By Alessandra Bajec
This Saturday, thousands took to Egypt’s streets to mark the anniversary of the 25 January 2011 uprising that led to the ouster of former President Mubarak. Against a backdrop of fireworks, chants, helicopters hovering over Cairo, as much as killings, arrests and detention of dissenting voices.
While small pro-army crowds scattered around Cairo’s downtown marked an early start of celebrations on Friday, other groups joined Saturday’s rallies with different motives from people supporting Al-Sisi to those opposing the army, to others standing against both.
Just days before, Minister of Interior Ibrahim was calling for mass gatherings in public squares, vowing to strike with all force any attempts to disturb the celebrations amidst plans by the Muslim Brotherhood to hold protests on the same day. On the eve of the anniversary, a wave of bomb blasts targeting police hit Cairo. 25 January saw another explosion and deadly clashes across the country.
This year’s anniversary came a week after Egypt’s referendum on the new constitution –which passed with an overwhelming Yes- and only months before two elections as per transitional roadmap. It also followed a very proving year for the country that went through more unrest last summer, after the military’s removal of President Morsi.
So what does this third anniversary mean to Egyptians?
Three years on, Egyptians put up with a regime ready to crack down on dissent, whether that comes from the officially labelled “terrorist group’’ or from the liberals and secularists who were the driving force behind the 2011 revolution. The very people who toppled Mubarak now see a return of autocracy. The revolution they believed would take power didn’t. Instead, people were betrayed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) first, the Brotherhood next, and then fell into the military’s arms.
The army has become the “shield” of the nation. “The army and the people are one hand’’, said a taxi driver, a popular statement that resounds from many Egyptians these days. As people are waiting for the stability that they’ve been promised, the military and the government are doing their best to win their sympathy back by force. Whoever stands against the ruler is oppressed. Thousands of Brotherhood supporters and liberal activists have been arrested and detained in the past months. A Mubarak styled regime is coming back.
The Amnesty report released a few days ago stated that the demands of the 25 January Revolution for dignity and human rights seem further away than ever.
HRW’s 2013 report, issued last week, criticised Egypt, citing killings, torture and abuse by security forces, military trials, sectarian violence, violations of freedom of expression, women’s rights, and refugee and migrant rights as causes of concern.
To Kareem, bookseller, the anniversary means nothing and participation won’t make any difference. He expected more activists than ordinary people to turn up for the celebrations. For him, nothing has changed as the army still rules the lives of Egyptians today, and their demands yet haven’t been satisfied. Kareem thinks the majority today don’t care who will be the next president, as long as he’s not affiliated with the Brotherhood, they just want calm. He admitted that Egyptians don’t know what democracy means, and are unlikely to get any in the near future. “It’s not about the revolution’’, he hinted.
Similarly, Mariam, secretary, doesn’t think there’s a revolution to celebrate as nothing has been achieved since 2011. She’s one of many others who decided to stay home. In her view, the military-backed interim government pushed for mass participation on the anniversary to gain popular endorsement, and show it’s committed to democracy. Like the hype around the referendum over a week ago, Miriam recalled, when Egyptians were told to go and vote Yes. “What’s democratic about that?’’ she prompted.
For those who decided to hit the streets, this year’s anniversary carries a different meaning.
Hend, photographer opposed to the current regime, covers protests at Al-Azhar University. She emphasised that the Anti-Coup Alliance stands against both the military and the old regime with its corrupted figures. Hend also noted that the alliance is determined to continue its fight until the whole military apparatus falls.
An Al-Azhar spokeswoman for the Anti-Coup student movement, Sarah, promised the Egyptian people will regain the “soul of the revolution’’, and won’t leave the streets until their demands are met. “We want our democracy and dignity back,’’ she said. Sarah was hopeful that other political groups would join the Anti-Coup movement to re-unite Egyptians against the government.
An elder standing by the Tahrir entrance stressed he joined the anniversary to celebrate the 25 January Revolution, to express support for Al-Sisi, and to back the army’s mission to protect the country. He insisted Egypt is united, noting the opposition is represented by a minor percentage of the society, mainly Brotherhood partisans disliked by the majority.
Down the street from the festive atmosphere, a young woman wearing the Egyptian flag was happy to celebrate, encouraging Al-Sisi to run for president. While admitting the 2011 demands still haven’t been met, she was convinced everything would work out.
Liberal political groups like the Wafd Party, Free Egyptians Party and Tamarod – the group that initiated the protests that led to Morsi’s overthrow – had called for Egyptians to join festivities in Tahrir Square.
The Way of the Revolution Front, an anti-military and anti-Brotherhood coalition of political groups like the Revolutionary Socialists, the liberal 6 April Youth Movement and the Strong Egypt Party, also held demonstrations along with other independent activists. The group, however, called off rallies following clashes with security forces. In an earlier statement, the coalition had said it would protest to “reclaim’’ the spirit and ideals of the 2011 revolution.
The Anti-Coup Alliance, comprising the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups opposed to the ouster of President Morsi, staged nationwide protests to reverse what it describes as a coup. The group released a statement last week calling for unity.
Several other parties had opted out or showed reservations about Saturday’s participation, fearing that gatherings would lead to bloody clashes. Among them, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP), the party led by interim Prime Minister El-Beblawi, the Salafi Nour Party and the liberal Constitution Party, founded by El-Baradei.
In a polarised Egypt that faced turbulent transition over the past three years, the anniversary had a three-way commemoration. Pro-government celebrations cheered for the army, secular protests opposed to the military and the Muslim Brotherhood clashed with supporters of General Al-Sisi, with pro-Morsi demos violently dispersed by security forces.
What’s changed from 2011? Don’t Egyptians hold the same aspirations today?
The “bread, freedom and justice” key slogan of 2011 uprising is not heard on the streets like before. Yet, none of those demands has been delivered until now. Salaries are still low, there’s no justice, little rights for all, security is not there, the economy is worsening.
Left disillusioned and less involved than in 2011, Egyptians appear as though they just smelled “freedom” and “democracy” without tasting what that really means. They have lower expectations today.
Egyptians seem driven by hearts more than minds; they get carried away to blind, uncritical love or hatred towards one side over the other, and prone to major opinion shifts.
The older liberal, nationalist elite, writers, artists and cultural figures who were part of 25 January 2011 clearly stand on the side of the army now.
While the mantra “stability” is buzzing around tons of Egyptians ahead of upcoming elections, few are ready to admit their country is far away from the democratic path. Post-25 January, people have turned more aware, yes, though they’re not the ones who determine the state of things for their society. The military establishment does for them. If anything should be learned from the past three years is that Egypt still desperately needs the three things chanted back in 2011 (“bread, freedom and justice”).
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist based in Cairo. Between 2010 and 2011, she lived in Palestine. Her articles have appeared in the European Journalism Centre’s magazine, The Majalla and The Progressive among others. She can be followed on Twitter at @AlessandraBajec