Nine years ago, millions of Egyptians took to the streets in revolt against a regime that had been in power for 30 years. The revolution succeeded in ousting President Hosni Mubarak and caused deep alarm and confusion within the state’s centers of power. The first democratic elections in Egypt’s modern history led the Muslim Brotherhood to control parliament and the presidency in 2012, yet they were toppled by the army amid just one year later widespread public discontent.
Ever since then, Egypt’s political sphere has been all but closed down. Figures related to the 2011 revolution have been systematically targeted by authorities with harassment, arrest and imprisonment. The fierce crackdown has forced those fortunate enough to be able to emigrate in various ways, in one of the largest waves of mass exodus in recent Egyptian history. While various economic and social grievances have driven a large number to leave, those who have left as a result of their political role in 2011 are many.
The concept of exile can sometimes seem poetic — one that reflects defeat, but also surviving defeat. It is a word that carries with it a certain weight. Throughout history, there have been waves of mass migration and displacement in times of political turmoil — from the First and Second world wars in Europe to more recent conflicts in parts of Africa and the Arab world.
Some exiles enter new lives detached from their past, while others get lost in despair over the countries they were forced to leave. In this series, we speak with those who live in the space between estrangement and nostalgia: those who have built a new life abroad but remain engaged with their former home.
Nine years ago, Abdelrahman Mansour was serving as a conscript in a military training camp as thousands of protesters took to the streets on January 25, 2011. Although far removed from the demonstrations, the mass uprising reverberated at the camp.
“It was as if the training camp was electrified. My friends visited me at night and told me about what had happened on the streets and that people had died,” he says.
For Mansour to be serving as an army soldier whilst a revolution was gripping the country was more than a little ironic. He had worked hard for this very moment and, to some degree, had helped bring it about.
I had heard of Mansour during the revolution through a number of mutual friends but only met him last October in New York City, where he has been living since August 2014. We first met in a restaurant in an old hotel in Midtown Manhattan and then frequently after that with friends in other parts of Manhattan and in Astoria, Queens, home to a large number of Egyptian immigrants. Now in his thirties, relatively short, and with a shock of thick, curly hair, he speaks with an eloquence that exudes quiet wisdom.
The Egyptian revolution did not suddenly explode out of a vacuum. There were ten years of political groundwork and organizing that helped lay the groundwork for the January 2011 mass mobilization, including the Kefaya (Enough) movement in 2004, the judicial independence movement in 2006, and actions within the labor movement that peaked with the factory workers’ strike in Mahalla on April 6, 2008, to name a few.
Mansour came of age politically during this tumultuous decade. Originally from the village of Nos al-Bahr in Daqahlia, he studied at the Faculty of Commerce at Mansoura University. His freshman year in 2005 coincided with protests against a set of constitutional amendments that were tailored to help usher in President Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal, as his father’s successor. Security forces cracked down on the protests, including by harassing female demonstrators in front of the Journalist Syndicate in Cairo, an incident that became known as Black Wednesday. This was followed by the judicial independence movement later that year, which was sparked by the parliamentary elections in November and December 2005. Angered by a change in oversight rules, judges demanded their independence from the state in the election process, resulting in a number of judges being prosecuted.
While at university, Mansour became increasingly interested in journalism and public affairs. He began writing for a number of newly established websites, such as the now-defunct 20at.com, that covered youth issues. He also launched a university magazine, which included articles and poetry by opposition figures and became an instant hit, with the distribution of the very first issue surpassing the publications of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. However, he was forced to suspend publication after he was called into the dean’s office and threatened with expulsion.
By the end of his first academic year, Mansour decided to switch his area of study and joined the Faculty of Journalism. He also decided to move to Cairo and commute between the two cities in order to continue his work as a correspondent at various online outlets. He also stopped showing up to classes on a regular basis after he realized he could maintain a decent grade average without attending.
Raised between Egypt and Saudi Arabia all the way through high school, Mansour says he had an outsiders’ perspective and curiosity in exploring Egypt. He interacted with a number of different groups over the years and participated in events organized by Kefaya, the Revolutionary Socialists and the April 6 Youth Movement. Inspired by the blogging wave at the time, he also started his own blog, “Correspondent on the Ground,” while continuing to write for other online news outlets.
At the time, political activism on campus was dominated by the two main poles of the political spectrum: the National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood. Faced with the two options, Mansour decided to join the Muslim Brotherhood in 2005. Yet he quickly left the group in 2007 after two incidents left him feeling alienated.
“They decided to investigate me for talking to a female member of the group after they had separated boys from girls in student activities,” he says in an interview in his apartment in Midtown Manhattan. “I also objected, along with a number of other members, to the Brotherhood’s political platform which asserted that Christians and women did not have the right to run for office. I had a lot of problems with them at the time, so I left.”
In 2009, he met Wael Ghonim for the first time, a partnership that marked a turning point for Mansour in terms of his political engagement. “Wael Ghonim, whom I didn’t know at the time, sent me a message saying he liked my blog and wanted to meet,” Mansour says. “We started talking around the same time about how Mohamed ElBaradei was returning to Egypt.” Ghonim told Mansour he wanted to start a campaign supporting ElBaradei on Facebook and asked if he would like to help, to which Mansour enthusiastically agreed. The page was a success, quickly garnering many thousands of followers.
“When ElBaradei came to Egypt, Wael told him about the page so he met with us,” Mansour says. “We then joined the National Association for Change [a group formed by ElBaradei in 2010 that included activists and political figures from various backgrounds]. Then Khaled Saeed happened.”
Saeed, a 28-year-old, was tortured to death by police officers in Alexandria in 2010. His death sparked widespread outrage across the political spectrum. “It was a similar scenario with Khaled Saeed,” Mansour says. “Wael Ghonim started a Facebook page about him and three days later he asked me to work with him on it. We both managed the page.”
The “We Are All Khaled Saeed” page grew to be one of the most popular in Egypt, garnering millions of followers and called for protests throughout 2010. In December of that year, Mansour and Ghonim used the page to call for a protest on January 25, 2011, against the police and then-Interior Minister Habib al-Adly.
Even though they had successfully organized protests through the page throughout 2010, Mansour and Ghonim had no idea of the magnitude of the events they had just helped set in motion.
“Until the January 25 call, discussions were limited to certain political parties and groups,” Mansour says. “ I thought the January event would only be a protest against the interior minister, but various political parties and the April 6 Youth Movement adopted the call. We already had a map of places to convene from previous protests and April 6 made another map.”
The rest is history.
Three days after the massive protests began, millions more took to the streets on January 28 in what was dubbed the Friday of Rage. Facing off against tear gas and bullets, protesters in cities across the country eventually forced the police to surrender the streets.
However, Mansour was unable to participate in this monumental episode in Egyptian history. He had been called up for his army duty and sent to a military training camp on January 17. “Throughout it all, I experienced confused feelings of pride, fear, and wanting to die like the protesters. I thought about escaping the camp” he says. “Tension prevailed in the camp at the time, especially after visitations were banned in the early days of February.”
Mansour’s family were unaware of his involvement in the We Are All Khaled Said page and the call for the January 25 protests. “Not a lot of people knew of my connection to the page. I didn’t tell my family. My dad came back from Saudi Arabia for the revolution without knowing my connection to it,” he says. “After Wael Ghonim was arrested on January 27, my friends told my parents because they were worried about me, especially since I was serving in the army. My family was really moved when they found out and they came and visited me on the day that Mubarak stepped down.”
Mansour’s first time at Tahrir square was during his first vacation from the army camp on February 15. “I saw all the videos for the first time and it was a week of constant tears,” he says. “I spent many long months in 2011 and 2012 recovering from feelings of responsibility for what happened, for not physically being able to take part with those who were at the front lines.”
When Mansour returned to camp from his brief vacation, word of his involvement had already reached the commanding officers. “It was a very hard year,” he says referring to his treatment. “Of course it was not comparable to those who died or were injured but it was hard for me.”
Throughout his army service, Mansour continued to manage the Facebook page and even participate in different political events during his time off, which caused him even bigger problems with the army.
He finally completed his service in March 2012.
After he completed his service and was discharged in March 2012, he helped found the ElBaradei-led Dostour party, working on the students’ portfolio, while also working as a documentary film researcher. During those heady months of political possibility, he immersed himself in various political activities and professional work. In 2011, Mansour had planned to pursue a degree in the United States and had even gotten a scholarship, but he put those plans on hold.
Then came the summer of 2013. With the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi by the military and the ensuing faceoff with his supporters, Mansour saw the political situation heading into a dark void. “In my head I imagined post-revolution Egypt to be a place of freedom and dignity. I wanted to remember the good. I didn’t want to witness the difficult fall,” he says.
He came up with a political initiative in an attempt to bring both sides to some kind of political resolution. When he presented it to senior government officials and the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, they both declined. He began to receive threats from both sides and feared being arrested so he decided to travel.
Mansour left for the United States on August 16, two days after the Rabaa massacre.
“At the airport, an officer came up to me and asked where I was going. I told him I was going to America, he says. ‘What America?’ If you don’t take your bag and leave right now, I’ll lock you up. So I took my bag and left.” He made some inquiries to see if he was banned from travel and was told to try and travel quickly so he booked a flight departing to Italy three days later and then on to Chicago. He still had a confirmed return flight from the U.S. booked for January 24, 2014, so he could be in Egypt for the third anniversary of the revolution, but he wasn’t sure what the future held in store.
“When they kicked me out of the airport the first time, I told my family that the next time I go to the airport I’ll either get arrested or I won’t be coming back anytime soon,” he says.
He flew out and hasn’t been back since.
When I met Mansour in New York six years later, he seemed at home in the city, easily blending in with its urban rhythm. Recently married, he lives with his wife in Manhattan and goes on daily walks or bike rides to explore the city. His days are spent between working from home meeting with family and a mix of American and Egyptian friends.
It wasn’t like this at first. It took years for him to accept the fact he was not returning to Egypt anytime soon.
When he first arrived in the U.S., he studied business administration at the University of Chicago. As the revolution anniversary approached, he decided not to use his return ticket and fly back home in January 2014. “At the time there were arrest campaigns targeting activists and there were many leaks [broadcast by pro-regime channels], including a leak about me,” he says. “Many people were banned from leaving the country, and I was advised by friends not to return.”
In August 2014, he moved to New York to pursue a degree in international journalism at New York University. Yet he still couldn’t fully settle in.
Until 2017, Mansour refused to apply for a green card, living on student or work visas in the hope of one day returning to Egypt. “I used to say that I was going to return and that there was a political future in Egypt,” he says. Eventually, his visas ran out along with his conviction that he would be able to go back, and he finally applied for permanent residency, receiving his green card in 2017.
The separation from home took a toll.
“In the beginning, I was panicking and unable to sleep unless I talked to someone in Egypt. At the time, the facts about Rabaa started becoming known; I continued to get nightmares until December 2013, when I met some Arabs and became friends with them. Before then, I was completely alone and unable to express myself in my own language,” he says. “I was always panicking over my friends in Egypt. I would have work and studying to do but would be unable to sleep until I contacted them.”
Six years after leaving, Mansour is still haunted by news from Egypt and fear for his friends back home; and he still feels that language is an obstacle when trying to express his feelings.
Egypt occupies a large part of his social life in New York. He is friends with a number of Egyptian writers and researchers who live in New York, some of whom are still able to visit Egypt without concern, while others risk arrest on arrival.
I joined one of their gatherings in October. The conversation mostly revolved around the ability to return to Egypt, particularly during the run-up to September 20, when public anger against the government was rising and talk of protests was growing.
“We were saying that it was time to pack our bags because we were going back,” one of Mansour’s friends said. This was before the massive police crackdown, with thousands arrested and security forces deployed heavily in the streets. Any ideas of returning home quickly dissipated.
Mansour has come to appreciate life in New York and the multicultural nature of the city.
“Here there is no America, just like Cairo isn’t Egypt,” Mansour says. “Here I feel like a New Yorker not an American. I felt America in Texas and Chicago, not in New York. In the Middle East, capitals don’t represent countries, especially big cities like Cairo, Tehran, or Istanbul, for example, because they’re more progressive. New York is also like this.”
He now sees parallels between the two cities.
“New York to me is Cairo because of its diversity and the fact that native New Yorkers are a minority in the city,” he says. “It’s a city chasing after dreams that no one is able to reach — people chasing after the unknown, like Cairo. The pursuit of a better life despite a lack of certainty and stability.”
He also says that his political outlook has developed and changed. “In New York, I saw the smallness of the human being. I came from a local struggle that had a clear narrative of injustice and dictatorship in comparison to the bigger and more complex struggle of the American citizen, like healthcare,” he says. “I discovered the movement for social justice in America and I saw the symbolic value of the Tahrir revolution here as well. In Egypt, it was impossible for me to see the importance of what was taking place, but then I saw how the Egyptian and Arab uprisings reached Wall Street. I realized that my experience in Tahrir helped me understand New York.” For example, Mansour says he began to understand supporters of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi when he saw supporters of American President Donald Trump.
Mansour feels like he owes the city that helped evolve his thinking and his vision of the world. “My heart is torn between Cairo and New York,” he says. “I cannot express what I am in simple terms like estrangement or exile. I knew when I was coming to America, that I was on a long and difficult path, but also a welcoming one. So I didn’t allow myself to cling to Egypt to the extent that I wouldn’t be able to live and explore here.”
Mansour’s relationship with his forced separation from Egypt is something he often dwells on. “What’s sad is that I don’t feel estranged. We always feel compelled to create pain, when we leave it has to be sad. Longing is important,” he says.
He uses two examples to express his feelings, one from Egyptian history and another from German history. “When Ahmed Oraby was exiled he continued to live his life, and got married and started an Arabic language school,” he says. “I too decided not to be paralyzed by sadness. As Hannah Arendt said, revolutions devour their children. But when she was exiled to New York,” he points out, she joined the University in Exile, a school for scholars fleeing fascist Europe where Arendt taught which is today the Graduate School of Political and Social Science at the New School.
He continues: “It is possible to quickly get devoured. I don’t want to sound harsh, because in Egypt you get devoured in all cases. But when you have the choice and personal freedom, you have the relative ability not to be devoured or forgotten. I was consumed with the idea of not being devoured or drowning in sadness, of how I can remain affected while also living my life.”
Mansour’s estrangement from Egypt does not mean that he feels detached. He still wishes he could return and take part in the country’s political development.
“When I arrived here I began to read about the experiences of political exiles, like Tunisians in France, or Arendt in New York, and their continued work in politics and human rights from exile,” he says. “In 2013, I read The Anatomy of Revolution [by Crane Brinton] and that book saved me from madness. When I read it, I reached two conclusions: what happened in our country was not an anomaly, but has been repeated throughout history, and its inverse is also not an anomaly. I learned that we should learn from the mistakes of history in order to know what to do.”
Mansour now views the question of Egypt as an Arab question because he sees the problems in the region as one and the same. And because the ability of the counter-revolutionary forces in the Arab world to cooperate with each other far outstripped the ability of Arab democrats to cooperate. As a result, he focuses his research and work on the Arab world, not just Egypt.
Mansour believes that the growing Egyptian diaspora will come to understand their roles in relation to their former home. He says he tries to keep the voice of Egyptians alive by writing, researching and trying to help Egyptian detainees and migrants, even though he realizes this role is reformist and limited in nature.
“I could not fulfill this role in Egypt because I would have been in prison or in the best case scenario fighting to make ends meet while walking on eggshells,” he says. “There are no opportunities there, and the few opportunities that exist are fraught with danger, especially in the media industry. They don’t just walk on eggshells but on hot embers. At any moment one can get arrested or banned from travel.”
Last September, as events in Egypt were unfolding with the protests and ensuing mass arrests, Mansour participated by joining demonstrations in New York. Although he sees protest as an essential part of political engagement, he sees the dilemma Egypt is facing as far deeper. He sees both the regime and the opposition as being in crisis, notwithstanding the fact that it was the regime that opted to close down the public realm, preventing parties, elections and other forms of political engagement from channeling public discontent.
“Unlike January 2011, the horizon is not clear at the moment,” he says. “Even if a revolution happens in Egypt, the questions it raises will be much more difficult than any potential answers. We have not offered many alternatives, there is no alternative option that is acceptable to everyone. But if it does come, I will return to Egypt. No matter how stable my life is here, I’ll go back.”