A cross-section of this large and diverse country discuss the year since Hosni Mubarak's departure and what they see in the future.
Regular Egyptians, whatever their role in the events of the last year, are struggling to figure out what comes next / all photos by Lauren E. Bohn
One year after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned, yielding to the demands of the hundreds of thousands of protesters packed into the now iconic Tahrir Square the revolution has turned out to be more tangled and knotted than anyone had imagined. And far from over.
As the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces asserts its
increasingly incompetent (or malevolent) leadership, and as activists and
political parties fight over their country's future, individual Egyptians are
still trying to figure out what comes next and how they fit into the new Egypt.
After decades of trampled possibilities, Egyptians are working to figure out
not only what they stand against, but the more definitive and ultimately
divisive question of what they stand for.
Egypt's story has at times seemed like an existential
struggle between the future and the past. While photogenic revolutionaries
grabbed the world's attention, the country teems with a varied 80 some million
people and just as many stories.
On the first anniversary of Mubarak's February 11 ouster, a
moment that seemed to freeze in time, nine Egyptians from across the country
and all walks of life reflect on a tumultuous year and a future that's still
being fought over -- why "revolution" is relative and why, like in any story,
sometimes the most difficult part to conceive is the end.
Abdel Rahman Ayad, 25,
The Disaffected Activist
Exactly one year ago, Abdel Rahman Ayad's feet were
bleeding. For 18 days, he'd make nightly treks from downtown Cairo's Tahrir
Square back home to his house in Heliopolis, an affluent Cairene suburb. He
protested every day, but always promised his mother he'd come home after sunset
to visit her.
Ayad, 25, calls his friends "matey" -- sailor's parlance he
picked up while working for a German-based shipping company that's taken him
around the world. He's thoughtful, with schoolboy eyes that look eager for
trouble. He likes hash and Indian food, optimally in concert. And, in natural
form, he curses like a sailor.
He was born and grew up in Abu Dhabi, where his father
worked in business, but decided to "get back to his roots" and moved to Egypt
for college. He studied at the Maritime Academy in Alexandria and spends an
average of eight months a year on a ship. He was supposed to set sail on Jan.
10 of 2011, but he decided not to go. He expected something to happen in Egypt
and he wanted to be a part of it.
This year, he spent the revolutionary anniversary in
Alexandria, wading through Egyptian bureaucracy, getting documents signed and
certified to set sail once again. "If this were last year, I'd tell the sailing
company to go fuck themselves. I was fighting for my country," he says. "This
year? Man, I'm just trying to get out to the sea again."
Before the revolution, Ayad says he didn't fit in. And now,
he says he still doesn't. He's "not pumped up enough to be a revolutionary."
But he's not apathetic enough for the popular Hezb al Kanaba, the party of the couch. In fact, he wishes he were
more indifferent. Like many, he's frustrated, if not angry, by a regime he says
is still running the show. Back then, days spent in Tahrir seemed like the
beginning of an exciting story, one where anything could happen. Now, he feels
the square's more like a bad sequel.
"It's sad because maybe it shows the majority of Egyptian
people don't deserve better, because they're not fighting for it," he says.
"You can't want something for them more than they do." Still, after he larks
around the world by sea, he hopes to return to Egypt. He's developed a
love-hate relationship with the place he can't seem to shake. And he still has
hope, he reassures me -- or perhaps himself -- every five minutes.
Ehab Mohammed, 24,
The Young Salafi
Ehab was excited to find a marketing job so quickly after
graduating from Cairo University. Most of his colleagues, and about one-quarter
of his Egyptian counterparts, can't find any work at all. Sixty percent of
Egyptians are 30 years old or younger, and at least one of every four between
ages 18 and 30 are out of work. So when he landed a gig at Nourayn Media, a
media company that specializes in Islamic content, he was thrilled. The
soft-spoken, but not meek, self-proclaimed Salafi -- an adherent to a strict
interpretation of Islam -- says he's always known Islam would be the solution
for Egypt. But when he took the job pre-revolution, he never thought his
mild-mannered Salafi boss would soon be the spokesperson for one of Egypt's
most powerful political parties, al-Nour, which won about a quarter of the new
The Nourayn Media office now shares space with the party and,
on any given day, is chock-full of journalists, all trying to figure out who
the Salafis are, where they come from (funded by Saudi Arabia? Qatar? Kuwait?),
and what they want the new Egypt to look like (will there be beer and bikinis?).
These questions don't seem to weigh on the 24-year-old Ehab,
who proudly says he could spend his days praying and "eating" books. He just
finished some Marx and is now juggling two more: a book on the theory of
relativity and Hadiths a collection of sayings of Prophet Mohammed.
In college, Ehab worked at a call center to help support his
family. His parents died of cancer, both in the same year, leaving his uncle to
raise the family. Their home, a small
uncharacteristic flat nestled in a maze of worn-down, russet-roofed buildings,
houses something of a microcosm of Egyptian Islam. His uncle's a Sufi, adherents
of a mystical form of Islam. Ehab's younger brother is a steadfast Muslim
Brotherhood youth and his youngest brother, Ahmed, is simply "strange." Ehab
clarifies, "He goes out with girls a lot. And never really prays."
"My mother, always, religious, would have loved to see us
now more welcome. My father, who liked to smoke shisha, may have not. But
that's democracy," he says, taking a book out of his bag. He opens to a page
anchored by an embroidered bookmark reading Hurreya, which means "freedom" in
Arabic. "Not everyone is going to like everything."
Hind el-Hinnawy, 34,
The Struggling Feminist
Hind's bookshelves tower over her as she pulls down Bonnie
G. Smith's Global Feminisms Since 1945 (Rewriting Histories). The small,
raven-haired firebrand rocks a silver piercing on her chin and tight designer
jeans that, despite her size, make her easy to locate her in a downtown crowd.
In 2005, the designer-turned-activist created a national scandal when she took
famous Egyptian actor Ahmed el-Fishawy to court to prove that he was the father
of her child. Egyptian law stipulates that if a woman gives birth outside legal
marriage, the child is illegitimate and is not considered fully eligible for
social services. Hinnawy sought to prove that an urfi marriage contract
-- an Islamic agreement that binds a couple under God -- existed. "It was
only when I faced the laws and talked to lawyers that I understood how
difficult it would be," said Hinnawy, who eventually won the case.
In the days after Mubarak's ouster, Hind radiated with the
promise of a new beginning. The whole country seemed to tingle with possibility
and Hind was dreaming up plans to start new initiatives for women. Now her
features are rinsed in a jaded exhaustion. She worked intensely with many
women's groups after the uprising but says they've gotten lost in a cul-de-sac
of never ending emails, stalled in a perpetual phase of brainstorm. Like Hind,
many women fear a sweeping retreat to the past, as activists put less emphasis
on women's rights and women are sidelined in the political process. In the
country's parliamentary elections, only nine of the newly elected 498
parliamentarians are women.
There were days she wanted to protest in Tahrir against
SCAF, but life got in the way. After the uprising, her interior design company
went under and she had to pick up a job at an insurance company.
Hind's been busy applying for a PhD gender studies program
in London, but she changes her proposed thesis nearly every day, because
"there's no fucking theoretical framework here to draw upon," she laughs,
lighting her fifth cigarette of the hour.
"We don't know to change. We don't where to start," she
says. "And I'm not going to say that now is not the time to focus on women, but
Egypt's problems are so much bigger."
Yasmine Nassef, 24,
The Hopeful Graduate
She stands on the dirt-floor roof of her building in Imbaba,
a poor neighborhood three times as dense as Manhattan and stretched out on
Cairo's west bank. That's where she goes when she "can't take so much noise"
and wants to take in an elevated view of her city of 20 million.
Last year, she huddled in the same corner, catching a cool
breeze that drifted across the mustard-hazed horizon of roofs, each lined with
drying sheets and dotted by satellite dishes. "Mubarak has killed the will
inside our hearts," she said. "Time has
come for the people to launch a huge revolution and demand change."
A Cairo University graduate, she has a law degree and
interns at the Center for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance. Though veiled and
"very religious," for Yasmine and many of her friends in Imbaba, once nicknamed
the Islamic Republic of Imbaba, daily woes like the rising price of bread and
gas tubes trump religion. She doesn't trust the Muslim Brotherhood and fears
Salafis will trample on already anemic women's rights.
"Nothing has changed, but I have faith," she says, the
racket of a neighbor's fight filtering into the bedroom she shares with her
sister. Her boyfriend works at an insurance company and they're waiting until
he makes enough money for them to get married. In Egypt, it's not until your
married, she explains, that you can really become an "adult" in society. And
it's customary that the husband buys a flat before the marriage -- something
that's almost next to impossible in Egypt's crippled economy.
"I have hope," she says, adjusting her scarf before tuning into
a Turkish soap opera. "We had to get rid of Mubarak only to start our real
revolution, so it's just the beginning."
Rojeh Reda, 20, The
Rojeh "JoJo" quotes Shakespeare and the syrupy lyrics of
Egyptian pop singer Amr Diab in the same breath. He always wears a cross around
his neck and often a bright green New York University hoodie he picked up in a
neighborhood shop. His Facebook wall is plastered with imagery of Jesus and his
five year old sister Catherine. A novice photo editor, he desaturates most of
his self-taken portraits and inserts phrases like "Jesus is my light" and
"Shake the water away to move freely in the sea," airbrushing in words like
"fight" in bold colors to blunt the plaintiveness. He often calls himself "a rebel."
He scoops ice cream at a dessert shop in New Cairo (about 45
minutes from his home, but one of the only places he could find decent work), and
is generally sweet but still carries leftover teenage, and revolutionary,
angst. One day, he distilled his political motivations into a sign, punctuated
by a Guy Faskes mask: "The corrupt fear us. The Honest support us. The Heroic
Join us." The corrupt are the Islamists, Brotherhood, and the Salafis, he
explains. The honest refers to "liberals and all the people who want to live in
freedom." And the heroic? Everybody who doesn't fear to have "the second revolution."
In his heart of hearts, though, he says he knows it's not
that simple. Many Christians like Rojeh were initially reluctant to participate
in Egypt's uprising, fearing marginalization in an increasingly Islamized
society. Just how safe Copts were under Mubarak is open to question, of
course, given the sectarian violence and widespread suspicion of Christians
that his regime had stoked as a hedge against Islamist challenges to its
"We need to suffer before we reach true salvation," Reda
says, applying his faith to his country. "Hopefully I'll still be living when I
see that day in Egypt."
Sondos Assem, 24, The
Brotherhood's Twitter Representative
If last December you had told reserved graduate student at
the American University in Cairo that she'd be perma-tweeting a revolution that
brought down Mubarak, she says she would have laughed. If you had told her
she'd be doing so mostly for the Muslim Brotherhood, she would have said "No
way, not possible!" But on January 25th,
the one-year anniversary of the uprising, she glided into a posh hotel café off
the square in sunglasses and a trenchcoat, armed with her omnipresent
smartphone, running the Brotherhood's official English-language Twitter feed at
one of the most crucial times in the Islamist party's history.
Just a few months ago, Assem didn't want her real name
published in a Foreign Policyarticle
-- but now, the Brotherhood's electoral success seems to have given her a boost
of confidence. She has emerged as an unofficial spokesperson of sorts, helping
to run the Brotherhood's English-language Twitter feed, @Ikhwanweb.
Over the past ten months, many "Tahrirists" have complained
the Brotherhood has hijacked their revolution, but Sondos says it's just as
much her revolution as anyone else's. She recalls how she went to Tahrir with
her mother on January 25th last year; they had planned to meet with her father,
both he and Sondos' brother were arrested and held for 48 hours.
Long locked in the Western public conscience as a bevy of
bearded men, the Brotherhood's twitter face, decked in a chic wardrobe with a
worldly resume, is a calculated break.
Her role in the organization and the group's casual adoption
of Twitter is reflective of a central issue and broader question the group
faces in Egypt's embryonic political landscape: who speaks for the Brotherhood?
When asked where she might deviate from the Brotherhood's ideology, she starts
and stops a few times, struggling to articulate that she "maybe" disagrees with
the Brotherhood on their not endorsing a female for president.
Arzac Adly, 28, The Server
of Egypt's 1%
The rubbled road to Arzac Adly's house in Haram, a slum area
nestled near the pyramids, runs past a series of small mosques and pharmacies,
a chain of beiges and yellows that stretch into a mustard-hazed horizon. Adly
says she remembers walking down that same road a year ago when she heard it was
the end to Mubarak's reign. "I was sad," she said. "I knew life would be
different. And I was right. It's harder."
Arzac is a 29 year old bathroom attendant at one of Cairo's
most posh restaurants, nestled on the tip of Zamalek, the leafy island in the
Nile that is the city's center of privilege. It's only a few miles from her
home, but it smells and feels like a different world. A beehive of BMWs and
Mercedes swarm at the entrance. Clad in a grey uniform and an always daintily
colored veil, she smiles dimly. As Cairo's rich and beautiful parade purposely
into the bathroom right past her with quilted Chanel bags and red-soles, status
symbols that are lost on Adly, she greets them with a faint habibti (darling). She's never had "the
weird fish" (sushi) they serve at the restaurant, and jokes that the whole
place is a bit strange. It's a different world, she admits.
For the past several decades, Egypt has been a country of
polarities; stark first-world wealth juxtaposed with, but never quite rubbing
up against, grim third-world poverty. And though the uprising has caused
society to crack open, not everyone appears to have suffered. It's harder to
isolate yourself, sure, but it's possible.
"We're all Egyptians,
of course," she says. "But sometimes I do think why and how lives come to be so
different. Who decides?"
Bassem Sabry, 29, The
Liberal in Crisis
Bassem, 29, sitting inside the same café where Arzac works, announces
his self-diagnosis, one that's become en vogue among the joking set: PTSD,
Post-Tahrir Stress Disorder. His puppy eyes sit behind chic frames that reflect
his always buzzing Samsung Droid. He bumps into acquaintances at the café --
the scene is a carousel of all who know each other, halted sporadically by
kisses on both cheeks and greetings sluiced in formalities.
The media executive has made a name for himself in the
Egyptian Twitterverse (13,000 followers) with his curation and sharp insight. "It's
gotten to the point where I'm afraid to turn on my phone. I'm always anxious.
What if one of my friends got hurt? Arrested?" he says. "It's realism. Not
Since the fall of Mubarak, secular groups have been
grappling with existential questions about what they stand for and what life
will be like for them beyond Tahrir. Egypt's "Twitterati," once the
spokespeople of the revolution, have seen some of their stars fall and fade as
they've lost support from an Egyptian public tired of the constant calls to
rally in Tahrir and frustrated by their lack of planning and mobilizing beyond
Bassem concedes the Twitterverse can be an echo chamber and
says he wants to do more on the ground. He frets over a Gallup poll from
September, which showed that 84 percent of Egyptians said continued protests
were a" bad thing" for the country.
As a "proper liberal," he explains, he's always felt
different from the rest. But now, he feels squeezed between the army and
Islamists. He's been talking to scores of self-identified liberals to get at
one of the harder questions in new Egypt: "What does it mean to be an Egyptian
liberal?" After he figures that out, he says, he hopes to coalesce and refine
their goals. On his rare free moment, he's working on a book compiling answers
to the question, "What's the most important lesson you learned in life?" He gave
talk on the subject a few months back.
He says that one of the most recurring elements in the
answers he's collected is overcoming failure -- doing something even if you
knew you might fail.
Ashraf Mohammed, 42,
Ashraf spends most of his days in Zamalek, where he owns and
manages a tiny kiosk, but lives across the river in Imbaba. You can find Ashraf
brooding behind the counter at the stroke of 9 a.m. He's a boxing fiend, both
player and fan, who says he heard about Philadelphia long before the vibrant
New York City or Hollywood because that's where Rocky is from.
Ashraf had planned to go Tahrir all week to commemorate the
anniversary of the uprising, but instead, on the 26th of January, he sat in his
kiosk weeping. His wife had died, leaving him to take care of their son. Fatima
had been battling complications of Hepatitis C for years. Egypt has led the
world in infection rates since a 1970s campaign to combat another chronic
malady, called Bilharzia, inadvertently spread Hepatitis C through the reuse of
He didn't take any time off to mourn his wife's death
because, aside from work, he says there's not much to do. It's business as
usual. "You just keep looking ahead, especially in these times," he reasons.
"Life goes on, God willing."
Come evening, with his boxing gloves thrown over his
shoulder, Ashraf locks up and heads over to his uncle's ground floor flat where
his son is playing. Tonight, he's planning to take him along to the ring.
"He'll like boxing, too," he says, roughly smoothing his son's hair. "All
Egyptians are fighters."