January 25, 2011, was a transformative moment for Egypt. Thousands of protesters flooded the streets to call for the downfall of Hosni Mubarak's sclerotic regime, confronting the notorious security forces on National Police Day and sparking a mass uprising that reverberated around the world.
This year, January 25 brings with it a feeling of the revolution's undoing. A crude monument erected by the new military-backed government stands in the center of Tahrir Square — once the epicenter of autonomous mass mobilization, now a space controlled by the state and its security forces. Three protesters this week were sentenced to two years in prison for defacing the structure. The ruling barely registered in the news.
Since the military ouster of elected president Mohamed Morsi last July, followed by the brutal crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, the security establishment has emerged re-empowered, reinvigorated and out for revenge, cracking down on its opponents with unprecedented severity. Much of Egypt is awash in conformist state worship, fueled by the shrill narrative of a war on terror and the age-old autocratic logic that trades rights for the promise of security.
State and private media are dominated by pro-regime viewpoints, while dissenters are demonized. Public debate has been mostly shut down, and political discussion with strangers is once again a risky endeavor. Surveillance recordings of activists are leaked and aired on television, with presenters vilifying them as traitors. Hotline numbers for Egypt's security agencies run in scroll on the bottom of many TV broadcasts so that people can call and report suspicious activity. This is Egypt's own brand of McCarthyism.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been the primary target. Hundreds of members have been killed and thousands imprisoned. In December, the government declared the group a terrorist organization and froze the assets of more than 1,000 affiliated charities and organizations. Even so, Morsi's supporters have continued demonstrating on a near-daily basis throughout the country, risking beatings, imprisonment and death. Meanwhile, university campuses have emerged as the new front lines of dissent, with students protesting the crackdown and frequently clashing with police.
"Every Friday, no less than 500 to 600 get arrested," the interior minister said in a press conference earlier this month. "At the beginning, we used to wait for the demonstration to turn violent, but now we confront them once they congregate. When we confront them, there are some that run. But whoever we can grab, we detain."
The redoubled authoritarian measures have done little to bring stability. Bombings and shootings that target security forces have now become commonplace, with more than 250 police killed in the past few months.
On the morning before the third anniversary of the revolution, three bombings hit high-profile areas in Cairo, including a massive blast at the city’s police headquarters. Five people were killed and scores were injured. The Brotherhood quickly issued a statement condemning the bombings. Many suspected the involvement of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a Sinai-based militant group that has claimed responsibility for previous attacks.
At the site of the police headquarters, passersby stared in disbelief at the deep crater left by the car bomb. The facade of the building was mangled, with air-conditioning units dangling from shattered windows. The blast tore through nearby buildings, including the nineteenth-century Museum of Islamic Art.
Police ringed the area but did little to prevent people from approaching the site. Amid the broken glass and shredded concrete, a small crowd was chanting, changing the words of the iconic slogan that ignited the revolution in 2011, from "The people demand the fall of the regime" to "The people demand the execution of the Brotherhood."
Over the past few months, the crackdown has widened far beyond the Brotherhood, however, with the regime arresting prominent activists, scholars, journalists and public figures who dare to speak out. Egypt's jails are bursting with prisoners. Every day, new charges are levied at those who do not toe the official line, while a repressive new law bars ten or more people from gathering in public spaces without prior police approval. The judiciary and prosecution — which have tried Mubarak-regime figures at a glacial pace, often acquitting them — have become models of efficiency in jailing and sentencing opposition voices.
"The Egyptian authorities are using every resource at their disposal to quash dissent and trample on human rights," said Amnesty International in a damning new report published ahead of the third anniversary of the revolution. "Three years on, the demands of the '25 January Revolution' for dignity and human rights seem further away than ever. Several of its architects are behind bars and repression and impunity are the order of the day," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa deputy director.
In mid-January, the interim government held a constitutional referendum, Egypt's third in three years. The vote was hailed as an important step in conferring democratic legitimacy to the military-backed transition.
In Cairo's working-class district of Sayeda Zeinab, voters lined up outside an elementary school to cast their ballots. Helicopters roamed the skies while police and army soldiers manned the entrances. The pro-army pop song "Tislam al-Ayadi" (Blessed Are the Hands) blared from speakers set up nearby. Large banners, many of them sponsored by local businessmen, were strung between lampposts, all of them calling for a "Yes" vote.
The new constitution replaces the 2012 version pushed through by the Muslim Brotherhood. Many analysts have pointed to improvements in the amended national charter, including clear language on rights for women and children, as well as language reining in the role of religion. Yet the document also grants greater autonomy and independence to the military, police and judiciary — the three institutions that heavily backed last year's coup against Morsi.