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5 years since uprising, Egyptian opposition demoralized by crackdown

It's been a tumultuous five years since Egyptians took to the street in mass protest. Now Egyptians are marking a somber and tense anniversary of a day that led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the election and then military-led removal of Mohamed Morsi and the subsequent rise of the current president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Hari Sreenivasan talks with special correspondent Nick Schifrin.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Five years ago today, Egyptians took to the streets in protest against the government of Hosni Mubarak. Eighteen days later, Mubarak was gone, a landmark of what became known as the Arab Spring.

    But these five years on have been tumultuous and difficult in Egypt, with a presidential election in 2012 that brought Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood to power, and the military-led removal and imprisonment of Morsi in 2013, and the subsequent election of the general who unseated Morsi, the current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.

    Egyptians today are marking a somber and tense anniversary.

    For more, we turn to Hari Sreenivasan.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Joining me now is NewsHour special correspondent Nick Schifrin in Cairo.

    Nick, you have reported from the region multiple times over the past few years. Here are you on this anniversary. What did you see today?

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Yes, Hari, we saw an absolute crackdown in what usually is one of the world's busiest cities, an extraordinary amount of police guarding stations, guarding government buildings, but also guarding anywhere where demonstrators might actually come together.

    And we saw that especially in Tahrir Square this afternoon. We were there for a little while, met a few hundred people. The only people allowed in Tahrir Square today were pro-Sissi demonstrators. And we spoke to them. And a few of them told me that they believe only President Sissi could defend this country against terrorism.

    And where was the opposition? Well, take a look at this. This is 21-year-old Sanaa Seif. She's a prominent activist. And, today, she walked alone, just her. Her jacket says "The Revolution Continues."

    But, Hari, the revolution didn't continue today. The opposition was too scared to come out on the streets. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has officially been called a terrorist organization, has really been — cracked down. And so, today, at least on the streets, there was zero opposition to President Sissi.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Now, you point out that there's two different factions that oppose Sissi, the young people that were calling for a revolution five years ago and the Muslim Brotherhood. What's happened to them over the years?

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Well, Hari, what is amazing about the revolution from five years ago is that those two groups were together. There was so much hope and such a feeling that a cross-current of Egypt were going to come together and really depose Mubarak.

    It was secular activists. It was more conservative religious Muslim Brotherhood. It was even members of the government. And what has happened is that this crackdown that this government has really undergone has taken away not only that hope, but also the feeling that all of those groups are combined.

    And just to give you a sense of how big the crackdown is, there are now 40,000 prisoners, political prisoners, in Egyptian jails. And just in the last 10 days, there were 5,000 raids in Cairo. These are raids that lead to arrests or perhaps just some pointed questions. But that is a raid every two minutes in Cairo. That sends a very direct signal.

    And that is why we saw no opposition on the street. And that is why one opposition activist put it this way. There might be freedom of speech in Egypt, but there is no freedom after speech. And many activists right now are saying that this government is the same kind of government they risked their lives to escape five years ago.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, so besides that indirect message through those crackdowns, what is the government saying?

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    It is important to know that President Sissi came out yesterday and praised the revolution of five years ago, but he praised even more what he called the fix to that revolution, namely the military coup that brought him to power. And he defends a lot of these security crackdowns as the only way to defend Egypt against the insurgency, especially groups that are affiliated with ISIS right now.

    But the crackdown in the last couple weeks was in the very neighborhoods where the opposition is used to using as their real base, and that is downtown Cairo. And that's why we see an opposition that is so demoralized and wary.

    And those are feelings that you really see across this country. Hari, there have been eight elections here in the last four-and-a-half years. The turnout of the last one was 28 percent. There is a tiredness. There is a real fraction among the opposition. And that means that, even if there were protests right now in Egypt, there is simply no organized alternative to this government.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, NewsHour special correspondent Nick Schifrin joining us from Cairo tonight, thanks so much.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Thanks, Hari.

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