Egypt’s most famous revolutionaries talk about being depressed. In the cafés and beat-up living rooms where they were once celebrated as the faces of the revolution, they now sit in darkened corners, chain-smoking cigarettes and avoiding eye contact.
The rowdy speeches about the new Egypt, filled with grassroots activism and progressive idealism, have been replaced with talk of exile and police intimidation. Many admit they have now turned to antidepressants to keep going, and when the names of recently arrested friends Ahmed Maher, Mohamed Adel, and Ahmed Douma come up, even medication is not enough to keep a gloom from descending.
On the third anniversary of Jan. 25, 2011 — the day protesters first filled Tahrir Square and began the movement that ended the 30-year regime of Hosni Mubarak — most of the original revolutionaries have gone silent. Some, like former Google executive turned revolutionary Wael Ghonim, have fled Egypt after alleging that smear campaigns were being conducted against them. Many others now live in a self-imposed exile, muting themselves on Twitter and Facebook and avoiding any media attention. Of the half a dozen original revolutionaries contacted by BuzzFeed, only two agreed to speak on record. A third, when reached by phone, said he would only be quoted anonymously as saying, “Anyone who talks to you is stupid, the police are just looking for an excuse to arrest us all.”
“This year will be the most difficult Jan. 25 anniversary we have had to date. We have lost the battle, and we have to admit that. Some people think we should go silent, disappear but I think now is the time to push on,” said Khaled Abdul Hamid, who agreed to meet in his downtown offices just a few minutes walk from Tahrir.
On Monday, Egypt’s Ministry of the Interior called for protesters to celebrate, and said that thousands of police and security officials would secure public areas from disruptions. Many are expecting the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to try and rally its supporters for a protest. Over the last year, the Brotherhood has tried to claim that it was responsible for the success of Jan. 25, even though they came to the revolution much later and had little to do with the original Jan. 25 movement led by young, often progressive, activists.
For the original revolutionaries, it was just one more case of outside groups attempting to co-opting their gains and anniversaries for the nationalistic agenda that has seized many in Egypt.
“The spirit of the street is broken. I think that for me, the most symbolic thing is that this week, on the anniversary of Jan. 25, we won’t be able to freely go to Tahrir. That says everything,” said Abdul Hamid.
Nasser Abdel Hamid, who fondly recalls the flooding of the square by protesters in 2011, said that he would be “the most miserable person on earth” if he could not enter Tahrir on the anniversary this year. He said he had become increasingly depressed as he had watched the return of the police state in Egypt.
“That the Ministry of the Interior is calling for demonstrations on Jan. 25 isn’t even funny, it’s appalling, it’s a disaster,” said Abdul Hamid. “It shows how far away we have gotten from the true meaning of Jan. 25.”
Egyptian officials said they expect thousands of pro-government and pro-army supporters to fill Tahrir, many of them carrying the banner of Egypt’s army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who many hope will run for president in upcoming elections.
Abdul Hamid said that some of the original revolutionaries will announce Wednesday their own counter-rally, though its unclear how many will take part. The Brotherhood, he added, had reached out to him and other Jan. 25 leaders to see if they wanted to hold a joint protest, but the offer was turned down. He said the Jan. 25 movement wanted “nothing to do” with what the Muslim Brotherhood was planning.
In the political upheavals following the ousting of Mubarak and the June 2012 elections that saw the Brotherhood rise to power, many Jan. 25 leaders were criticized for colluding with the Brotherhood rather than lead their own political movements. Abdel Hamid claimed there had been a concerted effort by the state and the “old guard of Egypt” to besmirch the revolutionaries by spreading rumors that they had colluded with various groups.
“They planned to ruin our reputation by saying that we betrayed the country,” said Abdel Hamid. The old guard in Egypt, he added, especially those who had vested business and political interests, had too much to lose from the young revolutionaries, so they focused on removing their base of power.
Still, Abdel Hamid has moments of hope. On Tuesday he took part in a meeting with Egypt’s interim President Adly Mansour. The president, he said, wanted to discuss bringing youth voters into the fold.
“The president realized that he couldn’t have stability in the country as long as there was animosity among the youths; that is why he reached out to us in the meeting today,” said Abdel Hamid, who added that “new alliances” had to include fresh voices, but wouldn’t elaborate further.
Abdul Hamid is less optimistic about the chances for progress with the current government, who he accuses of trying to “disappear” the true voices of revolution.
“It’s what they want, but it’s very dangerous for the voice of the revolution to disappear. We can’t allow the only protests to be Muslim Brotherhood protests, so that people will again believe that Egypt is caught between the Brotherhood and the security state. That was an idea promoted by Mubarak to keep Egyptians from realizing there was another way,” said Abdul Hamid.
What that way is, he admits, is still unclear. Many Egyptians speak of protest exhaustion, and say they simply want to return to more stable times — even if that means a return to the police state and mass arrests.
Abdul Hamid said he has already mentally prepared himself to be arrested.
“I am psychologically prepared, I have to be,” he said, arms crossed over his chest and his usually quick smile no where in sight. “I never considered leaving Egypt. Even though just a few weeks ago, another group of my friends left, I couldn’t do that myself or just go silent. I know what that means, but I am committed to staying on this path.”