‘The regime is becoming more violent by the day’: five years after Tahrir Square uprising

There is a marked security presence in Cairo ahead of the fifth anniversary of the 2011 revolution. Photo: Farid Farid Central security forces patrolling downtown Cairo last week. Photo: Farid Farid

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, shake hands with children at the Presidential Palace in Cairo, Egypt on Thursday. Jinping is on a two-day visit to the country. Photo: Handout/AP

Cairo: At Revolution Cafe, a stone’s throw from Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, there’s an air of unease five years after the revolution .

The cafe owner closes the door and peers through a small opening , afraid of the governor doing a routine check of unlicensed cafes with seats and tables outside ahead of January 25.

Ahmed, 28, who declined to give his last name, has been working for nearly a year at the cafe named after another revolt, the late nineteenth century rebellion which sought to rid Egypt of its colonial rulers.

“I lived the whole of the revolution in Tahrir Square”, he says matter-of-factly. “I was working in Mashrabia cafe, this is where I’ve grown up most of my life, it’s now turned, unfortunately, into a travel agency”.

Ahmed, also worked in the popular Borsa thoroughfare in downtown Cairo, when more than 70 cafes sprang up after the revolution, bustling with protesters, brightly coloured plastic chairs, , pedestrians and plenty of flat screen TVs.

Borsa is now a desolate district. “If you killed somebody there, nobody would know.” Ahmed quips.

In an effort to transform Cairo’s downtown, authorities have closed the many cafes in the thoroughfare effectively stifling large groups of revolutionary youth from meeting there.

“They’ve cut the rizk [income] of a lot of people, but they were forced to,” he added.

In the lead up to the fifth anniversary of the 2011 revolution, Cairo has witnessed a marked security presence with central security forces in SUVs patrolling the streets and plainclothes police officers stopping citizens randomly. Authorities raided more than 5000 apartments in the downtown area checking their owners’ social media accounts for seditious activity.

“We have witnessed major retrenchments in the gains made over the last five years, from access to public spaces to the ability to hold people in power accountable” said Dina Makram-Ebeid, an anthropologist at Humboldt University in Berlin who tracks Egypt’s active labour movement. “The regime is becoming more violent by the day.”

Since January 25 2011, when millions of Egyptians poured out onto the streets demanding the removal of Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic regime, the military has taken over, Mohamed Morsi was elected president then ousted a year later by his own defence minister, and now the minister turned President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has firmly sought to quash any hints of another uprising with mixed results.

Since Sisi’s ascent to power, Egypt’s jails have been bursting at the seams with more than 41,000 political prisoners of Islamist and secular hues held, police brutality has vigorously returned with impunity and media freedoms have been thoroughly muzzled.

Egypt is second only to China in the number of journalists jailed, notoriously imprisoning Australian journalist Peter Greste​ for a year on charges of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood. Newsrooms, art galleries, publishing houses have all been raided in the past month and a long list of academics, activists and journalists have been prevented from entering or leaving the country.

Omar Hazek​, 30, a poet from Alexandria who spent nearly two years in prison for protesting against an assembly law, was detained last week at Cairo airport. He was due to receive a freedom of expression award at The Hague from PEN International when authorities stopped him from boarding his flight.

“I had an inkling that something might happen but maybe on the way back from my speaking tour” Hazek said. He had been publishing regularly in major Egyptian newspapers about the atrocious conditions that he witnessed in jail, since his release in September 2015 through a presidential pardon.

“One of the police officers asked me if I wrote poems that mock certain national figures. I said no, then they took my mobile, laptop, camera and I realised I am now being fully detained”.

Hazek was released after a few hours of questioning and one of the first people who called to check on him was Taher Mokhtar, who offered Hazek his downtown Cairo apartment before heading back to Alexandria.

Hazek declined but he later found out that Mokhtar, a physician advocating for prisoners’ health rights, was detained. Prosecutors accused him of being involved in violent clashes after the revolution.

“Participating in the January 25 revolution has become a crime” Hazek told Fairfax Media. .

“Unfortunately events after 30 June 2013 protests – which I participated in against Morsi – have completely contradicted the values of 25 January revolution. It can be seen whether it’s through the state repressing people on the streets, jails filling up with peaceful activists, the stifling of press freedoms and opinions on social media,” he said.

For Shady Sedky​, 27, one of the creative founders and administrators behind Asa7be Sarcasm Society, one of the largest satirical pages on Facebook in the Arabic language boasting over 11 million fans, there are many editorial red lines that he takes into consideration along with a team of 50 whose job is to make fun of all things Egyptian.

Asa7be creates viral memes that lampoon the political and social events of the day from rambunctious TV personalities to a raucous parliament that made a return to Egyptian political life after it was dissolved over three years ago. The page has also regularly made fun of Sisi.

“During this latest period, when we first did the memes of him there was stringent opposition to any form of political satire. Now people have understood the political landscape a bit more – there’s less sensitivity now” he explained.

However, Sedky is attuned to how fatigue for his young demographic has set in from all the talk of politics. The young entrepreneur, like many of Egypt’s youth, has focused on building his career and is less focused on the initial aims of the revolution that was captured in the rallying cry as bread, freedom and social justice.

“Sarcasm is now our bread and butter – we have never called for protests but what we are trying to do is to make fun of the events behind the news” he muses. “We had ambitions with the revolution and then gradually with the disappointment under the Supreme Council of Armed Forces rule we turned our energies towards political satire”.

Last week, the Egyptian interior ministry arrested two administrators who managed 47 Facebook pages which, they noted, were used to incite mass protests and were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood – designated as a terrorist group in December 2013.

Social media was seen as an important driver in the mobilisation of youth on the streets, with nearly 33 million Egyptians now online. According to Sedky, though, the regime is still uneasy in dealing with a frustrated youth segment venting its anger online.

“You don’t know if the regime accepts satire in such a way. The scene is unclear and we don’t know what the truth is anymore”, he said.

Yet, he is insistent that Asa7be will continue with its controversial brand of trenchant political critique wrapped up in shareable memes.

“We are part of the people, just because your criticise actions doesn’t mean you are automatically part of the opposition” he added. “You are trying to smash idols so you don’t turn him [Sisi] into a new Mubarak”.

With a tanking economy, ailing tourism sector and rife corruption, Egypt’s endemic problems that triggered the revolution back in 2011 are still at play according to Makram-Ebeid.

“The current regime is in serious shortage of finances to maintain these politics. It does not have the same leverage over the economy as Mubarak did and the only alternative it proposes is an intensive militarisation of economic life,” she said..

As Ahmed wraps up another late night shift at the cafe, he is not worried about the heavily securitised presence ahead of next week’s anniversary. He is more concerned with his economic livelihood that is being hit hard.

“Everyone is suffering. One day you are working, the next day you are not, this is the problem of this country.”

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