CAIRO (AP) – Amid heavy security Monday, Egypt marked the fifth anniversary of the uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, with activists taking to social media – but not the streets – to express frustration that their demands for freedom and democracy had not been realized.
Many activists instead posted photos from 2011 of Cairo’s Tahrir Square – the epicenter of the demonstrations – showing it filled with tens of thousands of protesters during the 18-day uprising. Next to them, they posted photos of the square on Monday, showing it empty except for several dozen supporters of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
Since 2011, when Mubarak fell after nearly three decades in power, Egypt has seen much upheaval: the rise of President Mohammed Morsi and his once-banned Muslim Brotherhood; the ouster of Morsi by el-Sissi, a former general; and el-Sissi’s launch of one of the harshest crackdowns in years, with the jailing of thousands of Islamists and scores of liberal, pro-democracy activists.
Despite the heavy police presence Monday, supporters of the Brotherhood held at least two small demonstrations, with participants numbering in the low hundreds – both in Cairo’s twin city of Giza.
Brotherhood demonstrations of this size have taken place since 2013, but are restricted to back streets of poor or middle class neighborhoods, away from the eyes of the police in landmark squares and major thoroughfares.
In the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, police dismantled two bombs and arrested 15 people when they dispersed small protests by Brotherhood loyalists, according to the official MENA news agency.
In the October 6 suburb of Cairo, police killed two suspected militants in a raid. Explosives and firearms were found in the raided apartment, MENA reported. Later, in Bani Suef province south of Cairo, police shot and killed a suspected militant when he tried to storm a checkpoint.
The crackdown under el-Sissi has forced many who took part in the 2011 uprising, along with hundreds of Morsi supporters, to flee Egypt or abandon political activism altogether.
In a lone act of defiance, prominent activist Sanaa Seif retraced the steps of one of the largest demonstrations on the uprising’s first day, walking alone on a wet and cold day from Mohandiseen in Giza and across a Nile bridge to Tahrir. The back of her sweater bore the words: “It’s still the January Revolution.” Seif, in her early 20s, was pardoned in September by el-Sissi after spending more than a year in prison for violating a law that effectively bans demonstrations.
The activists, demonized by the pro-el-Sissi media as foreign agents, had said they would not take to the streets to commemorate the occasion, arguing it would only increase the number of “martyrs” and detainees.
The Muslim Brotherhood had called for protests, but it is so decimated by the crackdown that it has been unable to rally large numbers.
“Why did we not take to the streets today? It’s simple, the regime is such a failure, it’s falling on its own,” prominent blogger and activist Wael Abbas wrote on Facebook.
Still, the government took no chances. There was stepped up security in Cairo ahead of the anniversary, with a new wave of arrests and security checks downtown, where cafes and art galleries are popular with pro-democracy activists.
Security forces were deployed at police stations, security offices and other vital installations. Riot police backed by armored vehicles stood ready around Tahrir Square and outside the nearby Nile-side headquarters of state television. Streets leading to key government buildings were sealed off.
El-Sissi’s government has curbed freedoms and allowed the nation’s police force to return to some of their Mubarak-era practices, including torture, random arrests and, more recently, forced disappearances.
A recently elected parliament, packed with el-Sissi supporters, is unlikely to challenge his policies. For his part, el-Sissi has been struggling to revive the economy and contain a burgeoning insurgency by Islamic militants whose attacks have become much more frequent and deadly since Morsi was ousted.
In weekend speeches, he vowed a firm response to any unrest and also lavishly praised the police. In an emotional ceremony Saturday, he posthumously awarded medals to nearly 40 policemen killed by militants. On Sunday, he paid tribute to the 2011 uprising and the nearly 900 protesters killed in the revolt. Egyptians under his rule, he boasted, were building a “modern” state that upholds democracy and freedom. Policemen charged with killing protesters were mostly acquitted after long trials.
Egypt officially observed a double holiday on Monday: Revolution Day, to mark the 2011 uprising, and Police Day.
In Tahrir Square, about 50 el-Sissi supporters handed out candy and flowers to passers-by and members of the security forces. Policemen reciprocated in identical scenes elsewhere in Cairo and Alexandria – gestures that belie the force’s reputation for heavy handedness.
The secular April 6 Youth Movement said it would not take to the streets but urged followers to wear mourning black.
Mohamad ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and one of the uprising’s spiritual fathers, sent an innocuous message on his Twitter account to the youths behind the uprising, saying the “country is proud of you and indebted to you.”
“Be confident that the Revolution will triumph, because you’re the future and because no force can prevail over the force of right,” tweeted ElBaradei, who left to live in self-imposed exile abroad just weeks after Morsi’s ouster.
In an interview published Monday, Egypt’s best-known secular prisoner, blogger and activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, spoke of his despair, saying he regretted not leaving the country when he could have in 2013.
“When I am free, which is not any time soon at all, I want to travel abroad, away from our region and … any other place in which I may be distracted by conflict,” said Abdel-Fattah, who is serving a five-year sentence for violating a law that effectively bans street demonstrations.
Another icon of the uprising, Wael Ghoneim, urged others not to be discouraged.
“The January Revolution will only be defeated when everyone falls silent,” he said, addressing activists. “Don’t despair. Don’t be silent. Your words are a revolution.”
Equally determined was Ahmed Imam, another veteran of the uprising. Despite the frustration many “revolutionaries” feel, he said, 2011 had irreversibly changed Egypt.
“We used to talk about football and sex. Now we are deeply engaged in political debates all the time. This is something that no repression can change,” he said.