The oppressed masses, even when they rise to the very heights of creative action, tell little of themselves and write less. And the overpowering rapture of the victory later erases memory’s work.
—Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution
THE NIGHT OF JANUARY 14, 2011, ON THE DESERTED AVENUE HABIB Bourguiba in Tunis under curfew, an ineffable moment was captured by a cell phone camera. A man in a jumpsuit and white running shoes urgently paced up and down the eerily illuminated boulevard, gesturing with his arms and calling out over and over, “Ben Ali harab! Ben Ali harab!” It had already been hours since news broke that President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had fled the country after a twenty-nine-day popular revolt, but the man repeatedly cried out, “Ben Ali harab! Glory to the martyrs! There’s no more fear, Tunisians! The criminal has fled! Ben Ali harab! Ben Ali harab!” Like a town crier after his own fashion, lawyer Abdel Nasser Laouini was heralding the unthinkable: the popular overthrow of an Arab president.1
In normal times, Arab presidents did not flee. They built formidable machineries of rule, with weak parliaments, useful constitutions, well-endowed government parties, ersatz opposition groupings, multiple media mouthpieces, and overlapping security services. They had steady foreign patrons in the governments of the United States, France, Italy, and Britain. And the presidents’ sons and sons-in-law controlled top state institutions, their grooming for an imminent inheritance of presidential power. Of the nine Arab presidents in late 2010, observed historian Roger Owen, “seven clearly intended to stay in office for life and six were over sixty—a veritable kingdom of the old.”2
The Tunisian people’s routing of their gerontocrat electrified citizens across the Arab world. The day after, a major Egyptian independent daily ran a full-page headline: “Flight of Ben Ali.”3 The news came at a time of peak tension between Egypt’s government and citizenry. Seven months earlier, after the savage police murder of twenty-eight-year-old Alexandrian Khaled Said in broad daylight, unusually large demonstrations had turned out in Cairo and Alexandria decrying police brutality.4 After visiting Said’s grieving mother and participating in the demonstration, retired Egyptian diplomat and newly minted opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei told reporters, “It’s a clear-cut message to the regime that the Egyptian people are sick and tired of practices that are inhumane.”5
But the event most fresh in public memory was the government’s violent rigging of general elections in December 2010. In district after district, tear gas–firing police and blade-wielding government musclemen blocked opposition voters from reaching polling stations, while inside the stations, civil servants calmly stuffed boxes with prefilled ballots. The government’s party put a lock on all but 3 percent of parliament’s seats, so dozens of ousted opposition deputies constituted themselves as a “shadow parliament,” taking a symbolic oath on the steps of a courthouse and vowing to name-and-shame government policies.
Ben Ali’s flight from Tunisia introduced a new ingredient into the routinized conflict between the Egyptian government and its diverse opposition: a perception that the president-for-life was vulnerable. For decades, even the most hopeful dissidents never imagined Hosni Mubarak to be in a precarious position. The eighty-two-year-old president had weathered an assassination attempt, an insurgency, a mutiny by riot police, growing opposition to his rule, and multiple ailments of old age. Dissidents’ greatest ambitions were reforms that would check presidential power and end police impunity. Now the boundaries of the possible suddenly expanded. “The sight of President Ben Ali in his final speech convinces us that dictators are not as powerful as we imagine,” mused influential neo-Islamist columnist Fahmi Howeidy. “It has also assured us that the people are more powerful than we think.”6
In the days after Ben Ali’s flight, impression management took center stage in the jousting between government and opposition in Egypt. Hosni Mubarak donned the mantle of the unruffled statesman, concerned about the common man. While hosting an economic summit at his favorite Sinai resort of Sharm al-Shaykh, he lectured other Arab heads of state on the need for generating employment, calling young people “the most precious of all our resources.”7 The president’s longest-serving police chief, untouchable Interior Minister Habib al-Adli, assured a television interviewer, “No Egyptian official trembled at what happened in Tunis. It’s impossible to compare it to Egypt; the whole world acknowledges Egypt’s stability.”8
Indeed, the system that Mubarak had steered for three decades showed none of the telltale signs of instability: military defeat, elite schisms, or fiscal crisis. The government could even afford a package of preemptive measures to block any gales from Tunisia. Officials were particularly wary of antagonizing Egypt’s 5.7 million government employees, among whom a wave of protests had spread since 2007. On January 18, it was prominently announced that a civil service reform bill would be shelved, and government ministers swiftly met the demands of several groups of protesting clerks and university graduates demanding public employment.9
By January 20, the independent press excitedly reported on calls percolating online for a national day of protest on January 25, National Police Day. In 2009, Mubarak had designated it a bank holiday, an attempt to link his abusive police force to a more heroic episode in its history.10 Now, three youth-led opposition groups were planning to resignify the day as an occasion to chant against police torture and political repression.
With hope animating the opposition and an undertow of fear in the government’s confident pronouncements, group after group announced its participation in what was branded a National Day of Wrath on January 25. The participant list read like a who’s-who of the crowded opposition scene that had developed during Mubarak’s third decade in power: the Facebook page commemorating Khaled Said; the April 6 dissident youth movement; the shadow parliamentarians; workers in the militant textile town of Mahalla al-Kubra; a pensioners’ rights group; the storied bar association; protest-prone university students and protest-shy gentlemen’s dissident parties; liberal politician Ayman Nour and his following; the Revolutionary Socialists intellectuals’ group; and the Kifaya (Enough!) movement established in 2004 to campaign for an end to Mubarak’s tenure. Also joining was a social force new to opposition politics but seasoned in combat with police: hard-core soccer fans of Egypt’s two main teams, the Ahli and Zamalek Ultras. Human rights lawyers announced hotline numbers to call for protesters facing arrest and needing legal aid. At the eleventh hour, cautious leaders of the Muslim Brothers (MB) and the Wafd party, Egypt’s two oldest political movements, announced that they were leaving participation up to individual members.11
The organizing youth groups announced four consensus demands for what had been translated into social mediaspeak as #Jan25: an end to the permanent state of emergency; implementing a court ruling ordering a minimum monthly wage of £E1,200; sacking Interior Minister Habib al-Adli; and releasing all administrative detainees. Organizers reinforced the nonpartisan protest ethos by posting a video of Khaled Said’s mother, Laila Marzouq, still in her mourning black, poignantly urging young people to turn out and find safety in numbers. Despite the anticipatory buzz, a small but nonnegligible assortment of strange bedfellows pointedly declared their nonparticipation: all three denominations of the Coptic Church; Salafi pietists, whose political posture was always with, not against, the government; and several tiny, government-licensed opposition parties that behaved as adjuncts to rather than critics of officialdom.
1. Abdel Nasser Laouini is a cause lawyer who defended in court leaders of the 2008 protests against nepotism in Tunisia’s Gafsa mining basin; he also participated in the lawyers’ demonstration in Tunis during the uprising. The video of his cri de coeur is at https://youtu.be/OKKvc4sxwfw. “Ben Ali harab!” translates to “Ben Ali has fled!”
2. Roger Owen, The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 172.
3. Al-Shurouq, January 15, 2011.
4. “One people against the emergency” and “Khaled Said, martyr of the emergency” were the banners held up by Alexandria protesters. Al-Shurouq, June 26, 2010.
5. Associated Press, “Thousands of Egyptians Protest What They Call Police Torture,” June 25, 2010.
6. Fahmi Howeidy, “Jadal al-Ḥadath al-Tunisi wa Ajrasihi,” Al-Shurouq, January 25, 2011.
7. “Tunisia Echoes in the Arab Street,” Al-Ahram Weekly, January 20–26, 2011.
8. A transcript of the January 25 interview is printed in Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 27, 2011.
9. “Ta’jil tarh qanun al-wazifa al-ʿamma bi-sabab ahdath Tunis,” Al-Shurouq, January 19, 2011; “Al-ukuma Tastajib li Malib al-Muhtajjin,” Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 21, 2011.
10. On January 25, 1952, colonial British forces massacred fifty nationalist policemen in Ismailia, leading to large anticolonial demonstrations in Cairo. See Nancy Reynolds, A City Consumed: Urban Commerce, the Cairo Fire, and the Politics of Decolonization in Egypt (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012).
11. Intelligence agents threatened the Muslim Brothers’ leadership with arrest if they officially endorsed the protest action. “Al-Ikhwan Yusharikun bi Muzaharat al-Yawm,” Al-Shurouq, January 25, 2011.