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For Egyptians, uprising's success a matter of perspective 5 years on

| Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, 11:09 p.m.
A protester stands in front of a burning barricade during a demonstration in Cairo on Jan. 28, 2011.
A protester holds an Egyptian flag as he stands in front of water cannons during clashes in Cairo on Jan. 28, 2011.
Photo courtesy of Dana Smillie
Media publisher and rights activist Hisham Kassem said security forces consider the anniversary of Egypt's revolution to be an opportunity. “They are telling Sisi, ‘You need us. We are going to make sure those kids don’t (protest).’

CAIRO — Egyptians are weighing the success or failure of their revolution — one that toppled a dictator, replaced him with an Islamist, then turned back to a military man — as its fifth anniversary nears.

The 18-day uprising, which forced Hosni Mubarak from the presidency he had held for nearly 30 years, began Jan. 25, 2011. Mohamed Morsy of the Islam-based Muslim Brotherhood won election to the office in 2012. A year later, his push for Islamist rule and his inability to stabilize the country provoked huge protests and led to his ouster by an army chief, Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi .

Sisi retired from the army and was elected president in 2014 on a wave of popular support for the military and hope that he would restore normalcy.

Yet increasing terrorism and a stalled economy have diminished his popularity, leaving many here to wonder about the future.

Similar uncertainty is felt in Western capitals and across the Middle East because of Egypt's strategic importance.

Despite cool relations with the Obama administration, Egypt remains a key ally of the United States and regional powers such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, especially as the threat of Islamist radicalism expands.

As the most populous Arab nation, Egypt remains a regional leader in cultural, military and political realms.

Unsure about unrest

No one knows what to expect on this anniversary.

But officials aren't risking a repeat of 2011's unrest — during which more than 800 people were killed and more than 6,000 injured — or even that of last year's anniversary, which resulted in at least 16 deaths.

Security forces have issued a high alert, canceled officers' vacations and raided homes of suspected political activists near Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the Jan. 25 Revolution.

They have arrested scores of political activists and Islamists who called for protests and will mobilize in public squares and at government institutions to block demonstrators.

“Egyptian security is purposely acting like a madman so that people don't even contemplate mass protests,” journalist and political analyst Wael Eskander wrote in a social media post. “But that's a stupid idea because no one wants to go out in the first place.”

Media publisher and rights activist Hisham Kassem said security forces consider the anniversary — which is Police Day, a national holiday — to be an opportunity. “They are telling Sisi, ‘You need us. We are going to make sure those kids don't (protest).'

“On Jan. 26, they will be claiming that they have suppressed all the demonstrations. They will make a few stupid false arrests, like they are doing now.”

Many Egyptians, however, don't expect violence to erupt.

“I don't think people will take to the streets,” said Big Pharaoh, a popular political blogger. “The activists who started the Jan. 25 Revolution are battered … so tired, so weary. They have been banished, and they are not capable now of doing anything.”

Those political liberals and leftists “will remain out of the picture for some time,” he said.

In hiding, in disarray

The Muslim Brotherhood, which lost control of parliament when Morsy fell, has called for protests.

A pro-Brotherhood group, Students Against the Coup, is trying to rally “all honorable patriots who really want to reclaim their homeland from the traitorous junta.”

Yet Brotherhood leaders and many of their followers have been in hiding since the group was outlawed upon Morsy's ouster. Thousands of others were imprisoned, and more than 1,000 were killed during pro-Morsy protests in 2013.

Most analysts say the Brotherhood — once the largest, most potent political force here — is divided between advocates of violence and those calling for peaceful protest.

“Whether they are trying to reach out to the secular or Islamist activists, nobody cares to protest anymore,” said Mohamad Soliman, a political writer for Tahrir Newspaper.

He and other analysts say most Egyptians are desperate for terrorism to be quashed, for normal life to return — and, most of all, for the economy to return to its pre-revolution levels or improve dramatically.

Even if security forces permit anniversary rallies in Tahrir Square, “the Brothers don't have the numbers,” said Kassem, the publisher. “They can burn cars, wreak havoc, etc., but nothing that would make the military deploy and get rid of the president,” as it did when millions rose against Mubarak in 2011 and Morsy in 2013.

He and others expect small Brotherhood protests in rural provinces and poor sections of Cairo, where the Islamists still have supporters.

Best, worst days

For those who spent 18 days in Tahrir Square to bring down Mubarak in 2011, that time of working with people of different classes and religious sects remains special.

“It was the best 18 days of my life,” Soliman, the political writer, says wistfully.

Yet some see the jailing of activists and the rising power of security services as a betrayal, or proof that the revolution failed to create a new order.

“Definitely, the revolution failed,” blogger Big Pharaoh said. “Some people think it is wrong to call it a revolution because nothing changed. … (They) call it a revolt or upheaval.”

The nation's economy has nosedived; tourism, which employs many Egyptians, still struggles because of growing terrorism.

On Friday, an Islamic State affiliate took credit for a bomb that killed seven police officers and three civilians near the pyramids in Giza, a Cairo suburb. A half-dozen tourists have been injured in knife attacks in the past two weeks.

“In the middle, lower-middle and among the poor, the revolution means a destructive economic situation that harms their income and destroys their social stability,” Soliman explained. “The revolution became equated with a miserable life for a lot of Egyptians.”

‘Swarm of mosquitoes'

The revolution might have failed to reform government, Soliman said, but “as a force for social change, no, that didn't fail. There has been a political and social awakening, and it is really hard to take this back.

“Politics has become part of everyday Egypt.”

Kassem agreed.

“Jan. 25th changed the course in Egypt permanently. These people who are saying that the revolution failed — it is total nonsense. We have an ex-president who is a convicted thief. And another president who has been charged with treason.”

Mubarak recently was convicted of spending presidential palace funds on his family's villas; Morsy awaits execution for various crimes committed during and after the revolution.

“The lessons have been learned,” Kassem said. “If you are the president of Egypt, don't steal because you will be hunted down. Look at Mubarak. … The second lesson is from Morsy: when the masses go out, beat it, scat.”

He believes support for Sisi remains high — “not as high as it was a year ago, but still, say ‘revolution' and see how people react.

“The main problem with the country is that the security services run everything,” he said. “It is much worse now because it is the rule of 100 rats. … This is a collapsed autocracy, and the strong man who had all the security services under his control, who didn't allow them to breathe without him — Mubarak — is gone.”

Security officials “turned renegade” during the “lapse between Mubarak stepping down and Sisi coming to power. … So in lots of cases, they take decisions on their own,” he said.

To rein them in “would be like fighting a swarm of mosquitoes, (and) Sisi can't do that.”

“I am someone who had no illusions that overnight we would become a Scandinavian democracy,” Kassem said, recalling a moment of wild hope five years ago when most Egyptians believed everything was about to change.

In his opinion, “It will take a long time.”

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at

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