January 25: New reflections

Ziad A Akl
Tuesday 28 Jan 2020

Saturday was the anniversary of the January 25 revolution in 2011, one of the most significant events in modern Egyptian history.

Being one of those who took to the streets to demonstrate against the rule of Mubarak, every anniversary has new perceptions and reflections on what happened during this critical time which I was part of.

Self-criticism and re-thinking decisions that should not have been made or mistakes that should not have been made create a dimension of each anniversary.

Year after year, you come to realise that you were wrong about some things and right about others. As time passes, as political developments in the region unfold, as the security situation improves, as some political and social actors that were integral disappear and even as you grow in age and life experience, you begin to understand that revolutions have multiple meanings in different political contexts.

On political, social and even psychological levels, the January 25 revolution had a transforming effect on state, society and individuals.

Post-revolutionary trauma is a known phenomenon in political psychology that can appear after wars, revolutions or acts of violence. Perhaps the “Gulf War syndrome” that emerged among US soldiers who fought in Iraq in 1991 is an example of such a phenomenon.

Egypt has witnessed a rapid process of turbulence in society since 25 January 2011, with many episodes of violence and polarisation.

During the 18 days of the Tahrir Square sit-in and the few months that followed a growing sense of insecurity and uncertainty in Egyptians’ daily lives. Moreover, many had high hopes that the elections would represent new streams and elites within Egyptian politics that would work on an actual plan of reform for the country; but the coming of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in presidency and parliament and society caused major frustration regarding having these high hopes fulfilled.

Nine years later, there are various signs of post-revolutionary trauma, specifically among the youth segment and among those who were involved in revolution-related events of violence or insecurity.

In particular, those who were politicised after the revolution or during the 18 days, their behaviour towards political participation and collective action has transformed over this nine-year period.

Many of those who did indulge in political and public action back in 2011 are quite distant and remote from such activities now, and lots of them have marginalised themselves from the political realm.

While working on a research paper in 2017 about the matter, I conducted a series of interviews with this exact group, and almost all reported that their interest in public action keeps diminishing as time goes by. This is only a small symptom of a much larger phenomenon.

The waning presence of political parties and youth movements since 2011 until today also requires some new reflections.

During the couple of years that followed the ouster of Mubarak, there was an influx of new political parties, youth movements and social initiatives; back at the time, I and many others, whether on an individual or a scholarly level, believed that what was happening was very positive and fruitful for public work and political participation in Egypt.

In 2019, and with recurring self-evaluation, this influx of new actors into the public sphere caused fragmentations and divisions within the ranks of political powers that could have been or at least could have remained more cohesive and less divided.

Various political parties and youth movements have stepped out of the public realm, or became mere lobbies present within offices without much effect on the ground. The political context in the past few years did not allow the same room allowed between 2011 and 2013, which was due a number of economic, security and overall political tensions that Egypt was witnessing.

But there is a key challenge in public work, which is the ability to remain present on the ground and adapt to changing contexts via strategies, tactics and policies.

However, what is ironic today is how the post-2013 political parties who supposedly represent the “political elite” still suffer the same problem, in that they cannot connect with ordinary citizens or at least efficiently communicate with different segments of society.

Again, these parties who have legitimacy and at times legislative power through parliament, also cannot adapt or cope with the rapidly changing post-revolutionary context in Egypt. This suggest that managing internal dynamics within a political organisation is as equally important to managing external dynamics related to the overall context.

The January 25 revolution, on its ninth anniversary, remains a fact living in the minds, hearts and memories of millions of Egyptians who witnessed it and were affected by it, whether positively or negatively.

However, throughout the history of political revolutions, they keep generating new meanings and significances. With more information being exposed, with more academic research published, with more cultural production out in the open, revolutions are argued about and reflected upon with constantly changing approaches and perspectives.

The way you perceived January 25 in 2011 has been changed by many factors over the course of the past nine years. This is why the 2020 anniversary should be used as an opportunity to re-think beliefs, re-filter historical facts, redesign ideas and strategies; leading eventually to new reflections that would most probably be renewed once more at the next anniversary. 


The writer is director of the Programme for the Mediterranean and North Africa Studies at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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