26th Jan 2021


2011: The 'Arab Spring' was a great dream

  • Egypt, 2011, and the beginnings of what became known as the 'Arab Spring' (Photo: Koert Debeuf)

When Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself on 17 December 2010 in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, it appeared to be the catalyst for a wave of revolutions across the entire Arab world, called the Arab Spring.

The Tunisian dictator Zine El Abedine Ben Ali fled the country on 14 January, 2011. On 25 January, people went to Cairo's Tahrir Square demanding freedom in Egypt. Everyone was stunned when Egypt's long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak was forced from power on 11 February 2011. It triggered revolution and protests from Rabat in Morocco, over Bahrain to Damascus in Syria.

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  • Asmaa Mahfouz in Cairo in 2011 (Photo: Wikimedia)

Not all outcomes of these revolutions were for the best. Tunisia became a functioning democracy, while other countries plunged into civil war, or into new dictatorships. In 2011, the European Parliament awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to five representatives of the Arab revolution. Mohamed Bouazizi received the prize posthumously.

For Egypt, the prize was given to Asmaa Mahfouz. Nine years later, we talk to her about that incredible moment in 2011.

"I was a very regular girl, working in sales and marketing. No one in my family was politically active. Actually, no one in Egypt I knew had a dream. There was no justice anywhere, but we all kept silent. For some reason, I started to feel angry about it, and started to become politically active in 2008. I had no big ideas, but I thought, why not talk to people about justice and freedom? Why not try making people believe that change is possible? That's why I joined the April 6 movement [the youth movement that organised the 25 January Tahrir Square sit-in]. I wanted to convince people to stand up for freedom and justice," Asmaa Mahfouz recounts.

"When I saw what happened in Tunisia in December 2010 and January 2011, it made me even more angry. I wanted to convince people that it would be safe to come out to the streets and posted my mobile number on Facebook to prove that. From 10 January on my phone didn't stop ringing, day and night. I tried to convince them that we will be with them and that we have to do this together.

"When I posted a video on Facebook, calling on men to show their courage and join women on Tahrir on 25 January, I was angry, but afraid. Back then, I thought, well, the worst that can happen is that I will be killed. But that didn't matter to me. We had to fight for our rights. But when I went to Tahrir, the protest was so much bigger than I and all the others had ever hoped for. People came out massively, without fear, believing things could be changed. Everyone cared for each other and helped each other, certainly on those days when we were attacked.

"Actually, on that day we never thought for a second this Tahrir protest would end with the resignation of Mubarak. We were very surprised and very happy to have accomplished this, and still be alive. Today, nine years later, it all seems like a distant dream.

"Because of my role in 2011, I don't find any work. Luckily, I have my children to care for. It's their future that is my purpose in life now."

This article first appeared in EUobserver's latest magazine, 20 years of European journalism & history, which you can now read in full online.


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