Dissent likely to be muted on Egyptian revolution's fifth anniversary

Getty Images

Monday is the fifth anniversary of Egypt's Jan. 25 revolution, but you'd be forgiven for not noticing. The government is waging the heaviest security crackdown in Egyptian history, and has so thoroughly suppressed dissent that little more than a few scattered protests are likely to mark the start of protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak from a three-decade presidency.

ADVERTISEMENT
The Interior Ministry has beefed up security at potential targets like the Suez Canal, and warned it would "not allow any faction to ruin Egyptian people's celebrations" on such a momentous day. The irony, of course, is that it's precisely those celebrations that the state seeks to stifle.

Last year, 16 people were killed on Jan. 25, including a leftist activist shot to death in broad daylight on a downtown Cairo street. This time, the government appears to be taking no chances that the revolution's anniversary will bring it similar negative press.

Police have detained the administrators of some 50 Facebook pages that they say are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Worse, they have mounted random checks of thousands of apartments in central Cairo, demanding to examine residents' social-media accounts for any sign of supporting protests.

Muslim religious authorities have also been enlisted in the campaign. The Religious Endowments Ministry, which supplies imams with weekly talking points and segments of scripture to quote, has denounced any rallies on the anniversary as a sin against God. Even art galleries have been closed on the pretext that activists like to gather there.

The latest crackdown is the culmination of two-and-a-half years of state marginalization of dissent since the military's ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. Since then, some 40,000 government opponents, Islamist and non-Islamist, have been jailed — some on the flimsiest of charges (a 19-year-old held for wearing an anti-government T-shirt has spent the last two years behind bars).

A 2013 anti-protest law issued by decree by interim President Adly Mansour bans demonstrations at government buildings, and prohibits all gatherings of more than 10 people without the consent of the Interior Ministry, which can decline the request without justification.

Similarly, anti-terrorism legislation decreed by his successor Abdel Fattah al-Sisi last year (and reaffirmed by Egypt's new parliament on Sunday) categorizes terrorism so broadly as to include any attempt to "disrupt general order" or "harm national unity." The law effectively extends the state of emergency in force under Mubarak — a three-decade-long limitation on freedoms that was one of the main grievances of protesters arrayed against him five years ago.

Ahead of next week's anniversary, an official from Egypt's Homeland Security Agency admitted that his office aims "to ensure activists don't have breathing space and are unable to gather." With remarkable candor, he added, "Some have been arrested in order to scare the rest."

And yet the government's main adversaries are already on the ropes. With its leaders and tens of thousands of its members in jail, the Muslim Brotherhood is a shadow of its former self, and a spokesman for its now-banned political party has admitted it is in no position to spark another uprising. The other main force behind the 2011 revolution, the April 6 youth movement, is similarly diminished: Two of its leaders have been imprisoned since 2013, the group itself was outlawed the following year, and, for good measure, last month four of its remaining activists were arrested.

Egypt's security challenges are real. An insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula has claimed hundreds of servicemen's lives — and most spectacularly and tragically, downed a Russian plane in October. Intermittent attacks on the mainland continue.

Likewise, the Muslim Brotherhood is an extremist, authoritarian and cultish organization with little to offer Egyptians seeking 21st-century governance and economics. Despite the current government's failings, it is difficult to argue that the Brotherhood would have offered a more liberal vision for Egypt's future.

And yet the surest way to drive Egyptians out on the street on Monday is to give them the impression that their government is on a path toward greater repression than even during the darkest days of the Mubarak era. For the millions of Egyptians who hit the streets on Jan. 25, 2011, there is no prospect more infuriating than that their revolution was all for naught.

Kessler is deputy director for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

More in International

In Egypt, the policies of 'stability' breed chaos

Read more »