The Anniversary of Hope: The Buildup to January 25

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From 14 January 2011, when the Tunisian president fled in the face of an uprising, to January 25 when Egyptians surprised each other by showing up and joining mass demonstrations against the regime, there was a 10 day buildup of hope.

This is the variable that changed the game and made what the world calls the Arab Spring possible: Hope.

When Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, he provided Arabs with a possibility. His departure was proof that demonstrations could lead to change, that people could change their reality, that the farfetched and the impossible could be very much attainable.

Analysts right away busied themselves comparing the social, political and economic factors that led to the uprising in Tunisia with their potential counterparts in other Arab countries. Many, including myself, proclaimed that Egypt wasn’t Tunisia.

Meanwhile, for 10 days, when frustration with social, legal, economic and political injustice had peaked, citizens were eyeing Tunisia’s success story. At least four cases of self-immolation occurred, in the hope of replicating Tunisia’s spark. Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation during an altercation with a policewoman in the Sidi Bouzid village – a now contested story – provoked a ripple effect that ended in the capital and with the surprise flight of Ben Ali and his wife. The men that set themselves on fire outside the Egyptian parliament in January 2011 could have just wanted their immediate demands answered, but they demonstrated a collective and underlying desire to reenact the Tunisian scenario.

It was the first sign of faith. These 10 days incubated a faith in individual citizens and their ability to incur change. It was still in its very early stages.

On January 25, when thousands heeded a call issued on a Facebook page and joined the demonstrations in the streets, encouraging others to follow suit, hope materialized for the first time – and it kept on growing.
It peaked on February 11 after Mubarak stepped down. That night, throughout the joyous celebrations, hope and faith were at their strongest. There was a belief that people could do anything, that all problems will be solved, and that life will be a flowery path to happiness.

A group of men sitting on a tank parked outside Tahrir Square that night were chanting, “We will get married.” For some reason, Mubarak’s departure for them promised a change in the social and economic structures that prevented their lives from moving forward — and kept them from affording to get married. They had hope and faith that politics would inspire a change in their personal lives.

In retrospect, all of this sounds naïve and could be fairly labeled as a recipe for failure; with such high and unrealistic expectations, the real world will only be disappointing. But hope doesn’t know reality checks; its naivety is what makes it audacious. It is unrealistic, but that is what drives change — the grounded belief that reality is not set in stone and could be altered and transformed.

Public service campaigns and projects capitalized on that spirit. And for a few weeks following Mubarak’s ouster, there was an overwhelming belief that people could change the world, that they could themselves change. I would trade years of my life to regain that feeling during those few weeks.

It was all dashed.

The political catalyst that spurred these waves of hope turned out to be a superficial change that didn’t transform a corrupt system. In January 2012, I wrote that the then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was killing hope, planting fear and despair instead. The initial fear of the power of the people, which led to concessions in the face of demonstrations in early 2011, slowly turned into head-butting, aimed primarily at destroying this will for change. Violent confrontations showed that people were not afraid to face increasing brutality, but the futility of the fights generated frustration. More people replaced hope with the belief that the crippling injuries and the fatalities were in vain and sacrifices led to nowhere.

The consequent reduction of the fight to a power struggle between the Islamists and the old regime, which sidelined the aspirations that made this revolution possible, is now more reason for frustration. I myself have fallen into a state of depression repeatedly, especially when I come face to face with the families, who are mourning their loved ones with an unspoken realization that it was all in vain; when I witness the polarization in the streets, where every side can only win by eliminating or oppressing the other; and when I feel that anything I could do won’t alter reality or even make a dent in the state of injustice.

Hope is by default unrealistic. It needs no practical justification. The faith that one person is capable of changing reality is unrealistic and doesn’t depend on logic. This is precisely why it drives change. Holding onto hope, holding onto a narrative where setbacks are momentary and part of an ongoing struggle, becomes a fight in itself.

In February 2012, I met AUC professor Abdel-Aziz Ezz al-Arab at a march mourning the victims of the Port Said massacre. The consecutive incidents of deadly brutality — 27 killed in October, over 45 in November, 20 in December and lastly 72 in Port Said on February 1 — have had a devastating toll on me. He was smiling and optimistic; he told me he was impressed that this generation was still fighting. In the early ‘70s, they gave up too early, he said.

If it wasn’t clear before, it was at this very moment.

In January 2011, hope was the only variable and game changer. Losing it is akin to losing the fight itself. When reality fails us, hope becomes a weapon. When people bet on us abandoning the fight, holding on to hope is in itself an arduous and worthy battle. Winning it ensures that we’ll stay put and continue fighting for a dream, a narrative, or a perception of a different reality.

We can’t afford to lose hope.

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