Reporter’s Notebook: Tahrir Square, Five Years Later

January 25, 2016
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A supporter of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi paints the flag of Egypt and the first initials of President El-Sisi on her face in Tahrir Square while celebrating the fifth anniversary of the 2011 revolution. A supporter of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi paints the flag of Egypt and the first initials of President El-Sisi on her face in Tahrir Square while celebrating the fifth anniversary of the 2011 revolution. (Roger Anis, The Ground Truth Project)

CAIRO — Where Egyptian demonstrators locked arms five years ago in the iconic protests of Tahrir Square, there was today only indifferent Cairo traffic circling the plaza as security police in black uniforms handed out sweets to passersby.

Where a pungent mix of tear gas and hope once filled the air, there was instead an unsettling calm that descended like fog over the fifth anniversary of the start of the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak and reverberated across the region through a series of mass demonstrations that came to be known as the Arab Spring.

Five years later, Mubarak remains in custody, but so does the nation’s first democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsi, who the military removed from power in 2013 and replaced with General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. The few activists who still dare to speak out against the military regime are now either in prison, staying at home fearing arrest or living in exile abroad.

Among those who fled the country is Mohamed Abbas, a former member of the Revolutionary Youth Council, the Muslim Brotherhood’s youth wing. I first met Abbas in 2011 as part of a team that covered the historic events for FRONTLINE in the documentary The Brothers. On the night of Feb. 11, Abbas delivered an impassioned speech in Tahrir Square, leading hundreds of thousands in a thunderous chant calling for Mubarak to step down. By morning, Mubarak would give into demonstrators, announcing his resignation after 30 years in power. (Watch Below)

“It’s a sad day for those of us who really believed five years ago that we were on the edge of something big and hopeful, a new future for our country,” says Abbas, 30, who in 2013 fled to Qatar, where he now lives. “It’s sad to have to flee my own country, but there is nothing we can do. All of my friends who stayed have been locked up. The military and the police state is back in charge.”

The strange silence here comes after a crackdown on political opposition in the run up to today’s Police Day holiday, a national holiday in Egypt that coincides with the day that protesters chose to take to the streets five years ago. Over the course of that crackdown, Egyptian authorities searched thousands of apartments, seized online activists, arrested more than a dozen Facebook page administrators, shut down a popular art gallery and arrested hundreds perceived as political opponents.

Today, Egypt once again marked Police Day, but this time it was the police, not demonstrators, who were in charge of downtown Cairo, with armored vans and troops in riot gear sprinkled throughout Tahrir Square, along with plain clothes security officials openly carrying handguns and shouldering automatic rifles. There were no protests, just a handful of regime supporters waving Egyptian flags and holding placards supporting the police.

Five years ago, the landscape couldn’t have been more different. It seemed a time full of hope and a sense of a new beginning in the Middle East.

The messy process of an ancient country trying to transition to democracy yielded the first free and fair election in Egypt’s more than 3,000 years of history. The winner of that June 2012 vote was Morsi, a former leader in the Muslim Brotherhood. But after only one year in office, massive demonstrations erupted again, calling for Morsi to step down and for an end to what many critics saw as a creeping Islamist agenda and a weakening of the constitution and democratic institutions that reformists had hoped to put in place.

Within days, Morsi was detained by military officers and taken from the presidential palace to an undisclosed location. The move was widely derided as a coup, but in Washington, the Obama administration chose to avoid that phrase. To use the word “coup” would have meant that the United States, by law, would have to cut off the $1.3 billion in military aid that it provides to Egypt.

I returned with the FRONTLINE team in the days following Morsi’s arrest for a second documentary, Egypt in Crisis, as the military regime that protesters once sought to topple was expanding its power.

Abbas, who was 25 when he stood center stage in Tahrir Square, has had a long journey from the early days of revolution, one he insists is not over. He grew up in a poor family that supported the Muslim Brotherhood, and as the protest movement erupted, he joined the Revolutionary Youth Council, which included activists from secular, religious and political backgrounds that mobilized youth and organized the square.

Eventually Abbas became disillusioned with the Muslim Brotherhood and left the movement. He made a failed bid for parliament as an independent. When Morsi came to power, Abbas says he felt he betrayed the revolution as his government thwarted the constitution and – much like Mubarak — suppressed the opposition. Today, he takes the view of history on the events unfolding in Egypt.

“All big revolutions take time,” he says. “Look at the French Revolution, Ukraine, even the American Revolution. All of these successful revolutions unfolded slowly, and had set backs. It’s no different in Egypt.”

Abbas, who has recently married and started a recycling business in Qatar, says he will continue working for democracy. He says he believes the regime has “stress cracks,” that it will not last, and that he and other activists will return within two years to be part of the future of a more democratic Egypt.

Reached by telephone in Qatar, Abbas added, “What we have to think about is what we will do better. We have the knowledge now, clearer thinking. Justice and democracy. That’s why I first went to the square in 2011 and that’s still what I am hoping for, and will keep working for.”

Another person we met was Heba Morayef, who in 2011 was the director of research for Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Cairo. She had first been confronting abuses by Mubarak’s regime, then Morsi’s government, and now the military under El-Sisi. The focus of her recent work is documenting the brutal crackdown on protesters and the arrests of political opposition figures, far too often, she says, on trumped-up charges. After Morsi was removed from power, the military under El-Sisi began to target human rights and social justice groups that received international funding. HRW closed its Cairo office. Morayef left the country for five months, but returned in March 2015 and is now working as associate director for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

“It can be hard to keep going,” she says. “We were all introduced to hope and the possibility for change. And as human rights workers, we were able to work at the core of that change. But now we are pushed back to the periphery. So we just have to keep looking at how we can do our work in a way that is most productive.”

She says the recent crackdown by El-Sisi’s government is seen by many as a sign that the military is worried.

“It’s a recognition that they have reason to be afraid, that 2011 happened for a reason. And no matter how much they try to intimidate people into forgetting, that is not going away. Unless they can improve the economic situation and improve opportunity in the country, the anger of January 2011 will just resurface. I think they are remembering that today, and they’re scared other people are remembering it as well.”

Another voice in our reporting was Ahmed Maher, who is now serving time in Egypt’s notorious Tora prison for his activism. The sprawling prison complex on the outskirts of Cairo has housed an estimated 50,000 political prisoners who have been detained over the last five years. Morsi — who was sentenced to death by an Egyptian court in May 2015 and is now serving time on a litany of charges, including espionage and ordering the arrest and torture of demonstrators — is among the prisoners at Tora.

Maher, who is featured in the below scene from Revolution in Cairo, was the founder of the April 6th Youth Movement, a group that started in 2005 as a labor rights organization that found itself at the center of the pro-democracy protests, was sentenced to three years in Tora after a 2013 conviction on charges of “illegal assembly.” He is only permitted to have family visits, but they have released some of his letters which have called on the movement to focus on education.

“It is not through protest but through education that we can change,” he wrote in one of the letters.

We also interviewed Amr Hamzawy, a public intellectual and member of the Egyptian parliament who was an outspoken critic of Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood, and now El-Sisi. Hamzawy fled to the United States and is now a fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.

In a column in today’s editions of Al Shorouk, a leading, independent Egyptian newspaper, Hamzawi wrote in Arabic:

Despite all this, all the difficulties and setbacks and the denials by those who support the regime, Egypt before Jan. 25 is not like the one after. This change is not going to be deleted. There is a high possibility that the status quo will be long term: The regime will continue to oppress people and prevent them from participating in the public life. The Muslim Brotherhood will remain fragmented and suffer from more internal fights. The human rights defenders will keep searching for heroic roles. But then the real hero’s will rise from the people- the ones who were victims. The desire of change will return. It must return.

Charles M. Sennott, head of The GroundTruth Project at WGBH, was a FRONTLINE correspondent on two documentaries about the mass protests in Egypt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and the chaotic and violent aftermath of those events in 2013.

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