Three years after being hailed as heroes for toppling Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the young activists who led the 2011 uprising say an even more repressive regime has emerged.
Their revolt captivated the world and galvanised the Arab Spring, raising hopes that long-ruling dictators across the region would be swept aside by popular demands for democratic change.
But Egypt has been rocked by turmoil since then, with hundreds killed in street clashes and, more recently, a series of bombings against security forces, including three blasts on Friday that killed at least five people.
Since the July 3 overthrow of Mubarak’s successor, Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, the military-installed government has launched a brutal crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood, which won a series of polls after Mubarak’s overthrow.
And the crackdown has been widened in recent months to target the liberal and secular activists who led the 18-day revolt in 2011, with authorities restricting the kind of public demonstrations that led to the toppling of both Mubarak and Morsi.
“The police and the army are stronger than before and the figures of the Mubarak era are returning,” said Sally Touma, who was the spokeswoman for the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, one of the groups that led the 2011 revolt.
In December, as leading anti-Mubarak activists Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma, Mohamed Adel and Alaa Abdel Fattah were arrested for holding “illegal demonstrations”, Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmad Shafiq, was acquitted in a corruption case.
The former premier, who narrowly lost to Morsi in the June 2012 presidential election, is now weighing a political comeback, while Maher, Douma and Adel have been sentenced to three-year prison terms and Abdel Fattah — a blogger jailed under Mubarak, the military junta that succeeded him, and Morsi — is awaiting trial.
“These young men are being tried today because they did the revolution,” said the well-known Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif, Abdel Fattah’s aunt.
The military-installed authorities have claimed the mantle of the revolution and vowed to work with the youth, but Soueif says they are “lying.”
“Their words are in total contradiction with what is happening on the ground.”
‘People changed… the state is the same’
Despite winning Egypt’s first democratic election, Morsi’s volatile year in power left Egyptians deeply divided, with critics accusing him of trying to erect a new dictatorship dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most well-organised Islamist movement.
Protesters again took to Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square on June 30, and days later the military overthrew and arrested Morsi, insisting that they were not carrying out a coup but restoring the January 25 revolution.
But analysts say the military has since revived the “deep state” that has existed since a group of military officers toppled Egypt’s monarchy a half-century ago.
“The military institution is once again fully in control,” said Amr Emam, a human rights lawyer.
“Mubarak was a face that was taken down for the state to maintain itself. Morsi’s year in power gave them the opportunity to rearrange their cards. People changed, but the policies, the structure of the state is the same.”
The authorities have since acted to ensure that “activists and rights lawyers were kept busy running behind detainees in prisons and the dead in morgues,” he added.
“Removing Mubarak was the easiest part of the revolution,” activist Ahmed Naguib said.
“But we discovered that the fall of the regime is not easy and it won’t happen in a day or a night.”
New revolt possible
Today’s activists operate in a very different Egypt, where a groundswell of militant nationalism has left many people clamouring for military chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to run for president and restore calm after three years of unrest.
State and private media have virtually coronated Sisi while lashing out at both the Muslim Brotherhood and the young would-be revolutionaries, including Touma, who during a TV appearance a few months ago was accused by viewers of fomenting instability.
Mustafa Kandil recently screened the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Square” at his small cafe in the upscale district of Zamalek. The film tells the story of the 2011 uprising through the eyes of the young activists who led it.
“We were not divided as much (then) as we are now,” he said.
At that time, “all the people called for freedom, bread and social justice.”
Ahmed Ibrahim, a patron who had campaigned against a provision in the constitution approved last week that allows military trials for civilians, said that despite the setbacks there was no going back to 2010.
“If Sisi does not realise these demands, people will take to the streets again,” Ibrahim said.
“I don’t think that a generation that decided to face the dictatorship and the power of Mubarak would be afraid of facing any other dictator,” added rights lawyer Emam.