What The Young People of Egypt Learned

A Close Up Look at Four Young Egyptians Who Were Present at the Revolution

This summer Egyptians took to the streets in numbers that made their historic anti-Mubarak outpouring two-and-a-half years ago pale in comparison. Once again, the volume of the recent protests took everyone—Egyptians and outsiders—by surprise. But anyone who has spent time on the ground in Egypt since the revolution began in earnest in January 2011 is not confused as to why revolt is still warranted. Rather, what was extraordinary about this revolutionary persistence is that Egyptians still have the energy and resolve to act and to sacrifice, even after the punishing series of disappointments they’ve endured since their initial hopes were kindled.

I watched the extraordinary display of fervor and commitment of this summer’s events from my office and home in East Tennessee—a half-world away geographically and light years away culturally from the grind and passion of Egypt. But having spent considerable time in Cairo and Alexandria over the past two years, I was able to feel the essence of what was being expressed and what was at stake, especially for the youth from whom I’ve had the privilege of learning during their long ordeal.

One of the several profound lessons I’ve learned in following this revolution is how dizzyingly complex social movements of this magnitude are. Yet I think Egyptians would confirm that the essential core is not complex, but rather a simple and essential yearning for dignity and freedom. It was the taste of this freedom and restored dignity that was so promising to Egyptians in the early days of the movement. As the revolution ground on, the young people were sobered by the slow realization that the sources of their violation were not particular people but Egypt’s various cultures. Finally, the betrayal and violence they experienced at the hands of those who took control of the country demonstrated that the cherished freedom they had sipped was dissolving.

The urgency of freedom and the associated dignity that Egyptians crave is difficult for those of us raised and immersed in it to appreciate. We presume freedom and contemplate it only when someone threatens to take a piece of it away. Most of us in our society would have no reason to have experienced what Egyptians did late in January and early February 2011: the sudden acquisition of freedom.

I surely would never have understood had I not had the privilege of witnessing it.


Those first two hours in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Friday evening, February 18, 2011, were among the most profound moments of my life. I was not anticipating that moment—indeed I had no expectations at all as I made my way to Tahrir Square that night. Figuring that I ought to try to “see something” my first night upon arriving, I waded across the Qasr al-Nil bridge leading into the Square, taking a good half hour to squeeze my way through the throngs of people filling both lanes and sidewalks of the very bridge that earlier was (and later would be) a key artery of protest. I tripped over crumbling asphalt, bumping shoulders all the way with people moving in every possible direction with no apparent destination in mind, and not really knowing what my own destination was.

The mood was profoundly celebratory with the characteristic racket of Cairo on steroids—coarsely out-of-pitch blare of vuvuzelas, revolutionary chants screamed from loudspeakers, and the incessant, piercing signature car horn rhythm announcing momentous occasions: Beep! Beep! Beep-Beep-Beep!—Beep! Beep! Beep-Beep-Beep!

Tahrir Square was just a vague concept to me until I entered it in a seamless extension of the flood of people from the bridge. The huge intersection that receives and feeds several main Cairo arteries hosted a massive assembly of people. I just kept moving, and by the time I found myself in the roundabout at the center of the Square, the experience had become dizzying. In a stupor, I turned slowly the full 360 degrees, scanned a barrage of people, squinted through the glare of floodlights, and picked out bits and pieces of conversations that were mostly drowned out by the roar of the accumulated masses.

The spectacle, one week after the dictator had acquiesced to the demands of his people, was exciting. Emotion gushed from the very core of each individual—young, old, male, female, poor, less poor. It was palpable, sensual, this feeling of newly acquired freedom. The euphoria wouldn’t last forever, as we now know from following Egypt’s saga, and as we should have known from a longer familiarity with past revolutions and their invariable cycles.


What stayed with me after my first night in Tahrir was the mass unity of distinct individuals. I have studied collective identity, and nearly two decades of studying Palestinians has sensitized me to how essential place and nation are to identity. But that work began after the grounding drama of their first intifada, which ran from 1987 to 1993. Until Tahrir I’d never witnessed the discovery of collective synergy and oneness at its inception. Real-time accounts of the workings of a revolution are rare. Rarer still are real-time accounts of how youth identities form through, and adapt to, the changing social and political landscape.

So I set out to find a few young people to follow as they experienced revolution and its aftermath. Selecting a diverse set—males, females, Cairo residents, Alexandrians, Muslims, Christians, seasoned and occasional activists—proved fruitful both in teaching how such powerful unity is initially forged and how difficult it is to maintain over time. Alas, I failed in repeated efforts to include a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in the group.

The particulars of the individuals’ politics are less important to me than the way they experience them. What follows are four brief sketches from among the youths I selected, portraits of engagement that begin to differentiate individuals from the collective mass I experienced in Tahrir, and which shed light on Egypt’s ongoing voyage.


From Reformist to Revolutionary: Kholoud, 28

Kholoud“So, I was standing there,” Kholoud recalled, “watching what was happening, but I wasn’t involved in what was going on.” Then, slowly, she felt something inside that “started like a low voice.” She didn’t feel frightened, but stirred. “I was moved by the scene—very, very moved. I really couldn’t imagine that.” The passion was all around her, expressed not only in the words that were spoken but by the overall energy radiated by the diverse group before her.

She was moved first that day in the mosque in the Sidi Gabr section of Alexandria, when the women began crying at the wake for Khaled Said, who in June 2010 had been brutally beaten to death by security forces. The women came from all walks of life, and it was their pain that touched Kholoud, particularly the injustice and the personal injury their agony revealed. “The women started crying, and you know, you could find someone saying, ‘he was my neighbor,’ ‘he went to school with my son,’ ‘he was my brother’s friend.’ It was awful.” The very commonness of Said—just an everyday young man—and his familiarity to many in the close-knit community were profound. Kholoud began to see that it was not an unconnected event experienced only by the intimates of the slain youth, but that there was something universal and representative about the fear and sense of injustice the event provoked.

As the day progressed, the energy mounted substantially both within the group and inside Kholoud herself. With a friend, she relinquished her bystander status: “Bit by bit we joined the group, like the heart of the demonstration … and I was chanting with them.” She became part of the community of sorrow as the ceremony at the mosque extended to visits to Said’s home. She was moved still further, again by the size and diversity of the attendants, but also by the desecration of innocence they decried: “[He was] a nice guy, not a criminal,” she heard people bemoan. “[He wasn’t] a drug dealer or whatever, [but] a very decent guy … a very respectable guy.”

Kholoud saw Said’s parents in the crowd; this made the experience personal: “It was very authentic, like you felt it was real.” It could have been her own brother, she realized. After all, he goes to such cafés, without identification, just as Said had done. She played an awful scenario over in her head, imagining her brother to be the next victim. And then there would be a Facebook page in his honor? “No, no, I don’t want that at all.”

The plausibility of such a tragedy happening to her family shook Kholoud. It led her to contemplate more clearly than ever before the capriciousness and sham of safety in her Egypt. Clearly, the admonition she had always heard that all she needed to do to be safe was to stay away from “naughty” boys was empty. She recalled a traditional Egyptian saying that prescribed that as long as you are walking beside the wall—not in the middle of the street—you are safe. Linking the incident of Khaled Said to that adage, she grasped its deceit: “But actually people were walking beside the wall and then they got tortured to death … ”

Kholoud’s completion of that phrase with “… so what are you waiting for?” marked the commencement of a transformation to a level of political activism she had not previously imagined. “You don’t really need a revolution; you can work with whatever you have,” had been her previous stance. But as the June day in 2010 finished near Khaled Said’s home—this, the day she selected when asked to recall what the 2011 revolution was like for her—she arrived at a collective and personal watershed: “What are we waiting for?” Indeed, she had defied the proverb’s instructions: From her detached position against the interior wall of the mosque that morning, she had moved into the middle of the street.

In an interview just months into the revolution’s chaos, Kholoud mused about the simplicity of the Khaled Said protest—her first—noting that since the revolution began, the task seems so monstrously complex and unending. “There are many things to do … and there really isn’t any excuse [for not doing them] … I feel guilty for not dying, for having others die for you … It’s a horrible feeling.” She doesn’t understand how others can feel any differently. Cynically commenting on others she has overheard dismissively empathizing for the fallen martyrs—“OK, we’re sad for them, but we have to go on with our lives”—Kholoud lets loose with indignation: “I don’t understand how they go about with their daily business, eat and sleep, and go out and have their own fun … Now people are talking about summer vacation … I don’t want somebody, for example, calling for not having a sit-in because it’s summertime and Alexandria is on the beach … It’s not really a big deal not to have a swim for a year, it’s a revolution for God’s sake!”

Most offensive to the simple purity of Kholoud’s expectations was that simple justice had not been met in the form of punishment for the security officers who had killed hundreds of people in the early days of the revolution. “I just wanted justice, [but] with every single day that passes, I am more and more angry because I see those people, you know, enjoying their lives. People who killed other people, people who stole the money, people who led other people to die.”

By March 2012, she was expressing volatile emotions: “Perhaps each day will bring something new … you would be very much depressed and frustrated and angry … then, some small thing would happen that would tell you that you’re going the right direction, or, [that] we are nearly there.” By December 2012, she noted an increase in violence, stemming from an accumulation of bitterness and anger. By then she also saw the Muslim Brotherhood leadership acting in a “very dumb way,” providing silly explanations for abrupt decisions and their immediate reversals. But she was equally critical of the opposition leaders, whom she found empty when it came to offering a better way.

“Everyone knows there is another earthquake coming. But no one knows what to do.”

The earthquake came on June 30, 2013, with the military retaking power. Kholoud had voted, reluctantly, for Mohammed Morsi for president last year—for the sole purpose of preventing the Mubarak regime from resurfacing via the other candidate, Ahmed Shafiq. But she had quickly become outraged that the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi had contradicted their pledge to govern on behalf of all. The disappointment reassembled what young people had felt toward the military in the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s removal.

For Kholoud, the alarms weren’t merely the unfulfilled promises and casual relationship with the rule of law, but a real risk of “civil war and urban violence that was totally unknown to Egyptians.” At the same time, she recognizes the need to include the Brotherhood in the future but can’t yet see how that is possible.

As for now, Kholoud is sad and worried, but also confident and hopeful. “How can’t I be?” she mused. “Three years ago, everybody thought Mubarak and his son would be there forever. Two years ago, everybody thought the military would be there forever. And one year ago, everybody thought the Brotherhood would be there forever. Now we are not sure of anything, but that no one would be there forever. We have fought for the right to elect, and then we have fought for the right to remove those elected. We are just unprecedented.”


“Inspired by Brave Men”: Yehia, 26

YehiaEven months later, Yehia “shivered from the feeling” as he described his embrace of the revolution in January 2011. He had heard vaguely of protests on January 25, but it wasn’t until he watched some YouTube videos of police brutally beating protesters that he was “hooked.” Hearing that there would be more protests on the 28th, he hopped on the back of his friend’s motorcycle in search of the closest gathering. They joined a small group that was forming at a local mosque and headed for Tahrir Square. These were total strangers, but he felt a “phenomenal” spirit, as they held each other’s hands. For Yehia, it was a spiritual experience to be immersed in such a flood of unity and camaraderie, particularly when he saw the homeless black man in flip-flops, hair awry, wearing a filthy but full suit, leading the protest chant: “‘Freedom, freedom … Down with the system!’ That really inspired me,” said Yehia. “He had fitted himself in the best suit he had. This was his day. People were chanting behind him, and it was crazy.”

The growing band made its way toward Tahrir but was blocked by police at the 6 October Bridge. The police had guns drawn and shot tear gas at the small crowd. This was Yehia’s first experience with the noxious gas, and he “ran like hell.” He didn’t know what the eventual goal of the demonstration was; all he knew was that he had to “feel the Square.” They detoured toward the Qasr al-Nil bridge, with residents throwing clothes and canisters of vinegar from their windows to assuage the tear gas. At the bridge, there would be a three-hour battle as the demonstrators and police pushed each other back and forth. When he and his fellow demonstrators finally pushed into the Square, Yehia encountered a “gigantic” gathering, “the biggest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” He saw two more bodies and, having reached his goal of being in the Square, he and his friend decided that was enough: “It was getting so bloody.”

February 11, the day Mubarak stepped down, became the largest celebration Yehia had ever seen, and he found himself hugging people he didn’t even know. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think that Mubarak would step down … We broke the impossible … Why didn’t we do this a long time ago?!”

Yehia had never been involved in politics before, but, as a marginalized Christian, he had always felt a desire for his country to be democratic, for the “government to hear the voice of the people.” It bothered him that there has been no Christian political leader (nor a Christian member of the national soccer team for that matter), but religion was not the driving force in his newfound commitment to radical political change. “We’re here in the same country, and what I’m experiencing, another is experiencing it. Religion is out of the equation when it comes to the revolution and the country.”

His experiences in January 2011 changed him substantially, giving him a “direction to walk … to point my compass toward a goal.” Sadly, though, he met nothing but disillusion. The insidious corruption in the form of incessant bribes—involving everything from traffic violations to obtaining his national ID—didn’t change but for a brief hiatus following the early revolution. He had never met a clean policeman. “Sorry to disappoint,” he said in our November 2011 interview. “I haven’t seen achievements. The policemen are still bribed … The change is in elections and big stuff, but on the street, things are the same. Even worse, people are getting bankrupt.”

More worrisome still was growing evidence of the military’s violence and betrayal of the goals of the revolution. He bristled with indignation at the military’s claim that they were protecting the people and that they would never fire a bullet on the Egyptian people. Yehia’s younger brother was shot in the leg during clashes in the fall of 2011. “That’s a lie. That’s not what’s happening on the field.”

Like so many others, he faced the realization that the revolution was complicated, that an entire system—“a cancerous system”—needed to be brought down. “We need a good leader. Not from the old regime; not from the same system. We should bring the whole house down and [raise] it up clean and neat.” What about the Islamists? They seem to have risen from the ground. “I didn’t know they were so strong,” he said. “It was a shock for me … and I hate them.” Better a Salafist than a Muslim Brother, he claimed. The Brotherhood is “deceptive, very slippery, snakey.”

By March 2012 things had not improved, but were getting even worse. “It’s been a disaster,” he said of the military. “Shame on them. They’re trying to suppress the revolution by all means.” He acknowledged that his daily life had remained relatively unchanged, that he and his neighbors hadn’t been affected by the gas or bread shortages. “I won’t lie; I won’t tell you that I’m suffering from the Egyptian politics. It doesn’t affect me directly. [But] it does affect me emotionally because I want my country to be better, and I had a dream when the revolution aroused that my country will go in the right direction and we will have a better government, we will have better life, the poor will have their needs satisfied. But that’s not happening, nothing’s changing. On the contrary, it’s going backward.” He was shocked when he witnessed a child beating an old man to take his place in a bread line: “Hunger has killed humanity.”

By December 2012, he confided, “I’m just fed up with all of this. All I want is a normal life and for things to be stable again. What has happened in the past three years got the worst out of people … the dark side … It’s so sad to know that humanity reached this kind of low level … [It has been] brutal and very bloody.”

No longer was Yehia protected from the ever-worsening economic situation. He was worried about the stability of the jobs of several family members, including his father; while he hoped his own job was safe, he confessed to feeling the need to adjust his own career expectations due to the ever-bleaker future. “The country’s been hell ever since the Muslim Brotherhood took power.” Initially, Yehia had thought, “OK, I know they won’t do good on the social level, but maybe they have an economic plan. We heard that they’re very good, they’re very organized, they’ve got a plan for everything. So I thought maybe we could pass this economic crisis period in Egypt. But it didn’t happen.”

“I lost all my energy,” he said, “I’m no more enthusiastic for battles and getting down in the streets and revolting or shouting. They killed me, man, I would say they killed me.”

As for Egypt, he judged that it would have to reach bottom first, but would surely “rise again.”

It did so this June 30, he said. Over Skype last week, Yehia expressed surprise at the turnout at protests this summer: “Numbers were greater than they were against Mubarak; it was literally everywhere in Egypt.” He said that it brought back some hope, having thought that it would have taken a long time to “get Morsi out.” Yehia feels optimistic now, and pointed out that the debate about whether this was a “coup” is pointless: technically correct, perhaps, but “so also was January 25.”


Revolt, or Die in Shame: Aly, 28

AlyI called Aly’s cell phone while traversing Tahrir Square in November 2011, having learned from others that he might be in Cairo himself. He picked up and was actually just across the Square on his way to drop off his bags at a local hostel. He said he’d call back once he was settled, and we’d arrange a time for our interview. No call came that day, or the next, or the next. My text and voice messages went unanswered. Aly is Kholoud’s close friend from Alexandria; he’s a dyed-in-the-wool revolutionary who needed no transformation to the activism required by the moment. Knowing Aly’s penchant for getting consumed in revolutionary affairs, I began to conclude that he was simply too caught up in the protests, either writing about them or participating in them, to have time to meet that week. Then came this on Facebook:

It is by all means the time of revolution, emancipation(s), and … love. SO For God Sake Revolt or die in Shame. … In the correct road from politics of the coward elites to the WAR/REVOLUTION of brave young generation who fights in the first lines, behind the enemy lines and in front and against the heavy machines of war and suppression. They shoot by their heavy equipment and we shoot by faith, believe and anger. Tomorrow we will not die, tomorrow we will be emancipation from who we had been, a new life is going to [be] born from the heart and mud of the battlefield of our revolution.

My heart sunk, sensing immediately that Aly would be acting out this admonition himself. The next night at about 10 p.m. I tried calling him one more time. A voice picked up and identified himself as Aly’s friend. In the background, Aly overruled his friend’s decision to turn me away, and he took the phone. He was excited to talk. He lay in the hospital with bullet wounds to his head and body. He said that he “would love so much” to have me visit.

His handsome face looked gruesome, engorged with hemorrhage that swelled his eyes shut. Surgeries had just been completed to remove some of the metal pellets that had splattered his face and head, and his X-rays revealed that many more were yet to be extracted. Luckily, none had struck his eyes directly. He was in good spirits.

“You don’t find a lot of political activists in the front line. Political scientists, human rights advocates—you don’t find on the front lines.” With obvious annoyance, he characterized these “elites” as “letting young people die to defend their security and fight for the freedom while they negotiate with SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces].” His disdain grew as he elaborated: “They don’t [even] do good politics, and are not that clever in negotiating. They don’t understand that this revolutionary explosion is the perfect moment for transformation of society.” Revealing the essential source of his anger—that which led him to join those November clashes on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, the artery that leads from Tahrir to the Ministry of Interior—he said: “The same structure is back, with its brutal, its ugly face.”

And then the shots came.

Aly agreed when I noted that he was happier than he’d been over the many months since we first met. He was proud. “They thought that we were just some kids who were playing around … but I think we proved that we are more than fighters.” He expressed amazement at how peacefully Egyptians have conducted the revolution; he himself bristled at criticism that throwing stones or an occasional Molotov cocktail is violence. “What else should we do?” he protested. He warned that if the security forces continue their real violence—“like betraying today’s ceasefire and firing on the protesters as they prayed—then the masses will become very aggressive … they won’t stay peaceful … and the [security forces] will lose a lot … This time it won’t be just our blood …”

After his release from the hospital 10 days later, Aly invited me to join him at an outdoor café in Cairo. When I arrived, he was seated with a friend as well as a cherished mentor, a well-known professor at one of Cairo’s universities. After pleasantries, the professor went back to lecturing the duo about the counter-productivity of violence at this stage of the revolution. “Your blood is not cheap; don’t just throw it away like that. You must get something in return for it.” Aly was silent, but I can’t help but wonder if this didn’t hurt him; surely, it challenged him.

His cell phone rang. Anxious and surprised, Aly announced that it was his father, down from Alexandria to vote in his original home district during this first round of parliamentary elections. His father, like the rest of Aly’s family, knew nothing of his injuries; Aly had taken great pains to keep the news from them. By the time his father joined us, the others at the table were gone. Aly rose out of respect for his equally tall, if someone slighter, father. They kissed, of course, but his father’s stance seemed stilted, and in seconds he’d instructed Aly to remove the odd, oversized sunglasses that were concealing his still deeply bruised eye sockets, sunk in his otherwise healed face. In a scene to be repeated the next week once he went home to his mother, Aly obediently lifted the glasses. “Alhamdilla,” was his father’s only immediate word, communicating either or both of two sentiments: Thanks be to God … that you are safe; and/or Thanks be to God … for your brave heroism.

In a Skype conversation the next month, Aly said that he had fully healed from his physical injuries. But his mother had put him under a form of “house arrest,” and his father had been challenging him to use his intellectual skills to teach and inspire the revolutionaries and to stay away from the front lines.

Not so simple for Aly. He felt pulled both to the street and to the realm of ideas. He “couldn’t digest” the two levels of protest as mutually exclusive.

The emotional and political roller coaster continued for Aly. By March 2012, he said, “I feel very exhausted … very old, which is not nice at 27 years old.”

Reached on Skype this summer, Aly said he is still exhausted, but “very hopeful and happy that we broke down the Muslim Brotherhood’s project in power, [an important step] in deconstructing authoritarian components in society.” While he “doesn’t mind” having destroyed the Islamists, the downsides are the return of the military and a fear that the old system will be reproduced. The short term will be “irritating,” he said, referring to violence in the streets and harsh behavior from police, but he, too, is optimistic for the longer term.


Exiled from the Garden of Democracy: Mohsen, 29

Mohsen“I think we will walk in the same steps of Tunisia. It’s what I hope for” said Mohsen from Cairo in our first interview a month or so after the revolution’s initial success. Imagining with excitement what the coming year might offer, he laid out a new Egypt: “We could get a new constitution; we could organize ourselves in political parties; we could organize awareness programs for the whole rest of the Egyptian people to tell them a lot about their rights.”

Mohsen, then the deputy director of a well-established human rights organization, is a short, “quiet man” (his own description), whose eyes dart back and forth excitedly when he is hopeful and sink into his face when he is sad. Like so many, he reveled in the early days, prizing having “made history” along with his cohorts and “feeling like full citizens.”

Mohsen was the consummate Tahrir Square activist, sleeping in the Square for 15 of the original 18 days of the revolution, as well as all three weeks of the July 2011 sit-in. Shying away from violence by nature, his heart is in education. In the early part of the revolution, this took the form of reporting to those outside the Square via text, Twitter, and phone. During the summer sit-in, he formalized the education by establishing a library in a tent neighboring his own in Tahrir’s roundabout, the floor of which he would refill daily with hurriedly copied human rights documents or donated volumes.

For Mohsen, the best days have been those that evinced hope for democracy’s evolution, such as the honest vote in the March 2011 referendum, or the lack of apparent rigging in the parliamentary elections later that year and the next. Perhaps most satisfying were the experiments with democracy he helped run in Tahrir Square, especially during the July 2011 sit-in, when young activists—in a space he dubbed the “Garden of Democracy”—learned to resolve tactical differences in an open, democratic manner.

The failures of the revolution hit Mohsen hard, so much so that he needed to steal himself away. The tension was too much for him. The first episode surrounded the March 2011 referendum vote. While he cherished the opportunity to vote, the magnitude of the lopsided result—an approval of, among other things, a schedule for elections that would not give opposition groups time to organize—depressed him. He locked himself in his apartment for three days, not responding to increasingly worried friends. At the end of the three days, he had made his resolution: to reclaim his primary identity as a human rights worker who was not “politically oriented.” But he couldn’t shake the depression for very long. At one of the subsequent episodes he wrote me by e-mail: “I need to find my compass.”

Most depressing to Mohsen were the shifting loyalties he sensed in people, many of whom came to see the youth of Tahrir as agents of foreign governments. Naturally, this seared him personally: “We gave them knowledge … I can’t imagine that they are against us [now].” Things got more and more complicated, and, for Mohsen, depressing: “I get depressed, and for some while I stopped to go to Tahrir Square as a place.” He briefly considered emigrating. But he decided he’d give it “one more year as a chance or an opportunity to feel, to discover what is going on with this country before I [make] the final decision if I’ll stay, or, [if] I’m going to try another one [country].” That span included a three-month internship in Brussels, which helped him clarify the contradictions he felt between himself as a person and as an Egyptian.

Mohsen recalls one poignant phone conversation he had during that internship in Brussels with his best friend from Egypt, a “revolutionary to the extreme.”

“I’m afraid that we are losing our humanity,” he told her, noting that their conversations no longer included anything personal. Instead of responding to the question “How are you?” like before, with news about a girlfriend, or things at work, or his family, Mohsen had come to answer such queries with an update on his depression about how things were going with the country.

“Do you remember the last time we were talking about your boyfriend and my miserable stories about love?” he asked.

“No, I don’t remember.” she replied.

He wrestled with who he was, and what he should do. “Why should I fight? Why should I spend my whole life fighting to get a better life when I have the chance to emigrate to another country and to enjoy this better life? What is the meaning of your ‘home country’ [anyway]? Is it because I was born in the home country? So I should fight and fight and fight for all my life to make it better? … Is it my problem that I was born in Egypt?”

He tried to enjoy the better life in Brussels. He even changed all the settings on his various social media sites to distance himself from the chaos in Egypt. But Egypt wouldn’t leave him. Even while seeing a movie, one of his lifelong passions, he would recall whatever event was paramount in Egypt that day. He was always lured back online to stay informed. He also missed the attention from his comrades. “I love this feeling, when I feel like people are asking me to help them or do something, because I feel like I’m somehow useful. I could help others.”

Mohsen did return home, having found what he thought was the right equilibrium between being a person and being a citizen of Egypt. “First and foremost, I’m a human being … a member of the general assembly of the Earth.” This newfound perspective, evident when we met in December 2012, played itself out in a newly measured, selective approach to the revolution. He noted that even though he lives just a hundred meters from the Square, he’d stayed away from it in the eight months since being back from Brussels. When his friends asked him to join protests, he said, “No, no; enough is enough. I want to step back; I [can’t] do it anymore. If there is something I could do better than you [I would], but now I’m telling you that I [can’t].”

And then, in November 2012, President Morsi made his unacceptable constitutional declaration granting himself extraordinary powers. A new line had been crossed. Mohsen felt compelled to join the march and enter the Square, and was soon posting on Facebook and tweeting: “I’m in the Square, and I hear the chants of the people and I feel like I’m rebounding myself.”

Mohsen told me this summer that he was in the street on June 30, because it became apparent over the past year that “Morsi lost major support because of his decisions to protect himself.” On July 3, when Defense Minister General Sissi postponed the constitution and removed President Morsi, Mohsen recalled, “I was happy and felt free again … Ever since last November with the Morsi constitution, I felt like I was under Mubarak.” He said, “You feel that the whole country was a prison because Morsi threatened violence to keep legitimacy. His worst decision was to threaten us with violence and force us to look to the army. I wish we didn’t have to rely on the army.”

Brian K. Barber is founding director of the Center for the Study of Youth and Political Conflict and professor of child and family Studies at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He partnered with James Youniss of Catholic University on this Egyptian project, which was funded by the Jacobs Foundation in Zurich.
Primary Editor: Andrés Martinez. Secondary Editor: Joe Mathews.
*Lead photo courtesy of Hossam el-Hamalawy. Mirror Lake Films of Salt Lake City provided the interior photos.
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