Revolution a distant memory as Egypt escalates repression

Riot police in front of a mural in Cairo's Tahrir Square remembering those killed in the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak (19 November 2014) Image copyright Reuters

If you want to know what became of the revolution of 2011, which electrified Egypt and swept then-President Hosni Mubarak from power, you could talk to its leaders. Or try to. Some are in exile, and others in jail.

The award-winning liberal activist Asmaa Mahfouz is still at large, but far from free. She was recently banned from leaving the country.

"The regime is hostile towards the revolution," she says, "and is trying to erase it from history." Many here share that view.

Back in January 2011, Ms Mahfouz - then 26 years old - helped spark the uprising with a powerful video appeal.

"I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square, and I will stand alone," she said directly to the camera. "I will say no to corruption, no to this regime. Come with us and demand your rights." One week later many did, thronging the square and ultimately unseating Mubarak.

Almost four years on, she says the situation is far worse than during the three decades of his rule.

"When we protested under Mubarak we were beaten in the streets," Ms Mahfouz says. "Sometimes we were tortured. But now people are being killed, in the most brutal way."

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Media captionOrla Guerin reports: What became of Egypt's 2011 uprising?

"This is a regime that crushes anyone who opposes it or even thinks of opposing it."

We met Ms Mahfouz behind closed door at her parents' home. These days she and other revolutionaries are marginalised and often depicted in the Egyptian media as enemies of the state.

Mubarak's smile

When a Cairo court dropped criminal charges against Mubarak in connection with the killing of hundreds of protesters during the revolution in late November, the verdict was seen by many as a death sentence for the uprising.

The court refused to consider the case against the former military strongman because the charges were introduced late. Seven of his security officials were acquitted.

Amid cheering and jubilation in the courtroom, the normally grim-faced Mubarak allowed himself a smile, as well he might. Though the 86-year-old is still serving a three-year prison sentence for embezzlement - in a comfortable military hospital - his lawyer says he could soon be a free man.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Hosni Mubarak waved to supporters from a stretcher after being cleared of complicity in the killing protesters

Egypt's courts have so far failed to hold anyone responsible for the deaths of more than 800 protesters during the 18-day revolt. One local journalist suggested on Twitter that it would have to be chalked up to "mass suicide".

Within hours of Mubarak being cleared of complicity, angry crowds gave their own verdict on the streets. About 2,000 protesters gathered near Tahrir Square, the focus of the 2011 protests.

We saw a mixed group of liberals and Islamists chanting "the people want the end of the regime" - an anthem of the revolution. "It's just like 2011," one young man told me with a smile, "This is how it all began."

But, as he spoke, clouds of tear gas began to fill the warm night air. The security forces moved in with water cannon and fired birdshot, causing mayhem in downtown Cairo.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Protesters gathered in Tahrir Square to denounce the acquittal of the former president

We heard live rounds being fired as we ran for cover - when you report on demonstrations in Egypt you do a lot of running. In the chaos that night two protesters were killed, though it is unlikely anyone will ever be held to account.

New 'pharaoh'

Egypt's new leader, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, is using the playbook of the old regime. No surprise, perhaps, as he ran military intelligence for Hosni Mubarak.

It was he who ousted Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's first democratically-elected president.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Many Egyptians welcomed military chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi's overthrow of Mohammed Morsi

Mr Morsi's disastrous rule provoked mass protests in 2013. Mr Sisi, then the military's commander-in-chief, removed him in a coup - a word that still makes officials here bristle.

Mr Sisi's popularity soared and he was elected president in May this year. Some thought he would be "Mubarak-lite". The death toll here tells a different story.

Egypt's latest "pharaoh" speaks fondly of democracy while crushing dissent.

He has presided over a massive crackdown on the opposition. Human rights groups estimate that at least 1,400 demonstrators have been killed by security forces, and as many as 40,000 have been arrested - most of them Islamists. A security official has admitted to more than 20,000 being detained.

The Brotherhood is now banned, and labelled a terrorist group - though the authorities have provided little evidence.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has been portrayed as a struggle against "terrorism"

In stark contrast to how Hosni Mubarak and his old guard have fared in court, Islamists have been sentenced to hang - on an industrial scale.

About 1,400 men have been given provisional death sentences in mass trials - the latest just last week. They were convicted of taking part in deadly riots.

Those condemned to death include teenagers, the handicapped and the dead.

Charges 'invented'

These days, attending a peaceful protest - or even passing by one - can land you in jail.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Alaa Abdel-Fattah and his sister Sanaa Seif were allowed out of prison for their father's funeral in August

Under Egypt's draconian "protest law", gatherings of more than 10 people need permission from the authorities.

Several icons of the revolution are now behind bars for demonstrating. The prominent blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah is one of them.

"Every week they invent new charges against me," said the 33-year-old when we met in April. "The prosecutor keeps them in storage. Their intention is to send me to jail for a very long time."

Campaigning for change is a family affair. His sister Sanaa Seif, a 20-year-old student, is serving three years for protesting.

Their mother Laila Soueif, a veteran activist and mathematics professor, spends her time at court hearings and prison visits.

She says her son and daughter are safer in jail than on the streets, where police have shot dead so many.

Image caption Laila Soueif predicts another uprising will take place "in less than two years"

"Almost every Friday some young people are killed," says Mrs Soueif, in her book-filled Cairo apartment. "Almost every time there are demonstrations at universities, someone is killed or loses an eye, and worse than that we have a growing number of disappeared. Some appear after a few months, having been tortured."

Protesters - both secular and Islamist - are not the only ones in the firing line. Human rights groups are facing growing restrictions and the threat of imprisonment. A vague new amendment on foreign funding means staff could be sentenced to life.

The doors are still open at the offices of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) in a leafy Cairo suburb.

But this highly-respected campaign group - which managed to operate under Mubarak - says it may have to close within weeks. Some other organisations already have.

"They want to control the activities," says its director, Khaled Mansour. "Controlling funding is just an entry point for them to control our activities so they can come and say: 'You cannot work on torture, we are in war on terror,' or 'You cannot work on this because it will undermine public peace.'

"What is 'public peace'? They will never tell you. For them, public peace is public silence."

For this outspoken campaigner, the new Egypt is worse than the old one.

"Under Mubarak we had no hope of change," he says. "What is really bad is that in the last four years we had very high hopes and all of them were dashed. We wound up with more people in prison, more people being tortured, and more people detained."

'Restoring confidence'

Behind the massive blast walls at the interior ministry, we got the official response to allegations - from local and international human groups - of unprecedented repression by the state.

"The state is rebuilding itself and restoring the confidence of citizens, and has written a constitution that stresses many freedoms," says the Assistant Interior Minister for Human Rights, Gen Abu Bakr Abdul Karim. "If it's trying to be a police state, it wouldn't have done all this."

Image caption Police confront "violent" protesters according to the law, says Gen Abu Bakr Abdul Karim

In spite of the growing death toll on the streets, Gen Abdul Karim insists the security forces are gentler than those elsewhere.

"When the protesters are violent, the security forces confront them according to the law," he says. "And the police don't deal with them as violently as in some other countries we see on TV."

It is hardly a proud boast for a country that claims to be embracing democracy. But many Egyptians support the government's heavy hand. They hanker for stability more than freedom.

Do not expect Western governments to do much about the escalating authoritarianism in the Arab world's most populous nation.

Egypt's peace treaty with Israel makes it an indispensible ally for the United States. And with chaos in Libya, Syria and Iraq, it is viewed as a bulwark of stability in the region.

Activists hoped for a very different outcome when they converged on Tahrir Square in 2011. They wanted fundamental reform and an end to oppression.

Instead, many say, only the president has changed here, not the regime.

Asmaa Mahfouz says Egypt is undergoing a counter-revolution. As the mother of an infant daughter, she is looking ahead with fear.

"I am trying to remain calm, I am trying to be optimistic for her," she says. "But if we continue like this, we are heading towards darkness. They are trying to kill our dreams."

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