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February 11, 2011. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak steps down after nearly 30 years, following mass demonstrations that were part of the pro-democracy uprisings known as the Arab Spring.
This episode of History Daily has been archived, but you can still listen to it as a subscriber to Noiser+, Wondery+, or as a Prime Member with the Amazon Music app.
It’s December 17th, 2010, in Sidi Bouzid, a small town in central Tunisia, on the north coast of Africa.
It’s a busy morning. Traffic chokes the dusty roads as throngs of people shuffle along the town’s narrow sidewalks. In the central square, a policewoman and two of her deputies surround a 26-year-old street peddler.
His name is Mohamed Bouazizi. He is a familiar face to many in the town - every day, the young man rolls a cart of fruit and vegetables through the streets, selling produce. And every day the police come looking for him. Corruption is rife in Tunisia and local officials are always harassing street vendors like Bouazizi for bribes. But today, the young peddler doesn’t have the money to pay them off.
So, the police officers search his cart looking for anything valuable. The policewoman soon finds the electronic scales he uses to price his fruit. Bouazizi pleads with her: he needs the scales to do his job. He has a family that relies on him. But the policewoman doesn’t listen.
When Bouazizi tries to take back the scales, she slaps him across the face. Immediately, her deputies take hold of Bouazizi. Two men begin punchin him, hard, in the stomach, then throw him to the ground and upend his cart beside him. Fruit and vegetables spill over the dusty stones. Then the police officers stride away to find another street seller to hassle.
As Bouazizi picks himself up and dusts off his clothes, he notices people staring at him. Some look down on him with pity. Others laugh. He trembles with shame and humiliation. He leaves his cart and his scattered goods behind, and marches off in the direction of a local government facility to lodge a complaint. But no one there will listen. They won’t even open the gates to let him inside.
Consumed with shame and anger, he hurries away to a nearby gas station. There, Bouazizi buys a can of gasoline and heads back toward the government building.
He marches out into the middle of the street, bringing traffic to a standstill.
His eyes, raw with tears, are fixed on the government building in front of him. He lifts the can of gasoline above his head and screams, “How do you expect me to live?”
Then Bouazizi empties the gasoline over his head, and pulls a lighter out of his pocket.
Bouazizi will die in the hospital almost three weeks later. But by the time his life ends, his desperate act of self-sacrifice and protest will have inspired a movement that will spread throughout Tunisia and all across the region. Finally, the movement, known as the “Arab Spring”, will reach Egypt where it will topple a powerful president on February 11th, 2011.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is February 11th: The Egyptian Revolution.
It’s October 6th, 1981, almost 30 years before Mohammad Bouazizi takes his life in protest.
In Cairo, Hosni Mubarak, the 53-year-old Vice President of Egypt, watches a military parade. Beside him on the large, raised viewing platform is Egypt’s President, Anwar Sadat, who sits with various other government officials, military chiefs, and foreign diplomats. A band plays as soldiers file past in uniform, saluting the President and his guests. Trucks and jeeps follow behind, towing artillery in a display of Egyptian military might.
This annual parade is meant to commemorate Egypt’s victory over Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, or Ramadan War of 1973. Egypt and Israel have long been enemies, having fought four wars over the past decades. But since the end of the 1973 conflict, relations between the two longtime foes have largely improved, thanks in part to President Sadat’s overtures for peace. Two years ago, he signed a treaty with Israel that formally ended the conflict between the two nations and saw Egypt become the first Arab nation to formally recognize the Israeli state.
The peace efforts won Sadat a Nobel Prize but they outraged many hardline Islamists, who consider Israel their sworn enemy. These hardliners view the treaty with Israel as a betrayal of all Muslims. And many extremists across the Middle East have been plotting against President Sadat ever since.
But today, Sadat is not worried about extremists, and neither is his Vice President, Hosni Mubarak. They’re celebrating Egypt’s past with a parade, and trying to enjoy the spectacle.
But then, a squadron of Egyptian Air Force jets roars over the parade ground. The dignitaries on the platform crane their necks to see trails of colored smoke streaming behind the planes. They hardly notice when one of the trucks in the parade comes to a stop.
Vice President Mubarak looks down to see a group of Egyptian soldiers climb out of the truck holding AK47 rifles. But still, Mubarak isn’t worried. He assumes it’s all part of the show. He watches with delight as one of the soldiers, a lieutenant, approaches the platform.
President Sadat isn’t concerned either. He stands to receive the lieutenant’s salute. But Sadat’s eyes flash with shock when the lieutenant pulls out three grenades and tosses them at the platform.
As the explosions rip through the air, the rest of the soldiers from the truck open fire and spray the presidential platform with bullets. Officials and dignitaries scramble to escape and Vice President Mubarak is able to throw himself to the ground. After he finds cover, he peers out to see the president lying on the ground, covered in blood.
The attack lasts just two minutes. But by the time the assassins run out of ammunition, 39 guests at the parade have been shot – eleven of them fatally, including President Sadat.
But Vice President Hosni Mubarak survives. And eight days after the attack, he is sworn in as Egypt’s new President.
It’s December 1992. More than 11 years have passed since the assassination.
In Cairo, a young soldier and his squad move through a sprawling shantytown. This slum has been claimed by Muslims extremists. They say it’s no longer part of Egypt - it’s now an independent Islamic Republic. As a result, this soldier and 14,000 others just like him, have been sent into the bleak poor neighborhood to take it back by force.
This mission is one of the biggest security operations in modern Egyptian history. And it’s President Mubarak’s latest effort to keep a firm grip on power. Since Anwar Sadat’s assassination more than a decade ago, President Mubarak has maintained an official state of emergency in the country. Normal laws in Egypt are suspended. The media is censored. Protest is banned. And the police and security forces have the right to detain people indefinitely without trial. These sweeping powers have helped Mubarak stay in power, and they’ve helped him wage a war against Muslim extremists. But they’ve done little to help the Egyptian people out of the economic malaise gripping the nation.
The majority of the Egyptian population lives in poverty. There’s chronic unemployment and inflation. Meanwhile, President Mubarak and his cronies siphon billions of dollars away to personal accounts overseas. The corruption in government has led to widespread discontent, especially in Egypt’s slums. These impoverished communities are fertile recruiting grounds for extremist groups, which are springing up all across the country.
Mubarak reacts to this growing insurgency by clamping down. As part of his effort to defeat extremism, Mubarak has sent his soldiers to reclaim this slum and drive the extremists out.
And for five days, the young soldier and thousands of other Egyptian security forces sweep through the Cairo neighborhood. Going street by street, and house by house, they detain more than six hundred suspects believed to be involved with extremist activities.
But the operation will not quell the discord simmering in Egypt. The harder the President tightens his grip, the louder the cries of the pople become. And soon, that anger will give way to open protests that will upend the political balance in Egypt and drive Murbarak from power.
It’s September 7th, 2005. A little over five years before the Egyptian Revolution.
On a city street in Cairo, an old man gets in line outside a voting station. This old man knows it's a historic election: the first multi-candidate presidential contest in Egyptian history.
President Mubarak’s previous four electoral victories were simple referendums; people could vote on whether to extend his term in office, yes or no. But domestic campaigners, and foreign allies like the United States, put pressure on Mubarak to open up the election process. Now, finally, the authoritarian Egyptian President has given his people a real choice. Or at least the illusion of one. In reality, the rules over who can stand for president are so restrictive that they exclude any credible opposition.
Soon, the old man reaches the front of the line. After he’s handed a ballot, he dips his finger in a pot of red indelible ink, a security measure designed to stop people from voting more than once.
With his ballot in hand, the old man steps into one of the voting booths. There are ten names to choose from. He's heard of most of these candidates. But as the old man's pencil hovers over the ballot, he remembers a joke he’s heard many times, one about a young man who dares to vote against the government.
On his way home from the polling station, the young man starts to have regrets. If the authorities find out how he’s voted, he and his family are sure to be punished. So, the young man hurries back and speaks to the policeman in charge of the polling station.
He says, "I'm sorry, but I think I made a mistake on my paper ballot." The policeman replies, "Yes, you did, but don’t worry. We spotted your mistake and have already corrected it.”
As he recalls the joke, the old man grins. He scans down the list of candidates and casts his vote for Mubarak. Then the old man shuffles out the voting booth, thinking, “better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.” Then, he deposits his ballot in the box, nods to the watching police officer and heads out into the hustle and bussle of the Cairo streets.
In Egypt, very few doubt that Mubarak will win. And when the ballots are counted, the long-serving President has won more than 88% of the vote. His grip on power appears absolute. But his regime will not go on forever. A Revolution is coming. And in the end, Mubarak will be toppled by an Arab Spring.
It’s February 10th, 2011. More than five years have passed since Mubarak won a fifth term in office, but his once unassailable regime is teetering on the brink of collapse.
A vast crowd fills Tahrir Square in central Cairo. Hundreds of thousands of people have gathered to protest Mubarak’s neverending rule. Among them is a young Egyptian photographer. She moves through the crowd, snapping pictures of the protesters. It’s an eclectic group. She sees sullen young men out of work; middle-aged parents who can’t afford to feed their families; and older men and women who’ve decided that enough is enough.
There is an atmosphere of jubilation in the square. People dance and sing under fluttering banners and Egyptian flags. The crowd is excited because Mubarak is about to make a statement; and rumors abound that he will be resigning.
Eight weeks ago, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest of the state of affairs in his country. In response, “the Arab World convulsed.” Bouazizi’s death inspired protests against government corruption and oppression that began in his hometown and spread all across Tunisia. Unable to resist these public demands for change, the Tunisian government collapsed. And the fall of the regime in Tunisia gave hope to other activists across the region.
On January 25, anti-government protests erupted in Egypt. Organized through social media, tens of thousands of people descended on Tahrir Square in central Cairo.
Mubarak’s regime tried to disperse the crowds. They shut down the internet and imposed a curfew. And when that didn’t work, they unleashed pro-regime thugs and launched random attacks on protesters. They deployed snipers on the roofs of buildings to fire on the crowd. Dozens died and hundreds more were injured. But the people kept coming in greater and greater numbers. And now, it seems, their victory is at hand.
Just then, the young photographer sees a crowd of protestors rushing to a nearby tent where a small television is tuned to the state’s network. As she fights her way through the crowd to get a better view of the screen, one of the protestors yells to “be quiet” as he turns up the volume as high as it will go. Then, the familiar voice of Hosni Mubarak echoes out.
As the photographer listens to Mubarak make his statement, she struggles to hear over the noisy crowd. But she gathers just enough to get the gist. The old President is not resigning. Instead, he promises reform and says something about a transition period… but the rest of his words are lost in a howl of anger that ripples across Tahrir Square.
The photographer grabs her camera and begins snapping pictures of the angry protestors who start to chant: “the people want the fall of the regime! The people want the fall of the regime!”.
Soon, these protestors will get what they want. The following day, Mubarak’s deputy, Omar Suleiman, appears on state television. He tells Egypt that their president of almost 30 years has resigned and that a military council is now in charge of the country.
The news is greeted with jubilation. Fireworks erupt in the sky over Cairo as people dance through the streets and celebrate long into the night.
But the fall of Hosni Mubarak will not lead to peace in Egypt. Instead, it will unleash years of chaos and bring into power a new government which is even more problematic than the last.
It’s February 11th, 2011, at the Presidential Palace in Cairo, Egypt.
Soldiers usher Hosni Mubarak across the grounds of the palace toward a waiting helicopter. Beyond the walls of the compound, protesters pack the streets; the 82-year-old can hear them chanting angry slogans. Mubarak has finally given them what they wanted, and resigned.
It wasn’t Mubarak’s decision. Until the previous day, he remained defiant, insisting he would continue as President until the next election. He promised there would be a transition to true democracy. But the people didn’t believe him, and his limited concessions weren’t enough for the hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Cairo and across the country. Soon, the military chiefs stepped in. They made it clear to Mubarak that they could no longer support him. And the wily old President knew the game was up.
Now, Mubarak and his family are fleeing Cairo. Under guard by the soldiers whose loyalty he long commanded, the deposed President and his family clamber into the waiting helicopter. As it lifts off into the sky, Mubarak stares down at the heaving streets that surround the palace. He can’t hear the chants now above the roar of the helicopter, but he can still read the countless banners which curse his name.
Mubarak will be taken to a Presidential Palace outside the capital and placed under house arrest by the military. He will eventually return to Cairo, but only to face trial on charges of corruption and the premeditated killing of peaceful protesters. After six years in detention, he will be released in 2017 and die three years later at the age of 91.
Despite the celebrations that greeted Mubarak’s resignation in 2011, the tensions that led to the Egyptian Revolution do not vanish with the old President. In the first presidential election after Mubarak resignation, a member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood is elected to power. But violent protests break out against the new President and the following year, the military enacts a coup to remove him. In 2013, the head of the Egyptian Armed Forces, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, runs for president and wins 96% of the vote, a clear indication that the election was fixed. His regime proves even more severe than Mubarak’s, leading one human rights organization to call Egypt an “open air prison”.
In the end, the Arab Spring didn’t live up to the hopes of the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets. But the events of February 11th, 2011 still offer a reminder of the power of protest and the ability of a people, however long oppressed, to find the courage and determination to defeat a tyrant.
Next on History Daily.February 14th, 1929. Seven members and associates of Chicago's North Side Gang are murdered in what will come to be known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.