On January 24, 2011 I drove through central Cairo watching the country prepare to “celebrate” National Police Day (that’s what January 25 was called then). A few days prior the Arab Spring claimed its first victim, Tunisian dictator Ben Ali, who escaped popular protests directed towards his rule by fleeing to Saudi Arabia.

This was my eighth day back in Egypt after a five year hiatus and I could tell that something was unsettled. Posters exalting the police flew everywhere, displaying an excessively aggressive affirmation. Checkpoints were more numerous and started earlier in the night than usual. People weren’t talking about revolution yet though. Some talked about the need to express themselves, the vast majority laughed off the rumors of protests, if they were aware of them at all.

The next day, a national holiday, protests started in a few cities. At least one fatality was reported in the canal city of Suez but protesters in Cairo were able to capture for the first time Tahrir square, which would serve as the iconic symbol of the Arab Spring from that moment onwards.

From the moment I stepped into Tahrir the feeling was intoxicating. Thousands of my countrymen and women were together regardless of age, class or religious affiliation gathered together to chant, battle with the police and dream of what things might be. Discussions broke out about what constitution we should have, who should lead, which parties were to be trusted. It seemed absurd to me, that us Egyptians who were always told we weren’t “ready” for Democracy would be capable of such intricate discussions.

18 days later the military deposed Mubarak and we, the people, were intoxicated by the success of our revolution. Perhaps in its sudden, unexpected victory, we failed to learn lessons of politics.

We cherished our newfound right to dream but failed in our responsibility to govern. Those that “led” the leaderless revolution refused to acknowledge their role, preferring to judge from afar rather than engage with the system that they sought to reform. Our demands were total: removal of all vestiges of the Mubarak regime; the trial of those responsible for the deaths of protesters; a pure democratic system with transparent governance; the removal of the military from civilian government. 

Taken at face value there was nothing “wrong” with what we sought. Throughout history people fought for the right to a democratic system of governance and the ability to hold those that say will govern us accountable. What we failed to do was to understand the forces at play in Egypt (the military vs. bureaucracy vs. Brotherhood) and we refused to be a part of a system we viewed as corrupt. These were, by no means, collective failures (some youth did engage) but they were fatal ones. Refusing to engage with the system limited our ability to steer it despite multiple opportunities to do so. Failure to appreciate the complexity of the situation created enemies where there should have been allies.

Blaming the youth that flocked to Tahrir to demand a better future for themselves for the failure of Tahrir is akin to blaming the victim for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were the least culpable for what befell Egypt’s “democratic moment” but that does not completely absolve us of the outcome.

A friend of mine once told me that “dreaming is a privilege for the young” but Egypt’s revolution proved that dreaming, like most privileges, could often be abused.  My only hope is that Egypt’s next generation of hopeful democrats does more than just dream that they also lead.

Tewfik Cassis is the Co-founder of the daily email on international news and current affairs, Daily Pnut (subscribe here) and an Egyptian national.