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In Five Years, the Anniversary of Egypt’s Revolution Turns into a Frightening Ghost

anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian revolution
Egyptian security forces intervene in a protest against Sisi’s military regime, on 7 March, 2014. Photo Anadolu Agency

On 22 December 2011, in preparation for the first anniversary of the popular revolution against President Hosni Mubarak that ended his 30-year rule, the daily newspaper al-Ahram carried the following headline on its front page: “A foiled plot to carry out acts of destruction and arson on the upcoming 25 January anniversary.” The private daily al-Shorouk carried the same story, circulated by the state-owned Middle East News Agency (MENA), with the headline, “Sovereign Agencies: A plot revealed to set the country on fire on 25 January and topple the state.”

During Mubarak’s long years in office, the obscure term “sovereign agencies” was used to refer to the president or to the General Intelligence Authority (Mukhabarat, in Arabic). With Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, commander of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), in charge, highly placed security sources were quoted by MENA as saying that “contacts monitored by security agencies revealed coordination between local elements, and foreign, outside parties to carry out a planned scenario on 25 January to trigger a new revolution whose only aim is to provoke bloody clashes with the armed forces.” According to the same security sources, the aim of the foiled “revolution” was “to spark a civil war between the population and the armed forces, in order to elicit international resolutions ordering the deployment of foreign troops to separate the people and the armed forces.”

Despite many ups and downs, including four presidents in five years, the anniversary of the 25 January revolution was never welcomed by the government—not by SCAF, not by Mohamed Morsi, the former president and the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and certainly not by the regime that took over after the army’s removal of Morsi on 3 July 2013. Activists who took part in the 18-day revolution against Mubarak and continue to defend it as one of the most significant events in the country’s modern history claim that marking its anniversary has become more difficult each year, with security agencies issuing dire warnings that no street protests be held.

Worse, opponents of that revolution now seem to have the upper hand, having tight control over the media, especially private television channels that have repeated constantly the same claims made by Mubarak supporters, dubbing the 25 January Revolution a “foreign plot” aimed at dividing Egypt and the Arab world and handing over power to the Muslim Brotherhood group.

Repression of Protesters Increases

There were no clashes between the army and the thousands of peaceful demonstrators who marked the first anniversary of the revolution, there were no fires, and no foreign forces were deployed to Egypt. In early 2012, however, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose power was gradually increasing, opposed street protests and said the task of meeting the demands of the revolution was then in the hands of the newly elected parliament, in which it had scored a sweeping victory.

With Morsi in office during the second anniversary of the revolution, there were few celebrations in the streets, but there were fires and clouds of tear gas as Brotherhood opponents clashed with police to protest Morsi’s policies and unilateral issuance of a Constitutional Declaration on 22 November 2012 that gave him absolute powers. Widespread popular protests against the Brotherhood on 30 June 2013 led the army to remove Morsi four days later.

With the increasing threat of terrorism, whether in Cairo or in Sinai, that followed Morsi’s ouster, a ban on all street protests became a priority for security agencies—in fact, they became almost religiously taboo—according to an edict issued by Mokhtar Gomaa, Minister of Endowments. A new Protest Law was approved in late 2013, imposing harsh penalties of up to five years in prison for those who take part in protests not authorized by the Interior Ministry. Those who insisted on their right to peaceful protest were charged with “serving Brotherhood interests” and failing to appreciate the serious dangers confronting the country’s security.

On 25 January 2014, riot police chased a few hundred protesters through downtown Cairo with armoured vehicles and tear gas, after they had gathered briefly in front of the Press Syndicate to mark the third anniversary of the revolution. Sayed Abdullah, a young member of the 6 April Movement, which played a key role in the revolution against Mubarak, was shot dead—by riot police, according to his friends and family.

There were no reporters close to the location where Abdullah was killed, and no police officers were charged. But this was not the case on 24 January 2015, when Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, a 30-year-old mother, was shot dead by a riot-police officer in Talaat Harb Square, in downtown Cairo. Many reporters and cameras were around to cover a small gathering in which Sabbagh was taking part with members of her Popular Socialist Alliance Party, to mark the anniversary of the revolution by placing flowers in Tahrir Square one day early, mainly in order to avoid charges that they were collaborating with the Brotherhood protesters who had announced planned violent demonstrations on that same day. An officer was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for the unlawful killing of Sabagh, and the case has been referred to the Court of Appeals.

The Brotherhood again called for demonstrations throughout Egypt, to mark the fifth anniversary of the 25 January Revolution, warning, according to official spokesman Mohamed Montasser, of “stunning surprises” to the “military-coup authorities” and President Abdel-Fatah Sisi. Most experts dismissed these as empty threats, especially since similar threats had been made in the past by Brotherhood leaders, with no resulting action on the ground.

Indeed, only a few very small protests materialized, not only because the Brotherhood threats were empty but also because of the continuing security crackdown, in which more members of the 6 April Movement and other youth figures were arrested, who might have considered planning protests on the fifth anniversary, apart from the Brotherhood supporters who are rounded up every day. The latest detainees included a doctor, Taher Mokhtar, and two friends who were charged with possession of leaflets calling for the overthrow of the regime. At least a dozen other young men were arrested and charged with joining an illegal organization, the 25 January Youth Movement.

While youth activists deny that such a “secret” organization existed, many find it ironic, and sad, that the fifth anniversary of the revolution, once celebrated in Egypt and around the world, has now been turned into a charge. The Minister of Endowments, Gomaa, only made things worse by issuing his edict that demonstrating in the streets was “against religion” because it harmed the interests of the public. Presenters of popular talk also attacked any attempt to mark the fifth anniversary, claiming that “the people in the street will beat you up with their shoes before you are confronted by the police,” according to Azmy Megahed on al-Assema Channel.

Hani Shukrallah, a prominent columnist, suggested that, because it seems clear that security agencies are clearly sensitive about that date, 25 January, a few changes might be made. He said that Egyptians could use a different name for the month of January in Arabic, perhaps Kanoun Awal, as it is known in Lebanon and Palestine. And, if the figure 25 hurts their ears, it could be treated like the number 13, which many people believe brings bad luck: in some elevators, there are only floors …12, 14, 15…and no 13. “We can fix the month of January and make it 32 days, in order to make no mention of the 25th,” he added in a comment on his Facebook page.

A young youth activist, who did not want his name mentioned for fear of arrest, said, “We are all laughing at this hysteria. We don’t need to protest on 25 January. It doesn’t have to be 25 January, or 11 February,” the day Mubarak announced his resignation from his long-held presidency five years earlier. “History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself in the same way,” he added.