I headed into the State Department the morning of January 25, 2011, as a brand new U.S. official, grateful to have what was so far a quiet portfolio. On January 3, I had left the NGO world to take up an appointment in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) working on political reform, civil society, and human rights in the Arab world, with a focus on Egypt. I was passionate about these issues, but they were not a high priority for the Obama administration and at that time, of course, the region was still deemed “stable.” I was relieved about the slow start, though, as I needed more time to get acclimated. I wasn’t yet even sure exactly what I was supposed to be doing in my new position, and I was so green that I knew next to nothing about how the Department worked.
The gradual onboarding I’d envisioned never happened. By the time I got to my desk that morning, the Egyptian uprising was already underway. Suddenly my country of expertise was zooming up the administration’s foreign policy agenda and my own job was shifting into higher gear. I spent that afternoon watching head-spinning scenes of tens of thousands of Egyptians marching to Tahrir Square chanting against the regime, and trying to track different (and conflicting) threads of information from Cairo. That evening, for a Department statement, I helped to fact-check the number of protestors wounded and killed by the security forces. Once home, I stayed up until the wee hours calling contacts in Egypt. Most sounded euphoric; a few were more apprehensive. Everyone was shocked—no peaceful anti-government mobilization on this scale had occurred before in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. The situation was fast-moving and confusing, though, and it was hard for me to knit the anecdotes and impressions from Cairo into any solid analysis. But that very night it did seem that Egypt was entering a liminal moment, with big implications for that country as well as for its biggest patron, the United States.
Over the next days, as the protest movement exploded, Mubarak faltered, and the Obama administration scrambled to respond to the changing conditions, I was thrown into the bureaucratic fray. I struggled to keep up with the flood of news, taskings, and meetings and, from my position nowhere near the center of decision-making, the ever-changing U.S. talking points. Whatever familiarity I had with Egypt was outweighed by my lack of knowledge of how the Department and the foreign-policy interagency operated and how to be effective and useful within that system. I would spend the next two years learning some of the ropes, getting some things right and others wrong, during the roller-coaster of the post-Mubarak transition—a whole other story.
It is striking to recall what a political earthquake January 25 was, and how few U.S. officials and outside experts had predicted it. The United States was far too invested in Mubarak’s 29-year dictatorship to be able to view Egypt accurately, and the resulting conventional wisdom was that his regime was secure, the army was behind him, and that Egyptian citizens had accepted their political fate and would never mobilize in support of democratic change. I was more skeptical than some analysts about Mubarak’s staying power and more optimistic about bottom-up change. But I did not exactly see the uprising coming either. On January 24, I had told my boss that I expected some Egyptians would turn out for the “Day of Anger” protest that young activists had been promoting, but that more would stay home, afraid of getting beaten up by Mubarak’s ruthless security thugs. How wrong I was.
In the lead-up to January 25, I had seen some signs that a shift could be coming, but had missed others. I had spent a lot of time in Mubarak’s Egypt since the 1990s and knew people in civil society, media, and opposition movements, as well as in the government and in pro-regime circles. In the second half of the 2000s, I had paid close attention to various indications of regime decay and to new features in the political landscape—the Kefaya movement; the April 6 Youth movement; the Baradei movement; independent labor activism; the breaking-away of some younger Muslim Brothers from the group; the occasional government criticism in the private media; the anger over incidents, documented by citizens in the emerging social media space, of police torture of ordinary people. But I also was struck by the heavy mood of stultification and exhaustion, of people being afraid, worn down, divided, and hopeless after decades under that oppressive and corrupt regime. I remember a lot of my friends wanted to leave Egypt so they could breathe.
As 2011 began, I recall precisely the rising anxiety and the rage at the government after the terrorist bombing of worshippers at an Alexandria church on New Year’s Eve. The regime immediately blamed “Islamists,” but some Egyptians suspected that people in or close to Mubarak’s own interior ministry had carried out the attack to stir up sectarian tensions for the regime’s benefit. Would the Two Saints Cathedral attack be a catalyst for more significant dissent against the regime? I did not know. Societies under authoritarianism are, by design, hard to read. And authoritarian regimes spend a great deal of time trying to convince their citizens that they are weak and impotent, that they are powerless to drive change, that only rulers shape events. I rejected that narrative, of course, but looking back I can see some ways in which it narrowed my own analytical horizons. Before January 25, I did not believe that Mubarak’s way of ruling was sustainable for much longer. I knew that pressures were building within the society, but I expected democratic change to occur more slowly, in fits and starts, in a push and pull between the regime and certain political actors outside it. Before January 25, I had not envisioned that the floodgates would open so suddenly and that Mubarak would fall so fast. I had not predicted that a small group of especially brave, optimistic, and creative young people could shift the popular mood and the political dynamic so quickly. Compared to these Egyptians, my own imagination was too limited to recognize that they could, in fact, trigger a revolution.
A decade later there is still so much we do not know about exactly what happened in the streets, and inside the regime, during those 18 days and nights. I have yet to read the full, definitive account: Egyptians have yet to write it. But it is clear that what was brewing just beneath the surface of society (as well as inside the military leadership) was much more significant than I understood at the time.
I’ve written elsewhere about why I think the attempted democratic transition failed, about U.S. mistakes in post-Mubarak Egypt, about the shocking and unsustainable repression of the al-Sisi regime, about what the United States should do differently going forward. There is more to be said about all of this. But on this anniversary of January 25, I wanted to reflect on what I did not know or expect and how it felt, from my great distance at least, when the unimaginable began to occur. And I wanted to think of my Egyptian friends who were so brave and powerful in those 18 days, and in these dark times to remind them—and myself—that change can happen again.
Photo: Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, a week after Mubarak was ousted, in February 2011 (provided by the author)