square. There were attempts by pro-Mubarak thugs to attack protesters, including the violent confrontations of the Battle of the Camels on February 2, while the military stood back as protesters were attacked. But nothing succeeded in expelling protesters from the square, and there was a feeling that this was really going to work out.
The square epitomised everything people remember about the revolution. Everyone referred to it as a mini-Egypt, the best of what Egypt could offer, and what Egyptians had to show – the sense of camaraderie; how everyone found a way to be useful; the conversations that happened; the way the square developed into a makeshift city with bathrooms, a hospital, and sometimes even a small library of people reading. Once the violence of the early days ceased, it was almost a way for people to come and find out what was going on. And that gave birth to an incredible atmosphere.
Then 18 days after protests began, on February 11, victory and euphoria overtook everything as we watched Mubarak being overthrown and the military declare its support for the revolution. I remember it as perhaps one of the happiest moments of my life.
But six months later, on the day I took the photo of the soldiers with their boots beside the flowers, the dynamic in Cairo had completely changed.
Flowers and combat boots
Given the history of the military in Egypt – the fact that it is a conscripted military where most youths get enlisted – there was always a sense of trust between the people and the military, despite the tensions of the early days of protests when they stood back and did not intervene as thugs attacked. The sense was that it was never going to be a military that did not side with the people. So the moment in February when the military declared it had listened to the demands of the people, and sided with the revolution, everyone was elated.
Only a handful of people remained sceptical, trying to raise warnings about the true motives of the military – saying that the real battle starts now, with Mubarak’s departure; that the military is part of the counter-revolution in Egypt; that by siding with the people, perhaps they wanted to use the revolution to their own advantage; and that after stepping in to lead in the interim, they would maybe not want to hand over power.
But at that time, people were not ready to have those conversations. Overall, there was massive support for what the military did, and everyone wanted to believe they were on the side of the people because, after Mubarak left, there were no other options.
But by the summer – with still no announcement about a presidential election, no date set for Mubarak’s trial, factions forming between the liberal and secular camps and the Islamist camp, no agreement on how the transition should work, and people growing suspicious of the military – it was a very complicated time.
Another sit-in was called in July in Tahrir Square, the second day of rage. Those first 18 utopic days were far gone, and the new sit-in was a way to try and reset the revolution and put pressure on the military rulers. But it was smaller and didn’t have as much support among the revolutionaries.
On August 12, counter-protesters had managed to disperse revolutionaries from the square. Soon after, the military pushed its troops in, mainly to the central roundabout to prevent people from returning to the sit-in.
As I had done almost every day, I arrived to photograph what was happening. That’s when I saw this image in front of me: military police positioned in the middle of the square, trying to restore normal traffic flow while preventing protesters from gathering. Meanwhile, the protesters stood on the other side, still calling for civilian and not military rule, chanting and holding banners saying that the revolution was being stolen. All while the square that had once been the centre of the revolution was being taken over in front of their eyes.
As I looked at the boots against the flowers on the floor, I wondered if maybe both the flowers and the Spring had been crushed.
Military boots now occupied the same space that just months ago was filled with people demanding justice, demanding food, demanding social equality.
As I watched this, it reminded me of a saying that became popular during the first 18 days of the revolution: “They may crush the flowers, but they can’t stop the Spring.” Originally said by Alexander Dubcek during the Prague Spring in 1968, these words resurfaced during Egypt’s protests to symbolise that even if Mubarak was killing people, it would not scare away the protesters; that the revolution had started and it was not going to be crushed by violence.
But on that August day, as I looked at the boots against the flowers on the floor, I wondered if maybe both the flowers and the Spring had been crushed.
The image, which is one that still stays with me, was a kind of wake up call to say that – even if not permanently – perhaps the counter-revolution was able to force its way onto Egypt and Tahrir. It is a symbol of what was happening at the time (even though we could not see it as clearly then), and of what the future would hold.
But despite the tragic moments, there was also hope in the faces of many people I photographed at the time. The revolution showed the best of what Egyptians can do – setting aside differences to go against all odds and stand up to a regime as brutal and long-standing as Mubarak’s, to achieve something that many saw as impossible. That cannot not be hopeful.
However, it is also a difficult reminder of how short the revolution truly was, and just how idealistic – almost bordering on naive. A lot of revolutionaries did not have a plan for what would come next. A reminder of how strategic and innocent mistakes can become unforgivable when what’s on the line is the opportunity of a lifetime to make a change.
Many mixed feelings remain, but as a citizen, I am hopeful that perhaps one day another generation can learn from the previous one’s mistakes; and as a witness, I hope the work I did at the time will give clues that help trace the different ways people tried to bring about change. To show that even though the revolution ultimately failed, it also got pretty close to succeeding.