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11 February 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:46am

Three years on from the Arab spring, Egyptians hope another strongman can save them

Were millions in the region wrong to believe they deserved better?

By Sophie McBain

While hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets in 2011 to protest against Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year rule, I was travelling in the Green Mountains of Libya, a few hundred kilometres from the border with Egypt. I caught up with the news wherever I could, on flickering TV sets in hotels and roadside cafés, always accompanied by Khaled, my Libyan government minder. Mostly we watched in silence; our working relationship depended on leaving important things unsaid. But on 10 February 2011, the eve of Mubarak’s resignation, I noticed Khaled staring at the television with a new intensity. “Egypt is making a big mistake,” he boomed, jabbing his finger in the air between us. “Mubarak is very strong. He is very clever.”

Khaled’s analysis was based as much on fear as conviction. Later that day, we stumbled on our first, tiny anti-government protest – “The people are happy, they have finished work for the day!” Khaled had lied, leading me away – and within a week mass demonstrations had spread to the capital, Tripoli. Today, however, Khaled’s stance on Egypt has become more fashionable, and in unexpected circles.

After three years of instability, Egyptians are craving another strong leader. Many believe they’ve found their saviour in the iron-fisted, putty-faced armed forces chief, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. His clumsily airbrushed portrait is all over Cairo, on posters urging Egyptians to say yes to a constitution that will open the way for his presidency. In mid-January over 90 per cent of voters did.

And yet, every Friday, al-Jazeera’s live Egyptian channel broadcasts amateur footage of Muslim Brotherhood protests from around Egypt. By early evening the security forces have usually stepped in. One young man, shot at a demonstration a few weeks ago and then filmed by al-Jazeera, had written his name and address on a T-shirt hidden under his shirt, so that he could be identified if he was martyred. The military has cracked down on the Brotherhood, the Islamist party that ruled Egypt until last July, and on its secular opponents, with a force and paranoia that recall the worst of the Mubarak years, or something darker. The pressure on journalists is also intensifying: in late January, 20 al-Jazeera reporters (including two Britons) were charged with falsifying the news and terrorism offences.

So does this mean Egypt made a “big mistake”? With Syria at war and Libya virtually lawless, has the Arab spring failed – as thousands of newspaper articles would put it? I won’t answer that question because I think it’s the wrong one to ask.

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The Arab spring has taken on many meanings over the years. But I always return to the first months of 2011, when I watched as friends in Libya – serious-minded students, amateur DJs, chubby consultants – risked their lives to stage peaceful protests, and later picked up Kalashnikovs. A few were forced into exile, a few died, a few were tortured in jail. All shared one desire: they wanted some say in their future. They were sick of living at the mercy of a brutal, capricious regime, frustrated by their powerlessness, tired of censoring themselves every day. For a few months in 2011, protesters in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain were united in their resolve that they wouldn’t take it any more.

If only this was the same as supporting democracy. But the inevitable problem with spontaneous expressions of mass discontent – the kind that builds up for years and is triggered by a fruit vendor setting himself alight – is that you don’t throw yourself in front of government guns with a popularly endorsed manifesto in hand and a realistic, pre-agreed timetable for change. The Arab spring wasn’t a project, nor even a cohesive movement. There were no clear goals to measure failure by – only millions of individual, often ill-defined demands. Some wanted democracy; some wanted an Islamist state; some just wanted a more benign, pro-poor government; some wanted anything but the leader they already had.

“The Arab spring” is a vague label but it does capture one important thing: like the changing seasons, the 2011 revolutions were irreversible. Once you realise you deserve better than the regime that has restricted you for decades, once you’ve risked your life in the hope of a better political future, you can’t go back to thinking you’re no better than a dictator’s plaything.

With 130,000 dead in Syria’s war, Egypt at risk of slipping back into dictatorship and Libya still in chaos, it is tempting to wish that the 2011 uprisings had never happened. Some Libyan friends have said as much. Yet dismissing the Arab spring as a mistake implies that millions across the region were wrong to believe they deserved anything other than the cruel, corrupt governments under which they have lived for so long.

Walking around Cairo this week, I was reminded how it feels less like a city of more than nine million people than millions of overlapping cities. At the weekend, middle-class couples gather for picnics at the top of the grassy hill at al-Azhar Park, while at the bottom of the slope impoverished Cairenes make their home in the crumbling tombs of the City of the Dead. It’s only a short drive from the genteel cafés of Zamalek to the narrow, filthy streets of downtown.

For a brief moment in 2011, protesters from across Cairo’s social divides stood side by side in Tahrir Square, sharing the same goal. Now they need to find common ground again. Sisi isn’t the answer. The best way to reconcile competing interests and bring diverse groups into government is through liberal, pluralistic democracies – but somehow that political transformation was always going to be more difficult than the decision to brave government gunfire because you deserve better.