Ghada Najibe gathers her high school friends into a circle, sits them down and smooths out the flare of her skirt. “Have you heard of Zaki Badr?” she asks the women huddled around, staring at her intently.
By day, Ghada is secretary of the student union, a leader in the class of 1987. At night she watches her mother read articles published in Wafd newspaper, the signature green oblong at the top right-hand corner, the red headlines glaring out from the page.
When she finishes, Ghada studies the crisp print herself, inhaling the twists and turns of the Mubarak regime and his men.
“Zaki Badr, our interior minister, tortures people” she tells her friends. She pauses, awaiting their reaction, then raises her voice. “Are we going to be silent about his crimes?’
“No,” they reply. “No, we’re not.”
The five women around Ghada buy paint brushes and use them to daub slogans on the walls decrying police brutality. They print flyers which they distribute at the local Pepsi factory. The group grows, until there are 60 of them with a simple goal: to spread the word about fighting for human rights and justice.
But the momentum is short-lived and Ghada is called to the head teacher’s room. She pushes the door slowly, enters and as the space opens up, she sees six men in the office.
“What’s your relation with politics?” one of them asks her. From their stiff grey suits, she gathers they belong to the intelligence services. “Who helped you?”
“You are a student,” another chips in. “You have a task, politicians have their tasks.”
Eventually the men leave and her teacher spins around and squares up to her.
“Do you realise the situation you put me in now?” She walks to the desk and slams her bag on top of it. “You were about to get all your teachers, colleagues and family disappeared. How dare you do that to us?”
Ghada is suspended for three days and stripped of her student union’s post. But the burning desire for change has not been extinguished – it lives within her from that day onwards.
Haitham Ghoniem grew up in a family that was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. At home neither the occupation of Iraq nor Gaza was acceptable. “The anger was already there,” he says.
Roughly one year before the revolution Haitham organised a group to make change, the driving force behind it supporting the poor in Egypt. They worked together to produce a magazine called Mustaqbalna, Our Future, but stopped after just two issues had gone to print.
Haitham had relatives in state security and a message warning him off politics was delivered. But he had been mesmerised by a video featuring the famous Egyptian actor Adel Imam, who was recorded asking people why they didn’t like Hosni Mubarak. Every time someone gave a reason, Haitham would jot it down.
What stuck in his mind was the MS Al-Salam Boccaccio ferry accident, when a boat carrying mainly Egyptian labourers sank. The owner of the company operating the ferry, a member of Egypt’s ruling party, fled to Europe and escaped justice.
The story encapsulated what the revolution would later challenge: that Egypt’s political elite live above the law.
Haitham left Cairo on a training course for two weeks. When he returned, state security knocked on the door and arrested him.
“Why are you against the election of Hosni Mubarak?” he remembers them asking in the interrogation. “Why are you against his son Gamal Mubarak succeeding him? What are your affiliations? What political party do you belong to or support? Are you part of Kefaya?”
“No” he replied.
“I’m just a normal person, I don’t belong to a political party.”
“Officially you’re at home but in reality, you’re in state custody,” one of the officers told him just before he was released. “If I want to make you disappear there’s no one in the world that can do anything.”
Rewind to 2008 and a group of activists across Cairo were preparing for a protest outside a textile factory in Mahalla.
On 6 April, in an industrial city cloaked in pollution in the middle of the Nile Delta, tens of thousands of people answered their calls and gathered in support of workers who wanted higher wages and the government-backed union to be sacked.
The group would later become the 6 April movement, one of the most prominent opposition groups in the country.
Among the protesters was Ghada, the former student from 1987. By now she is married and has two sons, Mohammed, 8, and Yousef, 9.
Omar Magdy, a student dentist, skipped classes to stand in solidarity with the workers.
“Mahalla was considered a dress rehearsal for the January revolution,” explains Khalid Esmail, who is now a member of the 6 April’s political bureau.
It wasn’t the only protest 6 April organised. They held demonstrations in support of Palestine and encouraged people to gather on the stairs of the Journalists’ Syndicate – Nasserists, liberals, leftists, anyone – to demand judicial independence and an end to torture and police brutality.
Like a snowball the corruption and brutality of the state were picking up opponents across the country – as individuals and collective movements – and their anger and sense of injustice were hurtling towards 2011.
In 2010 Mosa’ab Elshamy was studying in pharmacy school outside Cairo. His father had been imprisoned under Anwar Sadat and he himself had been inspired by the Mahalla strikes. Every day he would board the bus that took him to college and as it negotiated its way through Cairo’s traffic-choked streets, he would scroll through his phone to check the news.
That’s where he saw the pictures of Khaled Saeed, the computer programming graduate who was beaten to death by police officers in the northern city of Alexandria in the summer of 2010. The young men who studied his corpse as it did the rounds on social media saw themselves in Khaled and realised just how easily that could have been them.
When a year or so later a vegetable vendor from Tunisia, fed up with corruption, set fire to himself outside a provincial government building in Sidi Bouzid the two events collided and lit up Egypt’s opposition movement.
Ali Ahmed, a young man from Kerdasa, a village outside Cairo, sat with his family and friends watching footage of Mohammed’s self-immolation on TV and the demonstrations it sparked across the country.
“Are people going to take to the streets here?” they asked one another. “Should we go?”
They deliberated on the effect of his actions and the implications for them at home in Egypt.
“We have nothing to lose,” they decided.
As momentum around Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution grew at home, Khalid and his fellow 6 April members set about preparing workshops to train people on how to take to the streets and protest peacefully.
Someone cut a water bottle in half and wrapped it around his arm. “This is to shield you in case a policeman hits you with a baton,” he explained.
Human rights organisations set up hotlines to give people legal advice and sketched out text message templates that could be sent in case people were arrested.
“Don’t carry a smartphone,” one of the organisers warned. “You’ll be too easy to track.”
On the evening of 24 January 2011, Ghada, Haitham, Khalid, Mosa’ab and Omar followed their social media pages closely. Videos were circulating, encouraging Egyptians to go out and protest: “Regardless of what it achieves,” the commentators promised. “Tomorrow is going to be a new day in Egypt.”
On the morning of 25 January 2011 Ghada Najibe woke up, wrapped a pink head scarf around her hair, and pulled on her high heels. She planned to go and stand outside the Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque in the suburb of Giza to protest along with her three children. Ghada herself was now 38. Mohammed was 13, Yousef was 12. She had a daughter, Rihan, who was five. She wasn’t expecting much.
When Ghada arrived, she was surprised to find protesters hacking away at the security cordon which had been erected to hem them in. She weaved herself into the crowd and started running, taking in huge gulps of air. Something smelt different that day, there was a lightness in Ghada’s movements and she momentarily lost control as she negotiated the alleyways, waving a flag in time to the chants.
“Hey mother Egypt, watch; these are your children,” the crowd shouted. “They worry and care for you, they sacrifice their soul and blood for you.”
Then suddenly she stopped. Where were her children? She turned to face the direction from which she had come and saw a boy carrying a young girl on his shoulders. She recognised her green jacket, the red band holding back her hair with the pink bow visible to the side.
Not far away from where Ghada and her family were enveloped in the crowd, Sara Mohani was at home in Dokki, preparing to attend the demonstration with her father. She had spent the last few hours trying to win her mother over, who didn’t want her to go.
That morning, Sara sat an exam which was initially scheduled for 27 January, but the board had moved it to the 25th to try and deter students from attending the protests. She said goodbye to her mother and left with her father.
Amongst the millions of people, Sara’s father held up a board, with Irhal, “leave,” painted across it. She captured the photo on that momentous day, the swaying crowd forming the backdrop.
Sara turned as a young man approached her. “Excuse me, could you please come and help us at the gate?” he asked.
“The gate?” Sara thought about the makeshift controls she and her father had passed through to get inside the square.
“We don’t have women at the gates to search the other women as they come in,” he explained.
Sara nodded and followed him.
Roughly 14 kilometres to the west of Cairo, business studies student Ali Ahmed and his friends went down onto the streets of his village Kerdasa and headed for the police station. Ten of them entered a street and they grew into 100. When there were 100 of them they became 1,000. They passed all the homes until virtually the entire village was with them.
Once they arrived at the police station, they formed a sizable crowd outside. Everyone had heard the stories about police brutality, about the torture and the forcible disappearances from the street. The response was deadly. That day, police killed two young men from Kerdasa and another from Bani Magdoul, a nearby village.
Their deaths galvanised the crowds and the state of anger grew. That evening all the police officers withdrew from the stations.
The protesters set off in a convoy of cars and taxis, winding their way through the villages on the road ahead to Cairo. They reached the entrance to Bein Al-Sarayat, close to Cairo University, where the road was blocked with protesters and police. They got out and started to walk.
Ali looked up at the people watching from their balconies. “You’ve ruined the country,” some of them shouted down. Others egged on the protesters, encouraging them and wishing them success.
“In the days of the revolution, you could see how there was an acceptance and welcoming to all ideas, it seemed like a small version of Egypt,” recalls Mosa’ab, “one that was much more tolerant, one was much more accepting, one where people tried to make themselves useful, where people looked out for each other. Where there was a flow of ideas and characters and diversity and religions. There was a huge sense of optimism, people could go to the square and just feel like they were in a free Egypt.”
Osama Gaweesh, a dentist who had his own clinic in Damietta, a port city on the Mediterranean coast, was demonstrating in his hometown.
“We needed to demonstrate in different provinces in different governorates, not only in Cairo, not only in Tahrir Square,” he recalls. “This had a great impact on the regime. It was not just thousands of people in one city. No, the whole country was demonstrating. We had some contacts with the people who were demonstrating in Cairo, and they advised us to keep demonstrating in our governorate.” Three days later they asked them to go to Tahrir Square: “We had to be there in our millions, we had to be a large number crowded in Tahrir Square.”
Once anyone arrived on Tahrir Square they were welcomed into the fold. It was like the euphoria, love and compassion rocking the square was thrown up around them, protecting them from the brutality of Mubarak’s regime, shielding them from the brutal years that had preceded 2011. They could be anyone and do anything they wanted. Everything was perfect.
Until it wasn’t.
On 28 January, black smoke billowed out across Tahrir. Looking directly down on the square, it’s not that easy to make out the corners of the fading architecture and there are just glimpses of the red, white and black flags held up by protesters. The regime was starting to panic and the crackdown was getting uglier.
At 10.20 am Haitham Ghoniem set off for the Rabia Al-Adawiya Mosque where he had arranged to meet a group of friends. He slipped his phone out of his pocket to text one of them and realised he had no phone signal. Mubarak had shut down the mobile phone networks and the internet in an attempt to break up the protests.
Haitham turned around, headed home, took off his shirt and wrote his name and home phone number on his stomach. If he died that day, at least the person who found him could identify him. He pulled his shirt back over his head and pulled the door behind him. He paused momentarily and thumped the ground with one hand – to see whether what was happening was real or not.
When he made it to the mosque he and a friend entered. At the minaret a sheikh was delivering an angry sermon in favour of Mubarak. One of the young men praying stood and confronted the sheikh: “It’s because of people like you that tyranny and injustice spreads and that criminal activity has increased,” he shouted. His voice boomed across the walls. Inspired, the worshippers joined the young man and began chanting against the regime. When they eventually left, state security had placed a cordon around the entrance and had thrown in tear gas to try and hold them back.
The crowd moved towards Ghamra, some five kilometres from Tahrir Square. People lowered baskets of water from their balconies and offered their landline telephones with long cords, encouraging them to call friends and family to tell them they were okay.
“That was how the people in poorer neighbourhoods encouraged us,” Haitham recalls. “Unfortunately, now, people just insult them. But they were part of the revolution and we respect them.”
The crowd moved across the Ghamra Bridge and towards the Coptic Hospital. A march from the Suez Bridge had just arrived at the same time.
Haitham and his friends reached the El Fath Mosque in Ramsis, where they saw armoured vehicles and tanks. They ducked for cover as they came under fire. The demonstrators scrabbled around for stones and bricks to throw back. The guy to his left lobbed a heavy rock at the tank and there was a shot back from it, the bullet landing squarely in his head.
“That’s the first time I ever saw someone get killed in front of me,” Haitham says. “I took him and ran to the hospital, through the side streets before we reached the city centre. I saw more security officers from the interior ministry, I was surprised that there was such a big group of them. I couldn’t shake them off so I ended up going in different directions, through different side roads. That was around 5.30 pm or 6 pm. We weren’t in a big group; it was me and three of my friends. We were walking quietly and slowly, sticking to the wall, being careful not to get arrested. We were determined not to get caught and arrested.”
When Haitham and his friends reached the main road they saw the burnt out shell of a police car that had been set on fire. They asked the other protesters what was going on and they said that the state security officers had retreated.
“It was unexpected, he says. “We’re sure no one who went out on that day expected that to happen. There was a feeling that the country was going to go to hell, what was going to happen without them.”
“On that day we understood how a state should be because the people had protected themselves and their areas and the state didn’t protect them it only protected themselves. We also found out that if the ruling party found they were under threat or in danger, their military ran away. In the end the Egyptian people realised on that day that they are able to protect themselves.”
“One of the funniest things that happened on that day was people handing out cold drinks and saying, we bought these with the money the authorities stole from the people, that they then took to the national party headquarters.”
The seven-storey Interior Ministry building towers over where the demonstrators had gathered in Tahrir Square. A circle of snipers had been put in place to protect the ministry and they were shooting anyone arriving to join the demonstrators.
Haitham had to think of a way to stop them firing. There were wounded people all around yet to reach the field hospital they had to get past the snipers.
He walked over to the military officers guarding the area and asked them to form a barrier in front of the Interior Ministry to reassure the staff that they were protected, with the hope that it would stop the shooting.
The army refused, so two doctors tried to pick their way through, their white coats visible. One soldier eventually held up a hand and beckoned them over. They would allow them to pass, pull out the bodies and give them safe passage to the hospital.
But as the white coats approached, the snipers caught them in their crosshairs and fired, killing them both.
At the time of the revolution, Omar Magdy, the student dentist, was in his final year at university. On the day of rage, Friday 28, or gomot el-ghaddab as it’s referred to in Arabic, he was in Giza with some friends playing computer games. They wound the wires around their consoles and decided it was time to head down to the protests.
As they approached the Dokki neighbourhood, which borders Tahrir Square, they could see the bridge which connects the two areas across the Nile. On the other side they saw millions of people interspersed with soldiers and police officers.
Omar jolted backwards, looked down and realised that the man in front of him had been shot in the chest, the bullet passing through him and cracking the middle bone of his chest. He was taken to a makeshift field hospital for treatment but Omar offered his own services instead.
“Do you know how to do stitches?” asked Sarah, one of the doctors, as she bandaged the wounded man’s chest.
“Yes, simple ones,” Omar replied.
“Okay, don’t ever do stitches on someone’s face so you don’t leave a scar.”
He nodded and dived back into the crowd.
As the army closed in, somewhere among the crowd Ghada and her husband Hisham walked from Mustafa Mahmoud until they reached El-Galaa Bridge. Security forces shot at them. They broke through the security cordon that had been erected there and headed to Kasr El-Nile Bridge where demonstrators were kneeling for the asr prayer.
Ghada and some friends stood on the pavement, waiting for Hisham to finish praying. From her position she could see police firing at the worshippers with water cannon and then tear gas. It was 3.30 pm and telephone networks were still down. She lost sight of him amid the smoke and was unable to contact him for the rest of the day.
They were eventually reunited at 9.30 pm that evening in Tahrir Square. “He told me, we will rename the square the lovers’ meeting point because we stayed half a day not knowing anything about each other.”
On the sixth day into the protest, F-16s flew fast and low over the demonstrators gathered in Tahrir Square. The army was deployed onto the surrounding streets. All entrances were blocked so no medics could get to the injured protesters in the square.
In the early hours of each morning Ghada said goodbye to her husband and settled down in one of the tents for the night. She would remind him of her dreams for social justice first planted in high school, when she and the other 60 girls handed out leaflets in the Pepsi factory and she told him she wouldn’t go home until Mubarak stood down.
That day she asked Hisham to bring her children to the square. When they arrived, she hugged her sons and daughter and in a moment of fear told her husband: “They will kill us now.”
“Every time I remember this moment, I feel strange,” Ghada recalls. “What would happen if he actually did it and killed us. I was just worried about my kids, not me.”
Until now, the protesters had been taking water from the Omar Makram mosque, which stood in Tahrir Square and is named after an 18th century Egyptian political leader who helped fight off the French invasion. The regime cut the water supply and the protesters were getting thirsty.
Luckily, workers in the nearby Arab Contractors site opened their doors and gave the demonstrators water.
At 9.30 pm that evening Ghada’s mother called her, begging her to leave. “They’ll throw fire bombs at you,” she told her daughter down the phone line, repeating what had been said on state television.
“Mum, don’t believe that, there’s nothing like this here,” she replied.
“Please, for the sake of your children just go home,” she repeated. When she realised her daughter’s mind could not be changed, she hung up.
The next day, at 10pm, Hosni Mubarak attempted to win the crowd over:
“Hosni Mubarak, who speaks to you today, is proud of the long years he spent in the service of Egypt and its people,” he said. “This dear nation is my country, it is the country of all Egyptians. Here I have lived and fought for its sake and I defended its land, its sovereignty and interests, and on this land I will die and history will judge me and others for our merits and faults.”
He promised that neither he nor his son Gamal would run for power in the 2011 elections.
The crowd was divided. Some felt sorry for him – should we give him six months, they asked? Over the course of the evening many people left the square. Fathers and mothers came to pick up their children – for some of the demonstrators, it was over.
On 1 February, the day of Mubarak’s speech, Mosa’ab Elshamy – the pharmacy student turned budding photojournalist – stood up, dusted off his clothes and headed to a friend’s house in Giza, close to Nazlet El-Semman, a village famous for its tourist industry workers. He was in desperate need of a shower and a real bed.
The next morning, feeling somewhat restored, Mosa’ab left his friend’s house in Giza and headed back to the square but his passage was blocked. Outside, men on horse carts and camels filled the streets, heading in the same direction as he was. He looked at them, dumbfounded. What on earth was going on?
Mosa’ab couldn’t get past the security cordon surrounding the square so he called friends who were on the inside: “What’s happening in there?” he asked them. He could see thugs attacking people at the entrances with chunks of pavement and shards of glass. A battle was raging across downtown Cairo. Tahrir Square was under siege.
Sometime between midday and 1 pm on 2 February 2011, Mubarak’s beltagayya began streaming into Tahrir Square on horses and camels, brandishing swords, machetes and knives. From 28 January the army had in place a security cordon around the square where they would search protesters for weapons before they were allowed in.
“They must have opened the cordon and let the thugs in,” says Ali.
The regime had paid people from Nazlet El-Semman to stir up trouble in the square: “These protests are going to affect tourism and the country,” they told them. “They’re the reason your livelihood has been cut off. They’re hindering and disrupting tourism.”
Ali and his friends went to a hardware shop whose owner had abandoned it whilst the demonstrations went on. They took some wood and used it to build a barricade whilst women sat on the pavement, pulling the asphalt off so they could use it to defend themselves.
In a memory that encapsulates the spirit of Tahrir in those 18 days, when they had forced the thugs out of the square, Ali and his friends disassembled the barricade and returned the wood. But a lot would happen before they did that.
The battle burned through the night. Mosa’ab, who didn’t yet have a camera, was tweeting, willing the square to hold on until the morning. “It felt that if people could hold their ground until the morning, the revolution would succeed or essentially stay alive.”
He was right. From that moment, President Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for 30 years, became chief architect of his own downfall. The entire battle was streamed online – observers could see clearly from the footage who was responsible for the attacks. The next day it was standing room only in Tahrir Square, with around 100,000 people inside and 300,000 in the surrounding areas.
“They said at the time the NDP was responsible,” says Ali. “There was incitement in the media, they explicitly said this, no one was trying to hide it. Not just senior figures in the party but even people. Mortada Mansour, other people who were with the government. They were actually saying, rallying people to go to the Battle of the Camel, to go to Tahrir Square. From the thugs we captured that day some of them were from the police and security agencies, some were from the military and some were informants.”
On 12 February 2011, Hosni Mubarak stood down. The crowd went wild. Protesters who had ducked bullets from the tanks just days before, offered flowers to the soldiers guarding the square. Ali’s friend wrapped himself in Egyptian flags – one around his neck, the other across his shoulders.
Whilst some were ecstatic, others feared deeply for the years ahead.
“Some people think that the regime’s problem is with the Muslim Brotherhood or those that took part in the January revolution, but the regime’s problem is with the Egyptian people,” says Haitham. “At the turning point, the regime realised that the people could become this big mass that came together and empowered each other. There was no resistance from the people against the people. Obviously, it’s natural for there to be people who are scared of change or participating, but the majority of people were against the regime.”
“We saw this when we were in the streets, people were giving others water, letting them check in with their families, guarding areas and not insulting them. That was their silent support for the people. At the end of the day people were asking, ‘what happened, tell us what’s going on.’ People really wanted to know what was happening. They wanted to know what was happening in Tahrir Square and they wanted to support it.”
17 December 2011. The sun is low in the sky, the nights are drawing in. Egyptians are a long way from their goal of a civilian government, despite the promises that filled the air after Mubarak’s departure.
Inside Egypt, demonstrators gather to express anger at the ruling SCAF party who were only ever supposed to be an interim government negotiating the transition of power. It’s taking too long; Egyptians are impatient for real change.
Outside Egypt, an image goes viral: a young woman lies flat on her back, her black abaya gathered around her shoulders exposing her blue bra. Army soldiers with visors gather around her, one dragging each arm, the other with his foot raised mid-air, about to crunch it onto her stomach. It stands in stark contrast with the euphoric images which filled the corners and passageways of the capital just ten months earlier.
Ghada Najibe is pregnant with her fourth child. It’s the sixth month and her rounded belly protrudes from underneath her clothing. She’s at the protest, on her way home. The woman on the floor is not an isolated incident – the army are violently breaking up the demonstrations.
As she turns into the street where the Kasr Al-Dobara Evangelical Church is situated Ghada feels someone grab her arm. Today, she knows who the arm belongs to: Hossam El-Din from Fayyoum.
“I swear on your mother’s life I will make you give birth now and make you pregnant again,” he told her as he dragged her down the streets.
“Respect yourself,” she told him as he groped her. “Put your hands down. You don’t have any honour, your mother didn’t raise you well. How can you grab me like that?”
Her rebuke riled him up and he beckoned the other soldiers over and asked them to join him in a sexual party, with Ghada at the centre of it.
One soldier came and pulled her to one side. “When I tell you to run, run. Don’t even hesitate for one minute.” He looked around to see if anyone was listening. “Don’t go into Tahrir. Go back to the street where the Al-Dobra church is.”
He moved a few steps forward. “Run,” he said under his breath. “Run now and don’t look back.”
Ghada did as she was told until she reached the church and collapsed on the cold floor inside. She couldn’t feel her legs, her whole body felt as though it was paralysed. Later, when she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, she called him Thaer-Revolut, after the revolution.
“It was probably organised by the SCAF to attack and insult any woman or girl they meet,” she reflects now. “For example, when there was a girl and a boy, they arrested the girl instead. They intended to insult and break the women in a cruel way.”
Ghada’s story is just one small step in a series of orchestrated events which led up to the army’s complete take-over of power, which would culminate in the overthrow of Egypt’s first elected President Mohamed Morsi on 3 July 2013, and descend on the other side into unchecked brutality.
“The coup was almost becoming inevitable by that summer of 2013,” recalls Mosa’ab. “Society was extremely polarised, the media was extremely polarised. Morsi had lost many, many of his allies who had allied with him even temporarily, or just out of interest in keeping [former Prime Minister Ahmed] Shafiq out during the elections.”
“It seems that Morsi and his Brotherhood movement were not really interested in achieving the goals of the revolution either. On the other side, there was a lot of movement in terms of pro-Mubaraks coming back to the forefront, coming back to the media, people asking the military to intervene. Sisi became much more outspoken, taking more of a role starting from his surprise appointment as a military or as a defence minister and as chief of army, to the day he led the coup.”
Nine days after the coup, on 8 July 2013, Omar Magdy was kneeling to pray fajr when he heard gunshots. Dawn was breaking and demonstrators were on Salah Salem road, outside the Republican Guard Headquarters, where it was believed the president was being held. They were under siege.
The atmosphere across Egypt was tense. Serious campaigns had been launched against political parties and activists, including the 6 April movement, not long after their leader Ahmed Maher announced that they were withdrawing from the road map and said that what had happened was clearly a military coup. Opposition groups were defamed in the media and the ruling authorities tried to push the idea that they were all hand in hand with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Rumours were spreading that there would be more violence, this time to break up protesters who were occupying Rabaa and Ennahda squares. In an attempt to calm the situation, the 6 April movement released a statement saying that violence shouldn’t be used. It made no difference. On 13 August 2013 the Egyptian army orchestrated the most brutal massacre in Egypt’s modern history.
As the soldiers moved into Rabaa Square, Ali was in a side street with a group of other young men, just behind where the statue of Rabi’a, the Muslim saint and Sufi mystic who the square is named after, stands.
There was not the same elation that filled Tahrir Square, the sense of concern and worry was tangible. The unity that so many demonstrators remembered from 25 January had been replaced with division and polarisation.
Tanks surrounded the square, heightening the tension. One of the soldiers leaned to the side and pulled the trigger, aiming straight at the demonstrators.
“He’s killing them like chickens,” Ali said to his friend. “Not even chickens are killed like that.”
Also at the protest was his friend, the one who had wrapped several Egyptian flags around him that day in Tahrir Square when Hosni Mubarak stood down. He was killed.
“Every time I remember how happy he was with the flags, if he knew three years later he would be killed, I don’t think he’d be happy to have all the flags wrapped around him.”
In total, Ali has lost six friends since the revolution.
At the time of the Rabaa massacre, Osama Gaweesh was working at a hospital in Damietta as a quality manager. At 9 am he tried to enter Rabaa Square but bullets were flying everywhere and it was difficult to move. He stayed on the outskirts, carrying the injured, including his friends, to hospital.
Mosa’ab, who had by now documented the cheer in the days following Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, the violence that followed it, and the courage of the young men who continued to go out and protest regardless, turned his lens on the unfolding bloodbath.
He captured a young man in a face mask, flames and destroyed tents surrounding him; he got close to the bodies in the morgue lying on the cold concrete, their hands tied together with white strips, the bare soles of their feet tinged yellow.
Haitham was also there, searching desperately for someone with an escape plan.
Ali, who was studying for his master’s when the revolution broke out, never finished it because he ended up in prison instead. He was arrested, along with thousands of others, on the day of the Rabaa massacre.
On 18 August he was put into one of Egypt’s notorious prison vans. Navy blue with tiny windows at the top covered in a wire mesh, pre-revolution they would hurtle down Cairo’s busy streets and people would turn to look at them, hoping they’d never find themselves inside.
The van pulled to a halt outside Abu Zabaal Prison on the outskirts of Cairo. From his position, Ali could see the van next to him. They were parked in rows, their engines switched off and the prisoners inside sweltering in the heat which was close to 40 degrees.
There were roughly 44 of them handcuffed together and there was no air inside. The guy to Ali’s right passed out.
Just as Ali was about to lose consciousness, he heard the sound of the van doors being unlocked. One of the officers knew someone inside the van and unfastened the safety bolts. A wave of oxygen washed over them. At that point they didn’t realise it, but this tiny blast of air had saved their lives.
They were ordered out of the van and they stood in a line, against the backdrop of the prison. One of the officers doused them in petrol. “We’re going to set you on fire,” he said to them, before ordering them back into the van.
In the vehicle parallel to them the prisoners inside weren’t faring so well. There were 45 of them in a space big enough for 24; 37 of them died. Among the seven survivors was Mustafa Kassem, the US citizen who would later become the first American to die in an Egyptian prison cell.
At the time it was widely reported that the prisoners died from asphyxiation after the officers threw tear gas into the van, but Ali thinks they died before that and the gas was designed to cover up how much they had suffered.
Ali and Mustafa shared a prison cell for several years after the incident and got to know one another very well over the years. Mustafa was asked multiple times to give up his Egyptian citizenship. He refused.
Ali recalls two prisoners being tortured to death, their bodies being left to rot in the cell for two weeks.
When he was released from prison Ali returned to Kerdasa. He is proud of its heritage but sad at what his village has witnessed. More than 200 death sentences have been issued to the people there.
There were happy moments, like his engagement, but the authorities were hounding him, determined that he would pay the price for standing up to the regime.
Like salt being aggressively rubbed into a very deep and painful wound, the Sisi government went on to try and convince the world that they remained popular. It is a source of endless fury for them that the revolutionaries refuse to toe the line.
It’s been seven years since the Rabaa massacre, ten since the Egyptian uprising which rocked Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo on that winter morning of 2011. The revolutionaries who led that day of momentous change have been rebranded terrorists by the state and its institutions.
Women no longer stand at the gates of Tahrir Square demanding a role in political life and describing Egypt as “utopia.” They are raped in prison, in cells next to schoolboys, whilst journalists are hung from the ceiling by one leg.
Yet those hazy days when everyone thought Mubarak wouldn’t stand down – and then he did – they’re not lost. They’re inside every Egyptian, whether they like it or not.
After the security forces crashed Ali’s wedding and ate the food that had been prepared for him and his wife they continued to return to the house to look for him. He was certain, though, that he didn’t want to leave Egypt. “I kept thinking, people are in prison, I need to defend them. I believed at the time I needed to stay.”
Eventually, he decided it was too dangerous for his mother and his sisters and he left the country. “At that time there was not even a glimmer of hope. The movement had stopped, no one was going out to protest. There was a deep state of division in the country, even within the Islamic movement, so I took the risk and left the country.”
That was 25 November, 2015. He recalled conversations he’d had with his relatives who remembered the days of Nasser – “Change isn’t going to come quickly,” they had told him. “It’s bigger than this and it doesn’t happen that quickly.”
In 2016, five years after he had worked in the field hospital in Tahrir Square and three years after he had been pronounced dead, Omar’s clinic in Aswan was burnt down. He was threatened, not long after, that he would be captured dead or alive. He was sentenced to 65 years in prison.
As he stared at the rubble of the clinic he had saved so hard to build, Omar’s phone vibrated in his pocket. When he answered, the person on the other end introduced himself as Abbas Kamel, former chief of staff under Sisi.
“If you go on national television and apologise, I will reward you with being a council member,” the voice said.
“No,” said Omar, “I cannot accept that.”
As he hung up, Omar knew that if he stayed for one more night he would be dead. “Within a week I was out of Egypt. I paid bribes. I paid in total $65,000. In Egyptian pounds that’s a fortune.”
“Oh, yes, I was scared but I will deny it, because you know, in my region, it’s not good for a man to feel scared. Of course I was scared.”
Omar is living in Istanbul. On 15 October this year he married a Turkish woman.
On 24 January 2014, roughly two hours after a protest that had been held that day, Haitham Ghoniem was arrested. When he was released two years later, he went to Turkey to visit some friends. Shortly before he was due to return, a lawyer warned him his name had been put on a list. “Don’t return,” he was warned. “If you do, you’ll be arrested.”
Haitham had caught the attention of intelligence whilst working on an investigation into the location of the feared Scorpion Prison, where political prisoners are held and singled out for particularly rough treatment. He used satellite imagery to prove that it was actually inside the Tora Prison complex, not in the location thrown up on Google when you typed it in.
“After my second investigative report the National Security Agency directly contacted me and threatened me,” says Haitham. “First, they just threatened me, then they officially cancelled my national ID number. I have an official paper or letter that says they did this. So far in Egypt, I’m the only person this has happened to.”
Meanwhile, Osama Gaweesh was fighting a complaint lodged against him by a lawyer close to the Sisi regime requesting that his Egyptian nationality be dropped. He was still working as a dentist but at the same time, doing his best to lift a lid on the corruption and brutality of the state. He fled to Turkey. As a punitive measure, every time he publishes something critical of the regime, they destroy his clinic in Damietta.
On April 25, 2016, Sara Mohani was arrested whilst covering the demonstrations of Tiran and Sanafir in Al-Mesaha Square.
Eight months later she received a phone call from a lawyer who said she was wanted on a well-known legal case that several journalists have been added to. Within weeks she received a second phone call. She had been added to another.
She left the country and landed in Italy.
Ghada Najibe has not forgotten the military officer who sexually assaulted her outside the church on 17 December 2011. Neither, it seems, had he – Sisi, who was still a general himself, sent a message through one of her husband’s friends that the officer would come with his commander and apologise to her in person and at the same time, she would drink a coffee with Sisi.
Hisham refused and so his wife was arrested at numerous protests. On 15 October 2015 someone in the intelligence department advised Hisham to take his wife and leave:
“What is coming is bad,” he said. “We cannot protect her.”
Ghada received an arrest warrant on 9 December. One week later she was out of Egypt.
“Of course I feel proud for participating in the revolution,” says Ghada “It’s the greatest and best thing I’ve ever done in my life, the best thing I ever participated in. Even if I die and I don’t do anything else, it’s enough for me that I participated on 25 January, I’m very proud and I have never regretted it. On the contrary, if I could turn back time, I would do exactly what I did again, I would stand against oppression again. I’m someone without any political ideology, I have never been affiliated to any movement or group, I belong to my ideas, principles and beliefs, and my principles refuse injustice. I will reject tyranny even if I pay the price for that.”