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A Reflection: The Fight for Democracy in Egypt

Clashes between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the army broke out across Egypt last Friday, killing three and injuring dozens. The clashes are the latest in a long streak of violence between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the police since President Mohamed Morsi was ousted from power in July. The Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters show no sign of backing down and yielding to the interim military government headed by army chief Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

As turmoil, political unrest, and violence continue to escalate in Cairo, we are rarely reminded of the beginning -- the beginning of a time in Egypt, that Anthony Shadid, a former reporter for the New York Times who died in Syria in 2012, once coined as an "epiphany".

"Its hard to describe how momentous it feels when you have a million people in not all that big of a geographic terrain who are together trying to imagine a different country," Shadid said at a TED-X conference in Oklahoma in 2011.

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"What you had here was mostly young people--people using social media, people watching Al Jazeera. You had people trying to imagine or come up with an imagined Cairo, an imagined Egypt. They were telling a government that basically hated them that they were better than the government had portrayed them for so long. I actually spent a night in Tahrir Square once because I was so taken by this moment-by the power of imagination and the power of people to come up with a society that they wanted to be a part of. It was almost like crossing a border. You left an old Cairo -- a Cairo that had been immiserated by decades of dictatorship and authoritarianism and you entered a new Cairo and that was the imagined Cairo."

Shadid's reflection on his time covering the revolution seems far gone now as the country faces a new political fight -- one between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. But we were reminded of this time especially after the release of The Square, a documentary directed by Jehane Noujaim about the 2011 Egyptian revolution. The film was nominated for an Oscar for best documentary. The film did not win, but it is available for viewing on Netflix.

In some ways, the young revolutionaries featured in the film and those left out, the ones who kick started the 2011 Egyptian revolution, have been largely absent from the conversation.

I met with several of the young men and women who helped organize the Egyptian revolution, who saw their friends die at its birth, and who saw a modern Pharaoh fall at its apex. We met in Cairo before the election of President Morsi in June of 2012. All the interviews in this story are a product of my research and interviewing prior to the election of former President Morsi. It is meant to serve as a reflection and add to an idea Shadid spoke of in 2011:

"That power of that idea of Arabs, of Egyptians, of Tunisians, of Libyans of anyone else saying that we are going to reclaim our destiny, we are going to reclaim our narrative, we are going to set out to establish and build a society that we want to live in is -- I think -- revolutionary," Shadid said.

By many people's standards, the Egyptian revolution has ended. But the country does not look like what the revolutionaries had imagined during those 18 days in Tahrir.

"We reached the square and it was taken over completely. We felt we had the country. It was a beautiful image," Amr Salama, one of the leading organizers of the marches to Tahrir Jan. 25, said. "There were thousands in the square. The plan to take control of the square had happened."

Amr and I met in a café off of Talat Harb in downtown Cairo just days before the presidential election. He recounted the nights of Jan. 25th to Jan. 28, 2011. He was visibly anxious. He picked at his nails, scratching his thumbnail with his right index finger. He bounced his Blackberry that rang almost every two minutes, on his knee. He went through an entire pack of cigarettes in just one hour.

"It was a war," Amr said as he smudged his fifth cigarette of the night into the ashtray. "The attempts to get into the square went on as they fired and we retreated, I don't remember much after the clashes started other than the people who died and what they looked like."

More than 800 people were killed in the Egyptian revolution and more than 6,000 were injured.
Tarek El-Khouly, who worked with the April 6 youth movement, said he could not remember one day in particular when they left the square, when they retreated from the streets. He said a part of him feels he is still there. Tahrir Square, he said, is more of a mindset than it is an actual physical place. And it is home for him, as it is home to thousands of other Egyptians.  

"The revolution to us means our entire life. We were reborn in Tahrir Square," he said. "When we go away from it for a while we miss it and want to go back to it."

El-Khouly said he took the lead in coordinating what became the Revolution Youth Coalition -- the group responsible for leading the protests on the 25th.

"The road is paved and there is still hope but people don't understand, and a lot of revolutionaries who enjoy a great deal of revolutionary purity, don't understand that the revolution can last for 10 years. It might take 10 to 15 years for it to succeed. Not 10 to 15 years in the square, but back and forth discussions till we reach a democratic society," he said.

I spoke with El-Khouly in Tahrir as Muslim Brotherhood supporters flooded down Mohamed Mahmoud street toward the square's center. We watched them pass by. A small boy sat on his mother's hip. Behind him were three young girls, all of whom are holding their own miniature Brotherhood flags. Tarek did not participate in the demonstration. The square had been taken over by unfamiliar faces -- most of them Muslim Brotherhood supporters. More than a year ago the streets belonged to him and his friends who were fighting a battle with the hope that Egypt would one day become a true democracy.

So much has changed since then.

Presidential elections have come and gone. Morsi elected. Morsi ousted. Journalists arrested. Hundreds killed, massacred, at the hands of a military that is still in control of the country. With the recent political chaos in Egypt, media outlets from across the world have been quick to point to the apparent end of the revolution, or that the revolution failed. From the outside, from afar, the current political landscape in Egypt looks as though nothing has changed.

In 2012, revolutionaries still fervently believed there had been change, even if it was not clear. That fervor still presents itself Neda Hafez, who was in the square for the 18-day uprising, said the fear of speaking out against the military, against the government, is gone. The fear has been reversed. The government now fears the consequences of continuing political protest throughout the country.

"Talking about politics was always such a taboo subject before the revolution," she said.

Revolutionaries are still fighting against military power, and for real democracy. But they want the world to know: they may have left the streets, but they are still committed to their cause. The enemy is still the military."The military has brainwashed people into thinking the revolution is over," Neda said. "We are the only ones that should have the last word in saying whether the revolution is over or not."

The revolution continues, but it continues in fragments. After interviewing revolutionaries from different political factions, it became clear to me that it was not that the revolution had ended, but that cooperation had disappeared.

Amr, Tarek, Ahmed, and Neda all said they remembered the extraordinary amount of compassion and solidarity that existed in the square during the first days of the revolution. Somehow, that solidarity is lost -- mixed in with and covered up by an increasing politicized atmosphere. And most of the revolutionaries know it.

"We have made mistakes as youth who belong to the revolution. These mistakes have to do with unity and even on a political level, in regards to offering an alternative during the parliamentary elections and in the presidential elections," El-Khouly said. "We want to carry out a revolution with all its energy. If the revolution fails then that means that this whole generation fails. It means it does not exist."

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