The end of the uprising

By Amira El Ahl

The hunters and the hunted (Issue II/2021)


Grafitti in Egypt that says “Al Jazeera”, 2011. Photo: Magnum Photos

Jörg Armbruster begins his book right where everything started. He takes us to Tahrir Square in Cairo, in the heart of the city, and immediately we are immersed in this middle of this noisy, dirty, chaotic metropolis on the Nile.

But in the opening pages of his book “Die Erben der Revolution” (The Heirs of the Revolution) the former ARD television correspondent Armbruster does not dwell on the euphoria that flooded this square in the days and weeks after 25 January 2011. Instead, just in time for the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring, he tells of the bitter reality, chronicling widespread surveillance and repression.

Today, there are an estimated 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt, spanning activists, opposition activists and journalists, who have no hope of a fair trial under the rule of law. Many are held for years without being charged, enduringunspeakable conditions in Egyptian dungeons. Today, it is almost a sin to talk about the revolution in the country. The tenth anniversary was hardly covered in the media. The euphoria of 2011 has long since given way to a collective depression. “Mentally, the country is completely exhausted,” says a filmmaker from Cairo. He does not want to give his name. Most Egyptians have long since stopped talking openly about the revolution, President Al-Sisi or the regime for fear of repression.

It is all the more astonishing that Armbruster managed to talk to numerous actors involved in the revolution in Egypt, who gave him insights into the situation in the country. “The wave of repression that the country has been experiencing since 2013 is unprecedented in Egypt's history,” Armbruster writes, quoting the Egyptian lawyer and human rights activist Gamal Eid: “Al-Sisi is of the opinion that the Arab Spring in 2011 could only happen because Mubarak used too little repression. That's why he has his police crack down on opposition members much more harshly than Mubarak ever did.” Eid knows what he is talking about. He has been defending activists since 1994 and has witnessed many demonstrations.

Armbruster also gets so close to the protagonists of the Arab rebellion because he has lived and worked in the region for a long time. His great sympathy for the Middle East is evident in the book. His analysis is clear and often shamefully accurate for the West. The role played by the EU, especially Germany, in the region is certainly not laudable, as Armbruster makes very clear. Up to this day, EU members equip Arab autocrats with everything they need to retain power, from water cannons to the latest spying technology.

As an ARD correspondent, the 73-year-old has always stood for clear, unprejudiced and, above all, hysteria-free reporting. In his latest book, his credibility and expertise offer an interesting, insightful and entertaining journey through Egypt, Sudan and Tunisia, and cast light on the legacy of the Arab Spring. 

Nevertheless, the question arises as to why Armbruster chose these three countries in particular. In an interview in the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” he explained: "Egypt was the biggest country. Tunisia was where it all began, it is the country that can most easily be considered a democracy. And I was in Sudan a lot as a correspondent, and there were also uprisings there in 2011 and 2012. It's just that we didn't notice them at the time.

“Revolutions don't happen out of the blue”

It would hardly be possible to write a comprehensive analysis of all the countries in the Arab world where people took to the streets against their rulers from 2010 onwards. Their starting positions are too different, as are their current situations. 

Armbruster begins his narrative in Egypt, where he observed the development of the 2011 revolution first hand. He first looks back, giving the reader the chance to understand what spurred on the protests. For of course all three countries have their distinct histories. Revolutions do not come out of the blue. Armbruster gives his readers the opportunity to get a deeper insight into the corrupt and repressive structures of Egypt, Sudan and Tunisia before the uprisings and to understand why people revolted.

In all three countries, women played a crucial role in the years leading up to and during the protests. “We overcame the paralysis of the Mubarak era with 25 January,” Armbruster quotes Egyptian writer and psychiatrist Basma Abdel Aziz.“We overcame our fear at that time. And women in particular played an important role”. 

Armbruster devotes the first chapter on the revolution in Sudan to the women of Al-Daraisa, the district of the Sudanese capital Khartoum that played a pioneering role in the outbreak of the 2018 protests. Here, he uses the example of Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, who was the first female member of parliament to be elected in 1965 and founded the Sudanese Women's Union, to show that the influence of women stretches far back into history. In the first chapter on Tunisia, he also looks at one of the most important protagonists of the Arab Spring. Lina Ben Mhenni was not only one of the country's most influential bloggers, her voice was also heard far beyond Tunisia's borders. Long before the 2010 uprisings, she had networked with bloggers throughout the Arab world. Her rebellion eventually led to an entire generation feeling emboldened to take to the streets for their rights.

“The youth have tasted freedom. The state cannot change that”

But women did not only play a decisive role in the revolutions in Sudan and Tunisia. In Egypt, too, it was largely women who called for the demonstrations on 25 January. A prominent example is Asmaa Mahfuz, political activist, blogger and co-founder of the 6 April Youth Movement and one of the best-known members of the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution. With her video of 18 January 2011, with her courageous “No” to the corrupt Mubarak regimeand her calls for freedom, basic democratic rights and social justice, she contributed significantly to the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians rising up against the regime that has weighed on them for thirty years. 

Israa Abdel Fatah, a political activist and another co-founder of the 6 April Movement who was nominated for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, also vented her discontent. She and other women posted on Facebook and Twitter before the planned demonstrations, saying in deliberate provocation: “I am a woman, I will go to the streets and demonstrate. Are you man enough to demonstrate with me and protect me?” They were preparing what is arguably the most important element of online activism: taking the movement to the streets.

In Armbruster's prehistory of the protests in Egypt, however, these young women unfortunately do not get a voice. Here it is their male comrades-in-arms, Wael Abbas, Ahmed Maher and Wael Ghonim, whose stories Armbruster tells. All three were and are important protagonists of the revolution, but without the women at their side and their courage to openly call for protest in the social networks, the movement would only have been half as strong.

Of course, Armbruster is also well aware of the exposed role of women in Egypt today. In Cairo, he met with the founder of the Nadim Centre for Torture Victims, Aida Seif al-Dawla, the writer Basma Abdel Aziz and the journalist Lina Attalah. He devotes an entire chapter to her and her online newspaper “Mada Masr”. Attalah and her team have defied the repression of the Egyptian regime for years. “Mada Masr' is one of the finest and bravest media outletscurrently working in Egypt,” Armbruster writes. And indeed, it is a miracle that the editor-in-chief Attalah is not yet in prison and that she and her team can continue to publish. Only recently she was appointed an honorary member of PEN Germany.

In “The Heirs of the Revolution”, Armbruster also sheds light on what democratic change means and how long it can take. In Germany alone, he calculates, this process took 101 years, from the first revolution in 1848 to the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949. Therefore, he says, it is arrogant to look with disdain at the Arab world and describe its attempt to establish a democratic system as a failure.

“We are not finished yet,” Armbruster quotes young people in the Arab world. This is meant to spark hope. Hope that despite the ongoing oppression, something is in motion that cannot be reversed. The youth have tasted freedom. Even the paranoia and brutality of the surveillance state that Armbruster depicts can no longer change that.

The memory of 25 January 2011 inspires people not to give up, as Armbruster writes of the Egyptian human rights lawyer Gamal Eid. “We just have to keep going,” he says. In all Armbruster's conclusion is also a positive one. “So nowas before,” he writes, “young Arab people are ready to fight to turn lawless subjects into responsible citizens, and this is arguably the real legacy of the 2011 revolutions.”

Translated by Jess Smee

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