On the tenth anniversary of the January 25, 2011 uprising, Egyptians returned to that fateful day, reviving a hashtag that mobilised protesters to demand the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. A decade later, with the country back in the military's iron grip, the #Jan25 hashtag still has the ability to catalyse Egyptians with messages of nostalgia and hope.
Ten years and a lifetime ago, as Egypt was preparing to mark the annual January 25 National Police Day, a diverse collection of netizens - including activists, bloggers, citizen journalists and IT professionals - decided to turn the event into a National Day of Anger.
National Police Day, with its official commemorations and jingoistic displays, has long been a subject of derision and dark humour in a country plagued by brutal policing. In June 2010, for instance, when a young computer programmer, Khaled Said, was beaten to death in police custody, his friend, Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian IT professional living in Dubai, set up a Facebook page, We Are All Khaled Said, that promptly picked up thousands of followers.
The 2011 National Police Day holiday looked set to be different. Weeks earlier, protesters in Tunisia had managed to oust strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from power. The winds of change, rupture and revolution were in the air. In Egypt, discussions on the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page, along with a handful of others, were openly discussing Day of Anger demonstrations.
On January 15, 2011, Alya El Hosseiny, a Cairo-based, self-described "geek", put out a one-line protest invitation on Twitter. "Over 16,000 of us are taking to the streets on #jan25! Join us," she tweeted.
And with that, a hashtag and a social movement that would grip the Arab world was born. Hosseiny was the first to use the #Jan25 hashtag, according to the technology news website, Techcrunch.
In an interview with FRANCE 24, LSE scholar Charlie Beckett called the January 25 protest "the Bastille moment of the Egyptian revolution, meaning it created a symbol that was simple and potent enough for everyone to rally behind it - much as the fall of the Bastille prison had done for the French Revolution in 1789".
The #Jan25 call soon spread like wildfire in cyberspace, drawing protesters on Cairo's Tahrir Square.
By midday, January 25, 2011, the hashtag was attracting more than 25 retweets per minute, overwhelming Internet access and sparking reports of a Twitter shutdown by Egyptian authorities. Proxies circumventing the blockage promptly circulated, and messages requesting people living near Tahrir Square to unlock their wireless routers were heeded. Meanwhile in the real world, the crowds on Cairo's central square grew and grew, with protests spreading across the country.
The rest, as they say, is history.
A decade after the January 25 revolution which toppled longtime Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, the old hashtag was back in circulation Monday. But the messages lacked the simplicity and clarity of purpose of the #Jan25 tweets 10 years ago.
"I had promised myself not to get too emotional or cheesy about the 10-year anniversary, but in all honesty its [sic] quite difficult to pretend that I'm not hurt by the idea of what was possible & what could have been. #Jan25," said Farah Saafan, a Cairo-based journalist and animal rights advocate.
Giant jail for journalists, activists
Since he came to power following the toppling of Mohamed Morsi - Egypt's only democratically elected civilian leader - Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the country's former armed forces chief-turned-president, has overseen systematic human rights violations in Egypt, according to rights groups.
The world's most populous Arab nation today ranks at the bottom of international civil rights and accountability indices. Egypt is "one of the world's biggest jailers of journalists", according to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, which placed country 166 out of 180 countries in its 2020 Press Freedom Index.
In Transparency International's 2019 Corruption Index, Egypt ranks 160 out of 180 countries, and Amnesty International recorded 57 executions during the October-November 2020 period alone in what the London-based group called "a frenzy of executions".
"The conclusion of many human rights groups is that the people of Egypt are even worse off now than they were back in 2011, when those protests began in Tahrir Square," explained FRANCE 24's foreign affairs commentator, Philip Turle. Sisi has overseen a massive, "clampdown on the press, on dissidents, on the opposition, basically silencing out any kind of voice that speaks against the rulers of Egypt", he noted.
'Rawest' and 'most exhilarating experience'
Exactly 10 years ago, the #Jan 25 hashtag featured simple expressions of exhortation and hope. "It's incredible: an ocean of ppl standing up 2 a sea of policemen. I've never seen the Egyptian ppl this empowered. Ever. #Jan25," tweeted a former newspaper editor using the handle @EnjoyBeingHuman.
The last tweet from @EnjoyBeingHuman was on August 17, 2013 - just days after Egyptian security forces cracked down on Morsi supporters at Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, killing "a minimum of 817 people and more likely at least 1,000", according to Human Rights Watch, in what the New York-based group called "likely crimes against humanity".
The dream of democracy, freedom and justice in Egypt died so effectively, that a decade later, many Egyptians who participated in the 2011 uprising were still scrambling to capture the bittersweet mix of yesterday's dreams and today's defeat.
"Ten years on, what remains of #jan25 remains elusive. Old friends overnight become enemies, acquaintances turned allies. It remains the rawest, most intimate and most exhilarating experience," said Hussein Omar, a history lecturer at University College Dublin. "Otherwise repressed, it comes to me in dreams to this day."
'I'm with the people not the regime'
Days before the tenth anniversary dawned, Hafsa Halawa - a prominent UK-based Egyptian-British political analyst who was at the 2011 demonstrations - put up a defiant message on Twitter.
"Not interested in articles that frame #Jan25 around current status quo," began Halawa in a Twitter thread. "Anniversaries are to memorialise, and only that," she noted, adding, "This is a rare opportunity to allow that moment to stand alone for what it was & what it stood for."
Her tenth anniversary call was taken up by Egyptians across the world.
The former deputy head of the state-owned Nile TV recounted how she refused to read Egyptian interior ministry press releases and resigned from her post. "I joined the protesters in Tahrir and sent my boss a message, 'I'm with the people not the regime.' Best move of my life," said Shahira Amin.
Others, such as an Egyptian who identifies himself as "Mosab still from home", recalled how he almost got run over by a police tank, "but was saved by the hand of a stranger, whom I don't know, and will forever be in their debt".
'I will return to Egypt'
A number of Egyptians who fled the country over the past decade also took up the #Jan25 call from exile.
Figures on the number of Egyptians who fled the regime's human rights excesses are hard to assess. Data from the World Bank shows an increase in emigres from Egypt since 2011. A total of 3,444,832 left in 2017 - nearly 60,000 more than in 2013. But it's impossible to tell economic migrants from political exiles.
Many Egyptians living abroad have opted to remain silent due to security fears.
But on Monday, many prominent human rights defenders and journalists abroad heeded the #Jan25 call.
Osama Gaweesh, an Egyptian journalist who reported on the 2013 Rabaa massacre of Morsi supporters and was forced to flee to Britain, asserted, "I will return to Egypt one day."
In a video statement posted on Twitter, Gaweesh noted, "I'm telling my children about the revolution. One day I'll return to Tahrir Square," he said. "I believe that this day will be soon."