Did Egypt's Arab Spring Martyrs Die in Vain?

On the anniversary of the Arab Spring, parents and spouses of those who died in the violent upheavals of the past three years reflect on their loved ones' sacrifice.

On a cool December evening in 2011, an Egyptian housewife woke up screaming in her bed. “My son is dead!” she cried over and over again. “My son is dead!”

That night Fatima Hassan’s boy had travelled to downtown Cairo to join the violent protests taking place outside the headquarters of the Egyptian cabinet—one of the most notorious clashes of the past three years.

Her husband Helmy tried to calm her down. “I told her I had been watching television and hadn’t seen anything,” he said. “I didn’t have a feeling that he had been killed. I was wondering why she would say that.”

But Fatima was right. Mostafa, a 20-year-old who had been due to go to college, was indeed dead, killed by a single bullet to the head. Inexplicably, she had known.

The young man became one of the many hundreds of victims who died because of Egypt’s uprising—an event which was marked yesterday, exactly three years after the start of demonstrations which led to the toppling of Hosni Mubarak.

But unlike those mesmerizing days back in 2011—when hope trumped fear and the Egyptian street chanted in unison, not discord—the country is splintering in ugly fashion.

On the eve of the anniversary, a wave of explosions ripped through Cairo and killed six people. The first of the four blasts targeted the headquarters of the Egyptian security directorate, heavily damaging the façade of the seven-storey building. Clashes followed in several cities involving Islamists, government supporters and the police, leaving a further 14 people dead.

Yesterday there was more violence, with at least 49 people being killed in clashes throughout the country. In yet another sign that an Islamist insurgency against the state is growing, three soldiers were gunned down today after militants attacked their bus in north Sinai.

In recent months the authorities have mounted a campaign of oppression aimed not only at supporters of the toppled President Mohamed Morsi, but also increasingly against anybody else perceived to be an enemy within.

On Friday, the film-maker and activist Aalam Wassef was detained after police raided his home. He was later released. An American translator, Jeremy Hodge, was also arrested earlier this week along with film-maker Hossam Meneai, and is currently being held without charge. A succession of other journalists, activists and politicians have been arrested, imprisoned or accused of criminal acts.

Many Egyptians, faced with economic uncertainty and a growing terrorist threat, applaud their government’s heavy-handed behaviour. “Those who want to attack the army and the police are people who want to destroy the Egyptian state,” said Shehab Wagih, the spokesperson for the pro-regime Free Egyptians Party. “They want to repeat the Syrian scenario.”

Others are less enthused. “The revolution is being stolen,” said Egyptian journalist Heba Afify.

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Despite the death of his son during the Cabinet Office clashes in 2011, Helmy Hassan said he is fully supportive of the government and its response to the domestic opposition.

During an interview in a Downtown Cairo café, he clung to a placard bearing the face of Mostafa alongside the words “congratulations, oh martyrs, for the success of the revolution”. At one point, an oblivious girl asked whether the placard was a joke. But Mostafa’s legacy is no laughing matter for his father.

“I am in constant argument with my children,” said Helmy, 59, adding that they believed Egypt could be heading towards another period of extended military rule. “I don’t have this fear.”

“We had no saviour from the Muslim Brotherhood apart from the army,” he said.

His views are not shared by Vivien Magdy, a 25-year-old who lost her fiancé during another notorious eruption of violence. Her husband-to-be, Maikel Mossad, had joined thousands of mainly-Coptic Christian protesters who converged on central Cairo in October 2011 in a rally related to church-building rights.

In the chaos that followed, 28 demonstrators were shot or run over by army vehicles. That evening became known as the Maspero Massacre, a reference to the state TV building around which the marchers gathered.

Ms Magdy noted how different the situation was now compared to three years ago. “There was a different spirit back then,” she said. “The people wanted change. The people had hope.”

She said that Maikel’s death had not been in vain because he was a “gift” to the Egyptian people in their fight for freedom and dignity. But although she wanted a “new revolution” to fight against the current retrenchment of the security establishment, she believes Egyptians are not yet ready.

“The people love Al-Sisi,” she said, referring to Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief who is widely tipped to become Egypt’s new President. “And they think that because I don’t love Al-Sisi, that I am a traitor.” Right now, the masses wanted a strongman, she argued.

One person who does not want a strongman is Abdullah Hegazy. The 39-year-old teacher lost his best friend Tariq el-Sayed in the massacre at Rabaa al-Adawiya last August. The incident was the worst single act of mass killing in Egypt’s modern history, and marked the most brutal chapter of the state’s crackdown on supporters of Mohamed Morsi.

“I don’t accept Al-Sisi as my new President,” he said, explaining that Egypt had been under de facto military rule since the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s. “For the sake of the blood of Tariq, and all the people who died, it is not possible for us to turn our backs.”

Hegazy holds out hope that the popular coup of last summer can be reversed and Mohamed Morsi reinstated as President. “There are lots of cases around the world where countries which experienced coups then returned to democracy,” he said.