In the turmoil and uncertainty of post-revolution Egypt, local journalist Mohannad Sabry meets two men on the brink of a big decision: should they stay in their home country, or take flight?
Three years on from the turmoil and uncertainty of post-revolution Egypt, in 2014, local journalist Mohannad Sabry met two men on the brink of a big decision: should they stay in their home country, or take flight?
The Egyptian revolution was triggered by young voices. With three-quarters of the population under the age of 25, the energy that swept through Tahrir Square in January 2011 was charged with the bulletproof obstinacy of youth.
When you’re cynical enough to fight for your own future, but not so disillusioned that you no longer care.
Hosni Mubarak’s regime may have been dismantled, but the voices that echoed through Tahrir Square – calling for ‘Bread, Freedom and Social Justice’ – were never heard.
In July 2013, a second revolution saw Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammad Morsi toppled from his short presidency by a military-backed uprising.
Today, Egypt is in a stalemate, hovering in a political impasse as pro-Mubarak, Islamist and military men vie for power ahead of elections; as this magazine goes to press, the interim military-backed government announced its resignation.
But what about the voices of Tahrir Square? With the highest spike in population growth in Egyptian history and unemployment rates on the rise, ‘Generation Revolution’ is at a crossroads.
Like every generation that’s ever come of age, tough choices have to be made: do you stay and tackle old mistakes, or leave and start out somewhere new?
Nowhere is this decision more difficult than in a country that promised its young a fresh start.
I was born and raised away from my home country. I returned as an adult and, up until January 2011, planned to pursue postgraduate studies elsewhere.
But then an 18-day uprising, which threw me at the centre of politics, protests, teargas and deadly confrontations, shattered that plan.
The 2011 revolution was sparked by the same youth who wouldn’t have thought twice about taking any opportunity to leave a country torn apart by corruption, poverty and illiteracy.
Before the protests, people wouldn’t hesitate to ask me, “What brought you back to Egypt?” given that I had better opportunities abroad.
But when the revolution transformed into a war – fought between power-hungry parties who failed to understand the revolution or respect its demands – the question changed: “Why are you still in Egypt if you have a valid visa to get out?”
And sometimes it wasn’t a question, but a statement: “You have a gift that you don’t value.”
Disillusionment was spreading among my peers, regardless of their background.
The youth dilemma in Egypt goes beyond the stories of those who consider me lucky for having a few valid visas on my passport.
The dilemma lies in the state, which up until today doesn’t seem to understand that millions of young people can transform a bankrupt nation into a booming economy, yet it very well understands that this same youth can dismantle a dictatorship and put together an active democracy.
And accordingly, in the eyes of such regimes, this young power is a threat that should be eliminated.
Ahmed Effat and Bassem Abdelrahman are two Cairo locals who represent the thousands of disillusioned youth who came of age in a time of repression and, despite having lived through a revolution, still believe their only hope is to leave Egypt and start a new life somewhere else.
Three years after the revolution that once gave us all hope, I believe as much as they do that we were all wrong to think that something was accomplished.
And with Egypt going through unprecedented political, security and economic turmoil, it is clear that much more time and effort will have to be exerted before the revolution fulfils its hopes.
In spite of the ongoing disappointment, Egyptians have gained unprecedented freedoms and battered down the barriers of fear they lived behind for decades.
It’s for this reason that, for every person who decides to leave, thousands more will stay put and bear whatever they have to bear to succeed in their home country.
In the summer of 2004, Ahmed Effat – now a 30-year-old web designer at a large IT firm – was preparing for the final year of a commerce degree he never wanted in the first place.
“I realised I had to be a designer, not an accountant. So I started to study and work with web-design programmes,” says Ahmed, drinking over-sweetened mint tea at Al-Fishawy, a famous Cairo coffee shop open ’til dawn.
“I had to pursue my dream at my own expense.”
Ahmed comes from a typical middle-class Egyptian family, but his parents weren’t capable of financing his ambitions so he funded his education by working at small companies and studying at night.
By the time he graduated from college, Ahmed had enough work experience to be granted a state-sponsored scholarship to study web design.
When Cairo erupted in civil unrest in late 2011, Ahmed was just embarking on his career.
“I watched for a few days then I went to Tahrir Square on February 2, 2011, and was stranded there amid the Camel Battle,” says Ahmed, referring to the day when Hosni Mubarak’s loyalists charged into the protest crowd on horse and camel.
The all-day-and-night violence left dozens dead and injured.
“A few hours later I saw the families of the dead protesters. This was the moment I knew Mubarak’s regime would soon crumble. It was a heartbreaking scene, but it gave us hope that a new era will begin and justice will prevail.”
Despite the volatile situation, Ahmed remained hopeful.
“I still dreamt of building a small life for myself and hoped that the country would change at some point, that youth like me will somehow have an opportunity in a country ruled by corrupt elders.”
Hundreds of miles away, in the summer of 2004, Bassem Abdelrahman – now a 35-year-old senior construction worker – was packing his bags for Libya with the aim of being trafficked on a fishing boat to Italy’s closest shore.
His father and brother failed to convince him to stay and find work as a truck driver or start an agricultural business on the family’s small plot of land in Asyut, Upper Egypt.
Bassem had been promised a new life in Europe. And he was prepared to undertake the potentially deadly cross-Mediterranean trip to get it.
For 40 days after he left, Bassem’s family knew nothing of his whereabouts. He took a bus to Libya’s capital, Tripoli, and was then driven by the trafficker to the town of Zuwarah where he lived in an abandoned house for 25 days with a hundred others.
Food and drinking water was delivered daily, but no one was allowed to leave the house. On day 25, a trailer truck arrived to transport them to another storage house near the beach.
By then their numbers had grown to 250 – and they all had to cram onto the same fishing boat.
Finally, more than a month after leaving his family and home, Bassem set sail for Lampedusa, Italy.
It was only when the Red Cross in Lampedusa pulled the boat to shore and led everyone into a camp facility that Bassem breathed a sigh of relief; too many people before him had drowned.
But that comfort lasted only seconds; soon, he was worrying about deportation, which would mean going home in handcuffs and losing the money he’d paid to traffickers, most of which he’d borrowed from his father.
After 12 days in the Red Cross camp, Bassem was transferred with dozens of other migrants to a detention centre in southern Italy’s Crotone.
“On our second day in Crotone we were questioned by plain-clothed officers that spoke perfect Arabic and identified us by our accents. I believe they were officers from different embassies,” says Bassem.
“This is when we realised that our deportation process was underway – and the moment we decided we had to escape the camp.”
Jumping the fence of the detention camp, Bassem sustained a few bruises and kept running as he heard the bones of other jumpers break.
He walked for twenty hours with four other immigrants and finally took a train to Milan, where he was received by a relative who’d been living there for years.
After six years working in construction, Bassem started contemplating returning to Egypt. His father had died in 2008 and, although they spoke regularly on the phone, he regretted not seeing him before he passed away. Then he received a warning from his brother Wael.
“He told me to stay in Italy and warned me that Egypt was in crisis. He said it’s impossible to find a job that will pay as much as my construction work in Milan did. But unfortunately I didn’t listen to him,” says Bassem.
Five months after he got back, the revolution broke out on Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
“When I landed in Egypt my head was flooded with memories of my forty-day trip to Italy,” he says.
“I remembered everything from the bus to Libya, to the Red Cross flag in Lampedusa and the Tunisian stranger who helped us get on a train to Milan. Back then we didn’t speak or understand a word of Italian.
“I kept thinking I had destroyed everything I built by returning to Egypt. But I didn’t feel this until I returned – and by then it was too late.”
It was too late because, despite spending six years in Italy, Bassem had no official documents, residency or work permit.
He was among thousands of illegal immigrants who stay in Europe until deportation or legalisation – but Bassem chose a third option: he willingly returned, reverting back to where he started in 2004, jobless and unable to travel.
Disillusionment turns to dusk
In the years since Egypt’s revolution, both Ahmed and Bassem have grown more disillusioned than ever.
Hope, they say, has been replaced by political chaos, a security vacuum and consecutive regimes that are as oppressive and incompetent as that of Hosni Mubarak, if not more.
“There are deaths reported every day, by terrorism, police brutality or crime, and there is no law.
“If the law is applied, it’s applied on the poor and the incapable for the interest of those who rule,” says Ahmed, who was attacked alongside his brother by a group of men a few weeks ago.
“They had no problem beating and injuring us because they knew they would get away with it. The police are too busy attacking opposition protesters to fight crime.”
But there are glimmers of hope. Alongside a series of promotions, Ahmed recently passed two out of three tests for a job application at Google.
And yet, in spite of this, he too has decided to leave Egypt and is applying for work elsewhere.
“I still can’t afford to get married here, buy an apartment or enhance my living conditions any further,” says Ahmed, who drives 50 kilometres a day to work two jobs.
In the past year, he applied for a visa to a European Union member state where some of his family members live and where a few job interviews awaited him. He was refused three consecutive times in spite of fulfilling every condition demanded by the country’s embassy in Cairo.
“This is a final decision for me,” he says adamantly. “I will travel and start a life for myself somewhere else.”
Today, Bassem is married with two sons. “But I have been unemployed since I returned in 2010, slowly spending everything I saved over six years of back-breaking work in Italy,” he says, playing with his two-year-old son in an apartment he inherited from his father in east Cairo’s rundown El-Marg district.
“My dream now is to take my wife and kids and return to my job in Italy, I want to raise my children away from violence and lawlessness, give them a better education than I ever got and secure their future.
“I was emotional when I took the decision to come back. But I now have a family that I am happy with.”
Leaving Egypt for Bassem is neither new nor saddening: “My home is where my family is living happily and this is what I hope to accomplish for them, just like I accomplished for myself years ago.”
Ahmed, likewise, is just as single-minded: “It’s a decision I was forced to take because I don’t have the luxury of choosing whether to stay or to leave.”
Both men are resolute about their decision to leave Egypt. Coming from the same generation as Ahmed and Bassem, it is seriously concerning to see young, talented men losing faith in their home country at the time it needs them most.
The revolution’s hopes – for justice, democracy and a better economy – can only be fulfilled by the young, intelligent generation that has been marginalised by older cronies contaminated by decades of dictatorship.
It is saddening for them, too. “I feel crippled, it’s a similar feeling to losing a loved one,” says Ahmed.
Bassem describes his decision as “leaving behind my family, brothers and sisters for the sake of my wife and children.”
They may come from very different backgrounds and life experiences, but what unites Ahmed and Bassem is how much they represent thousands of other Egyptians under the age of 35.
Ahmed will leave in search of a better life and Bassem will leave in search of a life he once had and feels he wasted.
Despite having to deal with such a desperate and difficult decision, Ahmed and Bassem’s stories are, in my eyes, tales of success. Both men are successful by Egyptian standards and by the standards of any country they land in.