CAIRO, EGYPT — Outside a café in a Cairo neighborhood named for famed Egyptian revolutionary Saad Zaghloul, 43-year-old Yasser Mahmoud sat smoking a cigarette. “People are in a really bad situation and really can’t breathe,” he said. After four tumultuous years of protest, revolution, and upheaval, Mahmoud’s assessment of life in Egypt was simple: “Not much has changed.”
The toppling of strongman Hosni Mubarak over four years ago brought forth a wave of optimism and hope that Egypt could become a model democracy for a region long plagued by authoritarian dictators. But fast forward to present day and Egyptians can no longer be found in public arenas marching, chanting, and waving flags. The hope that was freed four years ago seems to have crawled back into its cave. The revolution is in a coma.
Talking about the current state of affairs in his country, Mahmoud, a plumber and real estate agent, looked slightly despondent and bereft of answers. “We just want to hope that something will change somehow,” he said.
January 25, 2011 saw millions of Egyptians take to Cairo’s aptly named Tahrir Square [Liberation Square in English] in an attempt to oust their despotic President Mubarak. The protesters were driven by the state’s apathy toward regular Egyptians, widespread corruption, and wanton police brutality. They were also inspired by recent events in neighboring Tunisia that precipitated the fall of longtime autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Many count this date as the beginning of a revolution that would see the end of Mubarak’s nearly 30 year reign, his subsequent jailing, and Egypt’s first open, democratic, and fair presidential election in history.
We just want to hope that something will change somehow.
Mohammad Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member and former MP, won the runoff vote to be elected Egypt’s first president chosen by the people. He narrowly defeated Ahmed Shafik, who had served as prime minister under Mubarak.
While the early days of Egypt’s revolution started so promisingly, chaos quickly ensued. Euphoria gave way to discontent, at least partially directed at Morsi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood over their inability to find political compromises. Just over a year into his presidency, protesters once again filled Tahrir Square on June 30, 2013 to call for Morsi’s removal from office after a year of divisive ruling. From their standpoint, Morsi was more interested in ruling for his party — the Muslim Brotherhood — than for all Egyptians.
Some demanded that removal be carried out democratically, while others were willing to take any means necessary to see Morsi deposed. A defiant Morsi was abandoned by his presidential guards and subsequently arrested by the powerful and nationally adored Egyptian SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] in what was widely acknowledged as a military coup.
A number of violent incidents followed his removal, mostly involving various factions of protesters against branches of Egyptian security forces. The most costly in terms of human life happened in August 2013 at Rabaa — where at least 800 supporters and members of the Muslim Brotherhood were massacred by Egyptian police.
During Morsi’s final days, his defense minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi began cultivating popular support. Morsi had trusted him, but Sisi was an officer in the army and, ultimately, that’s where his loyalties lie. Sisi’s popularity soared during Morsi’s final days and many Egyptians felt he was the man to take the country forward and revive the principles and goals of the revolution. For others, however, the revolution had been turned on its head as a military strongman would once again rule over Egypt with an iron fist.
Throughout the various regime changes — from Mubarak to Morsi, and then Morsi to a transitional government, and then on to the election of Sisi with 96 percent of the vote — many aspects of Egyptian society suffered. The final blow for many of the protesters that took to the streets on January 25 was Mubarak’s release from prison after charges that connected him to the killing of 240 protesters were dropped.
Today, many Egyptians say life is worse than ever before.
Mubarak’s reign over Egypt was synonymous with torture, suppressing freedom of speech, and police violence. An explosion of activity came out of civil society once he was overthrown. When Morsi came to power, he was unable to maintain the same stranglehold over civil society as Mubarak but he nonetheless attempted to suppress his critics in the media.
Sisi’s crackdown on civil society, human rights activists, and the media has been as bad, if not worse, than under Mubarak or Morsi. Certain democratic practices also appear to have reverted to old ways, signified most publicly by a decision from Egyptian courts to sentence former president Morsi to death. Morsi was charged with conspiring with foreign militants during a 2011 prison break. This means that while Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected leader, rots in captivity and waits for a possible execution, Mubarak, its last dictator, is now a free man.
…the majority feel what is coming is better so we haven’t continued to revolt. God willing it will be better.
But rather than take the streets and advocate for change, the Egyptians who protested with such conviction during the revolution are nowhere to be seen.
“I was on the streets on January 25 and June 30 — which was more exciting for me. The Brotherhood were difficult and we hoped [Sisi] would do something good,” said Salah Mahmoud, a 33-year-old accountant. “He hasn’t been able to do anything yet but the majority feel what is coming is better so we haven’t continued to revolt. God willing it will be better.”
Many Egyptians are trying to remain patient and let Sisi’s promises of security and prosperity come to fruition. Those who do want to protest however are met with severe obstacles.
Under Mubarak, protests were often dispersed through force. Now, under Sisi, that ante has been upped. Protests are now banned outright and large metal doors have been built to close down the roads leading to Tahrir Square so as to stop protesters flooding the area. Ironically, the doors have been painted like Egyptian flags.
In 2011 and subsequent years, the threat of violence didn’t stop protesters from pushing on. But why now, in 2015, are people staying in their homes in the face of similar — if not worse — atrocities and circumstances that initially brought them down? Many renowned activists, like Alaa Abdel Fattah, are in jail or facing trials for trumped up charges against the state. Comedian Bassem Youssef, often described as an Egyptian Jon Stewart, is in self-imposed exile after having his show taken off the air. When his father died in late May, he couldn’t attend the funeral for fear of arrest.
“Bassem Youssef makes them laugh but Sisi makes them sleep,” Ayman Hadhoud, an official with the liberal Reform and Development Party (RDP), said in an interview at the party office in Heliopolis. “Reality bites.”
The reality, it appears, is that Sisi does maintain significant popular support among average Egyptians.
“Two years ago, Sisi had a lot of support — a majority on some level — as a reaction to disliking and being afraid of the Brotherhood,” Timothy Kaldas, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP DC), told me. “Sisi is less popular than [his supporters] say but more popular than [his opponents] would have you believe. Some believe Sisi as president is in Egypt’s best interest while others say ok, but who would we have as president [instead]?”
In fact, Sisi’s focus on providing security has given him leeway to suppress democratic practices and human rights. With his military background, Sisi is perceived to be the leader capable of dealing with a number of pressing security issues facing Egypt. Such issues include occasional bombs in Cairo, an insurgency linked to the Islamic State in the Sinai region, and the threat of Islamists flowing over the porous border with Libya. This month alone has seen two tourism police shot near the pyramids in Giza and a foiled suicide bombing in Luxor that resulted in the death of two assailants.
“First, there is fear and paranoia,” said Dr. Abdallah Helmy, Vice President of the RDP. “Democracy is a function of the public but this understanding is not there.”
The media portrays it as though Sisi has to succeed or the country will descend into full out Syria.
Another reason the streets haven’t been overran with protesters is that Sisi is also yet to show the same disregard for popular sentiment that was displayed under Mubarak.
Shaimaa el-Sabbagh was killed on January 24, 2015 in downtown Cairo by a gunshot to the head. The Socialist Popular Alliance Party member had been armed only with flowers as she peacefully marched to commemorate the protesters that died during the Arab Spring. Her fellow activists claimed that a police shotgun round killed her. Photos and videos of the incident quickly went viral. While the Ministry of Interior initially rejected any wrongdoing on the part of the police, Sisi responded to public uproar and pushed for an investigation that eventually led to the responsible officer receiving a 15-year prison sentence.
Sisi’s portrayal of himself as an economic and security savior and the way he has managed to keep public outcry relatively quiet has given some Egyptians a sense of cautious optimism for the future. “It was smart to renovate public buildings,” Kaldas said of the fresh coat of paint that was recently applied to buildings in downtown Cairo. “It’s slightly less depressing and it makes it look like someone cares.”
There’s also the firm grip over the country’s media (Egypt under Sisi is the world’s sixth worst jailer of journalists) allowing the current regime to manipulate the message given to the public. This influence has largely shaped public opinion, experts and analysts said. According to Helmy, the local media’s portrayal of the president and prime minister’s outreach has colored the populace’s perception and made them “satisfied with the status quo.”
“The media portrays it as though Sisi has to succeed or the country will descend into full out Syria,” a human rights and democracy activist who asked to remain anonymous due to the fact that they are currently appealing criminal charges for working with a foreign nonprofit organization, told me.
Despite these flashes of progress, a number of troubling incidents that have occurred under Sisi have built discontent among the populace. In one such incident, the government claimed to have found the cure for AIDS and then quietly went about deflecting any attention the story brought until it disappeared from public discussion. In another case, six people were executed for a crime that had been committed when three of them were already in jail.
“The absurdity is pretty remarkable,” said Kaldas. “[Support for Sisi] is more fragile than two years ago. To a large extent the government hasn’t improved the quality of life. Prices are skyrocketing, the police are back with a vengeance, and corruption [remains].”
Just last month a student was removed from exams by an unidentified man and later was found shot to death on the side of a desert road. The Ministry of Interior published a statement claiming the young man had been a terrorist and was killed after being chased by security forces. Even disturbing incidents like these, however, have not been enough to push Egyptians back into the revolutionary mindset.
“There’s a genuine belief [among the public] that we sacrificed too much,” the human rights activist said. “The elite are scared of sacrificing their place in society and the poor believe it wasn’t worth it. Their lives are much worse since the economy imploded.”
Others cited simple burnout. “The revolution seems to be failing but one side is depressed or maybe they’re tired,” said Hadhoud. “There’s stagnation and it’s not moving in any direction…for all parties, pro-regime or pro-revolution.”
From Zamalek’s trendy Left Bank café that straddles the historic Nile, the human rights activist sipped coffee. “I don’t doubt [Sisi’s] genuine desire to reform. I doubt his understanding. He thinks if he fixes the economy that’s all they want. Democracy and human rights are not the economy and the economy is not democracy and human rights.
“Accountability, transparency, certifying budgets, checks and balances, he believes are completely different things,” the activist said. “It’s definitely getting worse.”