A journey of no return

Mohammed Atef

I was petrified after the announcement of the results of the presidential elections in the summer of 2014, I knew that it was the end.

Some lost hope in the revolution after the massacre of Mohammed Mahmoud in November 2011, others lost it after the massacre of the Cabinet that took place a month later, or after the presidential elections in 2012, and the majority of course saw the coup and the massacres that followed as the death certificate of the dream of change.

I hadn’t lost hope yet, and I could see that there was still a glimmer of light or a thin thread of hope that I could hold on to. I tried with my comrades to build a third alternative other than the Muslim Brotherhood or the army. We launched the “Revolutionary Road Front” and managed to commemorate the second anniversary of the battle of Mohammed Mahmoud in November with a mass protest that roamed downtown Cairo and destroyed the ugly monument erected by the coup government in Tahrir Square. Workers’ strikes broke out in the spinning and weaving sector the following February, and my heart was beating in anticipation as I followed the developments of the movements with our labor leaders in Mahalla and elsewhere. I was trying to convince myself that February 2014 may be another December 2006 that brings the soul back to the body and revives the social movement once again.

But it was a shiver of death, the last twitching of the patient’s body before death… before Sisi was officially declared president in June 2014.

I saw in the general’s accession to the presidency the last chapter… the end of January and the end of the dream of changing Egypt and elevating its people to a standard of living, freedoms and prosperity that we deserve. We are proud that we have a civilization that goes back beyond five thousand years, but it was a civilization built on the shoulders of its toilers who were enslaved by the pharaohs and sultans to build the pyramids and palaces and cultivate its lands and toil in its factories, go through hardships and misery so that a group of officers and businessmen could live like parasites sucking the blood and sweat of others.

In conversations with some friends and comrades, I revealed my pessimistic vision of the future. We are finished, we have been totally defeated, and we will not rise up again, nor will the revolution recover for another 10 or 15 years. Some people did not believe what I was saying, especially since I was the one trying to spread hope back in 2011 and the battles that followed. Some were shocked, others saw the collapse, but refused to admit it.

The most painful part of the collapse, in my experience, was that it happened like a slow-motion film. You see the edifice that you built over at least two decades crumbling in front of you, one stone after the other. For example, a group of five individuals that used to gather around, in the next week only 4 will show up, then 3 the week after, then 2… Then you try to reach out to the absent and encourage them to come to continue the political activity, so you manage to encourage one or two individuals, so you see 3 individuals in the next meeting, then they decrease to 2, then 1, and then the group disappears as if it never existed in the first place. The revolutionary groups did not suddenly collapse overnight under the weight of security strikes, but frustration killed them. Young people in 2011 were ready to face bullets with an open chest, not caring about any worldly commitments or responsibilities. Hope was there. One was willing to sacrifice one’s life believing that one’s sacrifice would not be in vain. I may die today, but my family, friends, and people will reap the fruits of my sacrifice. Egypt will change for the better, and we will win and build a new, free society in which there will be neither rich nor poor, and everyone will be equal before the law, and torture, degradation, and humiliation will one day disappear. But that was in the past. Now, in 2014, many have realized that there is nothing to gain. The regime has won. The counter-revolution won. Why should I protest today when I know that protesting will not lead to anything? Why should I take time off from my job to attend a political event, knowing that it will not lead to anything? Why should I sacrifice my life if that sacrifice will be in vain? Frustration kills.

I looked around after the presidential elections were over, and I found nothing but failure. I could feel failure on all levels. The political movement failed. The revolution failed. Professionally, I used to work in a miserable office where sunlight did not enter. I received a wage equivalent to a quarter of what I used to earn at the beginning of my journalistic career. I became financially bankrupt after spending all I had on political work. I used to enter my study at home and lock myself in for hours, and even days. My wife at the time would not see me, the companion of the revolution and the love of my life, and I could not have a conversation with her beyond a couple of sentences a day. My mental health reached rock bottom and I used to sit for hours on the same chair, just looking at the ceiling, praying to God that the ceiling would collapse on me and I would die. I lost the will to live.

I couldn’t sleep. I used to stay up every night until at least five in the morning, waiting for my turn. I knew it was only a matter of time before the dawn visitors would come to take their revenge. What did those who rejoiced at the slaughter of the Islamist “sheep” in Rabaa, Al-Nahda and other places think? I used to see prominent human rights activists, some of whom were like teachers to me… I used to see them raising their glasses after every massacre… I was stunned by their descent into the hell of fascism, as if its fires would not consume them after the general was done slaughtering the Islamists. It’s only a matter of time.

Where do I run? Where I go? I didn’t know. My health was deteriorating day by day. I was surviving on coffee and cigarettes until I became like a skeleton. To add to the collapse, at the beginning of 2015 I went angrily to my workplace and submitted my resignation to my managers after a barrage of insults and yelling about financial dues and working conditions, and as soon as I returned home, I felt remorse, as they were my friends and I knew that they were doing their utmost to secure our financial dues under difficult circumstances the press organization we used to work for was going through. But I did not back down from my resignation, and the collapse continued… My relationship with my family deteriorated, my marriage ended, and I disappeared from any social circles. I didn’t feel like I had enough energy to talk or spend any time with anyone.

After I resigned, where do I go? Where do I work? Where do I find a living? As a revolutionary journalist after the coup, you were not welcome anywhere. Who would hire me with my history and my positions? Tawfiq Okasha? Lamees Al Hadidi? Amr Adib? Hypocrites dominated the scene on television, newspapers, and radio.

I decided to leave Egypt, before the regime’s thugs come to me, and before the frustration and sense of failure kills me. At that time, I found no choice except for Qatar. The last place I thought I would resort to one day. But it was the only option available. I had a journalistic job offer that I thought might be a temporary haven for my dreams, in which I could create an alternative digital media platform that would kindle the flame of some of the principles we fought for before and during the revolution. I was naive, of course.

Traveling to Qatar requires a security clearance and will raise suspicions. Amid a fierce media campaign by the Egyptian regime, which holds Doha responsible for everything that happened in Egypt, from the revolution to terrorist operations, I will not go to the security bodies, because if I do, I may never leave. So I contacted a tourism agency and booked tickets to the Maldives, one of the few countries that allows the entry of Egyptians  for tourism without visas, in a particularly picturesque landscape for diving enthusiasts like me, and from there I will go to Doha to build a new, temporary life where I would keep an eye on Egypt and wait for relief, so I can go back.

The day of departure was the worst ever. I entered every room in my apartment and stayed there for minutes, touching the walls as if they were a pilgrimage site and crying. I saw ghosts, the ghosts of my comrades, this is where we used to gather, in those rooms we used to plan and prepare for the revolution. The ghosts of those I loved and spent time with having fun and laughing, and all the neighbors could hear us giggling. The ghost of my ex-wife. I was desperately trying to keep myself together in front of my mother, who took me to the airport. I was staring out of the car window, tears were flowing like rivers, and I was breathing hard. I gave my mother a bone-crushing hug.

I tried to control myself and discipline my feelings as I dragged my feet as if they were shackled in heavy iron chains, and I stand in front of the passport control officer, who smiles and stamps the passport, wishing me a pleasant journey. As soon as I passed through passport control, I broke down crying again, but I tried to quickly hold myself together so as not to arouse suspicion or make a scene at the airport. It was only when I took my seat inside the plane after take off that I let my tears flow again. From the sky I saw Egypt for the last time, I saw the desert, the ugly cement buildings I dreamed of re-planning, all the memories of the revolution flashed before my eyes.

I spent the next two years in Doha in a state of unspeakable misery. I made very few friends, and I could not stand my work environment, and I prayed day and night for a miracle, so I would go back to Egypt, or move to another country… until the opportunity presented itself. I rushed to apply for a PhD in Germany, which became known as the capital of exile, and I left Qatar never to return… I still hope to return to Egypt, and I still have the keys to my apartment in Cairo, I keep them next to my bed. I look at them from time to time. Sometimes I carry the keys and hold them close to my nose and close my eyes, and I smell the scent of the apartment and the odor of my friends’ cigarette smoke. I hear their laughter and the voice of my ex-wife calling me, and my mother knocking on the door calling for me to join them for lunch…and this goes on and on and on… and then I open my eyes to see the snow in Berlin falling outside, so I go back to reality. My feelings are torn between gratitude for being alive outside a prison cell of one of the general’s prisons, and questions about what if I had joined the martyrs in 2011 and rested and did not see what I saw afterward? Wouldn’t that have been better? When will I return to Egypt? When will the general and his servants fall?

In the end, I calm down my anxiety and my troubled feelings, and I say to myself: Do you want to go back? So use your time to rebuild what was destroyed, in preparation for the next revolution, which I have no doubt will happen.

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