Where Egyptian protesters once locked arms against the tyranny of a brutal police state in the iconic protests of Tahrir Square five years ago, there was today only indifferent Cairo traffic circling the square as security police in black uniforms handed out sweets to passers-by.
Where a pungent mix of tear gas and hope once filled the air in downtown Cairo, there was an unsettling calm that descended like fog over the fifth anniversary of the start of the popular uprising that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and reverberated across the region through a series of mass demonstrations that came to be known as the ‘Arab Spring,’ or the ‘Awakening.’
After five years of tumult and violence in Egypt, Mubarak remains behind bars, but so does the first democratically elected president after the military reasserted its power in 2013 and put General Abdel Fattah El Sisi in power.
The few activists in Egypt who still dare to speak out against the military regime are now either in prison, staying at home fearing arrest or living in exile abroad. One of those Egyptian protesters who fled the country is Mohamed Abbas, a former member of the Revolutionary Youth Council in Tahrir Square who delivered an impassioned speech on the night of February 11 and led a crowd of hundreds of thousands in a thunderous chant calling for Mubarak to step down. By morning, Mubarak announced his resignation after 30-years of brutal, autocratic rule.
“It’s a sad day for those of us who really believed five years ago that we were on the edge of something big and hopeful, a new future for our country. It’s sad to have to flee my own country, but there is nothing we can do. All of my friends who stayed have been locked up. The military and the police state is back in charge. For now, at least,” said Abbas, 30, who in 2013 fled to Qatar where he now lives.
The strange silence here on the anniversary of the day the protests began comes after an intensified crack down on political opposition in the run up to the anniversary of the 2011 street protests referred to as the “January 25 Revolution.” It was on January 25 — a national holiday known as “Police Day” — that the protesters chose to take to the streets in 2011.
Today it was once again that national holiday, but this time the police were fully in charge of the square with armored police vans and troops in riot gear sprinkled around the square along with plainclothes security officials openly packing handguns and shouldering automatic rifles. There were no protests, just a handful of regime supporters waving Egyptian flags and holding placards supporting the police.
Over the last few weeks, Egyptian authorities have searched thousands of apartments, seized online activists in a raid on a cafe, arrested more than a dozen Facebook page administrators, shut down a popular art gallery and issued a wave of hundreds of arrests of those perceived as political opponents.
In those heady days of January and February 2011, when Tahrir Square was filled with protesters camping out in the square, I was part of a FRONTLINE team that covered the historic events. It seemed a time full of hope and a sense of a new beginning in the Middle East.
The messy process of an ancient country trying to transition to a modern democracy yielded the first free and fair election in Egypt’s more than 3,000 years of history. The winner of that June 2012 vote was Mohammed Morsi, a former leader in the Muslim Brotherhood. But after serving only one year in office, massive street demonstrations erupted on June 30, 2013 across the country calling for an end to Morsi’s rule and an end to what many critics said they feared was a creeping Islamist agenda and a weakening of the constitution and the democratic institutions the reformists had hoped to put Morsi was detained by military officers and held in an undisclosed location.
It was the 4th of July weekend in 2013 and the White House and the State Department were silent about the military move which was effectively a military coup even if Washington chose to avoid that phrase. To use the word “coup” would have meant that the US, by law, would have to cut off the $1.3 billion in military aid that the US gives to Egypt. I returned with the FRONTLINE team in the days that followed Morsi’s arrest during that summer of 2013 when those hopes for a new democracy in Egypt were being dashed by a return of the military regime that the protesters sought to
Many of the people featured in our documentary have, like Abbas, fled the country or have been arrested and remain in prison often on trumped up Abbas, who was 25 years old when he stood center stage in Tahrir Square leading the protesters, has had a long journey from the days of the “January 25 Revolution” in 2011 to today, a journey that he insists is not over. He came of age in a poor family that supported the Muslim Brotherhood and then, as the protest movement erupted, joined the Revolutionary Youth Council, which was a group of activists from secular, religious and political backgrounds that mobilized youth and organized the square.
Eventually Abbas became disillusioned with the Muslim Brotherhood and left the movement. He made a failed bid as an independent. When Morsi came to power, Abbas felt he betrayed the revolution as his government thwarted the constitution and, just like Mubarak, brutally suppressed the opposition.
Abbas takes the view of history on the events unfolding in Egypt.
“All big revolutions take time. Look at the French Revolution, Ukraine, even the American Revolution. All of these successful revolutions unfolded slowly, and had set backs. It’s no different in Egypt,” he said.
Abbas, who has recently been married and has started a recycling business in Qatar, said he believes he will return to Egypt and continue working for democracy. He said he believes the regime has “stress cracks” and that it will not last, and that he and other activists will return within two years and be part of the future of a more democratic Egypt.
Reached by telephone in Qatar, Abbas added, “What we have to think about is what we will do better. We have the knowledge now, clearer thinking. Justice and democracy: That’s why I first went to the square in 2011 and that’s still what I am hoping for, and will keep working for.”
Another central character in the FRONTLINE film was Heba Morayef, who in 2011 was the director of research for Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Cairo. She had been confronting the tyranny of Mubarak’s regime for years, and then Morsi’s government and now the military under El Sisi. The focus of her recent work is documenting the brutal crack down on protesters and the arrests of tens of thousands of political opposition figures on trumped up charges.
After the military coup that removed Morsi from power, the military regime under El Sisi began to target human rights and social justice groups that received international funding. HRW closed its Cairo office amid the crack down. Morayef left the country for five months. But in September 2015, she returned she and is now working as Associate Director for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. She had just finished a work out at the gym and met me in a café in the Zamalek neighborhood of Cairo, saying, “It can be hard to keep going.
There was trauma in 2013 and 2014. But by 2015, it’s time to get your act together and start reimagining your life. That’s a difficult process. We were all introduced to hope and the possibility for change. And as human rights workers we were able to work at the core of that change. But now we are pushed back to the periphery. So we just have to keep looking at how we can do our work in a way that is most productive.”
She said the harsh crackdown by El Sisi’s regime in recent weeks is seen by many as a sign that the military is worried.
“It’s a recognition that they have reason to be afraid, that 2011 happened for a reason. And no matter how much they try to intimidate people into forgetting, that is not going away. Unless they can improve the economic situation and improve opportunity in the country, the anger of January 2011 will just resurface. I think they are remembering that today, and they’re scared other people are remembering it as well.”
Another central voice in our reporting for FRONTLINE was Ahmed Maher who is now serving time in prison for his activism. The sprawling prison complex on the outskirts of Cairo has housed an estimated 50,000 political prisoners who have been detained over the last five years. Among them is Mohammed Morsi, the former democratically elected president, who was sentenced to death by the military regime and is now serving time on a litany of charges, including espionage and ordering the arrest and torture of demonstrators. He is in the process of appeal on the capital punishment case.
Maher, the founder of the April 6th Youth Movement, a group that started in 2005 as a labor rights organization which found itself at the center of the pro-democracy protests that toppled Mubarak, was sentenced to three years in Egypt’s notorious Tora Prison. He was charged with “illegal assembly” and convicted in 2013. He is only permitted to have family visits, but they have released some of his letters which have called on the movement to focus on education.
“It is not through protest but through education that we can change,” he said.
Another eloquent voice we relied on in the documentaries was Amr Hamzawy, a public intellectual and member of the Egyptian parliament, who was an outspoken critic of the Mubarak regime and al Sisi as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamzawy fled to the United States and is now a fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.
In a column in today’s editions of Al Shorouk, a leading, independent Egyptian newspaper, Hamzawi wrote in Arabic, "Despite all this, all the difficulties and setbacks and the denials by those who support the regime, Egypt before Jan 25th is not like the one after. This change is not going to be deleted. There is a high possibility that the status quo will be long term: The regime will continue to oppress people and prevent them from participating in the public life. The Muslim brotherhood will remain fragmented and suffer from more internal fights. The human rights defenders will keep searching for heroic roles. But then the real hero's will rise from the people - the ones who were victims. The desire of change will return. It must return."
Charles M. Sennott, head of The GroundTruth Project at WGBH, was a FRONTLINE correspondent on two documentaries about the mass protests in Egypt that toppled Mubarak in 2011 and the chaotic and violent aftermath of those events in 2013.