Egypt's Revolution Comes Full Circle

Life under Mubarak was no garden party, but Egyptians arguably have more to protest against today.

It all looks so familiar. Nearly four years after toppling Hosni Mubarak, crowds returned to Cairo on Saturday to protest the ex-president’s acquittal over causing 239 protesters’ deaths during the January 2011 revolution. With Mubarak’s successor Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi curtailing liberties to an extent Mubarak could only dream of, the grim conclusion is bare: Egypt has come full circle, only this time it’s worse.

Then as now, the mantra is the same: “The people want the downfall of the regime.” So too is the lexicon: water cannon, tear gas, Maspero and naturally, Tahrir. Admittedly, Saturday’s protest was minuscule compared to its predecessor: perhaps 2,000 people, compared to at least 300,000 four years prior. An estimated 85 arrests were made, instead of thousands last time around. And one person was killed, as opposed to at least 800 in 2011.

And yet this time, Egyptians arguably have more to protest about.

To be sure, the three decades under Mubarak were no garden party. Tens of thousands were detained under an emergency-law regime that had governed Egypt virtually uninterrupted from the country’s disastrous 1967 war with Israel (it was finally lifted after Mubarak’s resignation). Demonstrations and non-approved political movements were banned, torture was systematic and citizens imprisoned at the government’s whim. During the final years of Mubarak’s rule, authorities were estimated to be holding 5,000 to 10,000 people without charge.

But look at Egypt today. Over the last 16 months — since the army removed Mubarak’s elected Islamist successor Mohamed Morsi amid widespread unrest — the government has arrested at least 40,000 people. And although under Mubarak, the Egyptian press was tightly circumscribed, the Sisi government has cast its net over international media as well. Three Al Jazeera journalists, including the veteran Australian newsman Peter Greste, have been imprisoned for “spreading false information and supporting a terror group.” Already having been incarcerated for a year, he faces at least seven years more behind bars (Sisi has, however, dangled the possibility of an early pardon.) Three weeks ago the editor of the venerable French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique was detained in a Cairo cafe for daring to talk politics with local counterparts.

In the Sinai Peninsula — where an insurgency has raged since Mubarak’s ouster, and particularly since Morsi’s — the government has reinstituted the hated emergency law and applied a 5PM curfew. To curtail arms smuggling, the state has razed or evacuated a kilometer-wide swath of Rafah — a city straddling Sinai and the Gaza Strip. The promised compensation for evacuated families has been slow to nonexistent.