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The Many Narratives of the Arab Spring

In 2014, the question persists: Is the revolution in Egypt over, or is it ongoing?

Last November, senior government officials held a ceremony in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, unveiling a monument to the revolution’s martyrs. The monument was simple, though its significance was not. It consisted of a stone pedestal on a circular base in the center of Tahrir Square. A military band played. At a brief unveiling ceremony that morning, Egypt’s interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi said it was meant to honor “the martyrs of the January 25 and June 30 revolutions.”


Yesterday marked the three year anniversary of thousands of Egyptians joining protests that snowballed into a revolution. After 18 days, the revolt forced President Hosni Mubarak and his cronies from power. More than 800 people were killed, the vast majority of them in four days of street fighting that temporarily paralyzed the police state. Since then, the various players in Egypt—the Muslim Brotherhood, elite liberals, the military, and revolutionaries—have fought not only for power, but also to define the meaning of the revolution, and in doing so, to define the direction of their country’s future. In 2014, the question persists: Is the revolution in Egypt over, or is it ongoing?

In Tahrir Square on that day last November, the erecting of the memorial posed that very same question, and it embodied the two ways of viewing the legacy of the Arab uprisings today. To the Egyptian government and its supporters, the memorial signaled the revolution’s triumph and the official incorporation of its aims into state ideology. But to critics, it was a cynical attempt to rewrite history—a monument to slain protesters installed by a government backed by the same military and police responsible for those deaths.

That night after the unveiling ceremony, protesters surged into the square, ripping flakes of stone off the monument and spraying it with graffiti. In the revolutionaries’ view, the martyrs’ deaths are still an open wound, and the cause they died for, the end of the authoritarian state, has yet to be achieved.


Around midnight, a few dozen demonstrators stood on the now-defaced monument, chattering with excitement. It was the first time the revolutionary camp, those carrying the torch of the 2011 uprising against the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship, had made its presence felt in Tahrir since the July 3, 2013 military coup that removed Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi from power. At one entrance to the square, a new banner declared, “Revolutionaries only. Entry forbidden for Brotherhood, military, and remnants [of the regime].”

A demonstrator named Mohamed Sayed, 32, was standing on the circular base of the monument with a few dozen others. I asked him what they were saying by defacing the shrine. “People want the army and the police to stop killing people,” he said, “and they’re still killing people.”

The defacing of the statue was another skirmish in a long struggle over the legacy of the 2011 uprising. Since Mubarak stepped down in February 2011, and in the wake of every major wave of unrest, the Egyptian state's various institutions sought to cement the appearance that the uprising was over, that the political endgame was underway. Today, the current military-led administration is pursuing this same strategy, rewriting the constitution and planning new elections in the spring, while simultaneously consolidating the power of the military and security establishments and pursuing an intense crackdown on Islamists and the activists associated with the January revolution.


“There’s been a constant battle over history and over the narrative,” filmmaker Omar Robert Hamilton said of the monument. “It’s just more brazen than ever before, and it’s coming through with that tactless, charmless, overbearing sort of style that is so familiar to the Egyptian state.”

Of course, the battle to control the narrative has sometimes simply been a physical battle. On November 19, 2011, Omar told me, he was in his office in downtown Cairo when he got word that the police were attempting to disperse a sit-in in Tahrir by the families of people killed and injured in the January uprising. He grabbed his camera and hurried to the square. When he arrived, protesters were rocking an abandoned police truck back and forth, trying to tip it over. Within hours, the truck was on fire. The police arrived in force, sparking a pitched street battle between stone-throwing protesters and police firing tear gas and bullets. “It was very violent but it was very exciting. It was the biggest show of strength and unity since the 18 days [of the January revolution],” Omar remembered. “Before, you had one street, and you were up and down it, and it was the people versus the state,” Omar said. “The state wore uniforms, and the people had rocks. It was useful because it was very clear what was going on.”

Omar’s media organization, Mosireen, produced searing footage of the battle, including an iconic video of a police officer in riot gear dragging a limp body across the pavement and dumping it on a pile of garbage.

The waters of Egyptian politics have muddied significantly since the days of the Mohamed Mahmoud clash, with Islamists, self-proclaimed revolutionaries, and supporters of the military claiming the mantle of the revolution for themselves. The military government’s crackdown on Islamists left more than 1,000 dead in July and August, but the Islamist and non-Islamist opposition are hopelessly alienated from each other. For many non-Islamist revolutionaries, it is not clear how the “martyrs” of last summer’s violence fit into the narrative of the revolution.

On Tuesday, the day of the anniversary, a crowd of young protesters staged a raucous rally on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, beating drums, jumping, and chanting, “Down with military rule!” On the other side of a barricade, in Tahrir Square itself, supporters of the military staged a birthday celebration for General Abdel-Fattah Sisi, who led the coup against Morsi and is believed to be the most powerful figure in the new government. This second, smaller crowd—made up mainly of middle-aged men and women—was also chanting, “Revolution!” but also, “The people, the police, and the army are one hand.” After two hours, the anti-military crowd rushed into Tahrir, chasing the pro-Sisi protesters to the edge of the square. Police also fired a few rounds of tear gas in what looked like a half-hearted attempt to disperse the crowds. The two groups lobbed stones at one another for hours until the pro-military side finally retreated in the direction of the Nile.

For several more hours, the square began to look like it once did during earlier days of protest, with street vendors circulating and protesters milling about, unsure how to pass the time. In the evening, screens went up, showing the Egypt-Ghana World Cup qualifier match, and the crowds settled in to watch. Egypt won one-nil, but failed to advance in the tournament.

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