Ten years ago they were overthrowing Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Now they are in exile in Britain, under threat of imprisonment by the military regime. For Cairo’s revolutionaries, it has been a long journey of high hopes and broken dreams.
“I was part of a historical moment,” says Sayed, 39. He was working in the Middle East in December 2010 when Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Tunisia, set himself on fire in a protest against his treatment by local officials. Fuelled by social media coverage, the incident sparked protests around the region, including in Egypt, where crowds flocked to Tahrir Square in Cairo demanding the overthrow of Mubarak.
“Tunisia inspired us,” Sayed says. “I had a dream that we could change Egypt.” He returned home and took a leading role in the revolution. “It was the best decision I ever made.”
On 25 January 2011, after 18 days of protests, Mubarak stepped down. “It was a day of shock,” says Aly Khafagy, 37, a youth leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful political group that opposed the regime. “We shook Mubarak’s throne. We ended 30 years of corruption, injustice and constant fear.”
Hani Mahmud, 41, a political communications officer of former presidential candidate Abdel Moneam Aboel Fotouh, was on the streets in Cairo when the regime fell. “The 25th was a day filled with hope for all of us,” he says. “We would finally get social justice, democracy and positive change.”
Those dreams were short lived. On 3 July 2013, the military launched a coup against the revolutionary government. Army chief Gen Abdel Fattah al-Sisi removed the new president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, branded the revolution a conspiracy against the army and suspended the new constitution.
Sisi launched a wave of repression and human rights violations against his political opponents. Egypt now has 60,000 political prisoners, mostly consisting of youth activists, politicians, journalists and doctors who opposed the regime. “We were naive,” Sayed says. “The counterrevolution defeated us. The regime destroyed my life in Egypt. They jailed, tortured and threatened me. They left me with no choice – just to flee my country.” He arrived in London in 2018 to seek asylum.
Khafagy, who now lives in Manchester, was first targeted by the regime in 2013. He fled to the UK in 2019. “The Sisi government sentenced me to 50 years in absentia, froze all my assets and put my name on the criminal list,” he says.
Mahmud also claimed asylum in the UK and now lives in Scotland with his family. He considers himself fortunate to have made it out in time. “I’m lucky to be a refugee in the UK,” he says. “As far as I know, no one who believed in or participated in the revolution hasn’t been targeted by the Sisi regime. I have a lot of friends who were killed, jailed or exiled.”
Now, a decade after the overthrow of Mubarak, they lament the lost hopes of a democratic Egypt with a mixture of rage and disappointment. Mostly they agitate to get their allies out of jail. “I retired from politics,” Sayed says. “The only thing I can do now is campaign for our friends who are in prison.”
Mahmud is determined to do something. “It is immoral to ignore all this pain,” he says, “to forget about our friend in jails or who have been killed and just keep going in our life.”
Their feelings about their newfound home are mixed. All of them are grateful for the refugee status they have secured, but many are incensed that Britain maintains relations with the military regime in Egypt. “As long as powerful nations like America and Britain continue to associate with Sisi while ignoring his atrocities, dictatorships will continue to exist,” Mahmud says. “It’s shameful. The UK gave me protection against Sisi, but it continues to do business with him.”
In so far as there is hope, it is for the future, and an expectation that the revolution will provide inspiration to the next generation of Egyptian activists.
“I will never give up,” Khafagy says. “I will continue what we started in 2011. The factors that spurred the revolution 10 years ago continue to this day. Sooner or later Egyptians will take to the streets again demanding a better future.”
Sayed agrees. “We did it once and we can do it again. Though the revolution failed, our generation left good lessons to the next generations.”
This aspiration is the last flicker of the flames which once shook the Middle East and toppled one of the lengthiest dictatorships in the region.
“The legacy of the revolution is the hope,” Mahmud says, “even with all our defeats.”
* Some names have been changed to protect people’s identities