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Egypt on Edge as Protest Anniversary Nears

FILE - Supporters of Egypt's army and police gather at Tahrir square in Cairo, on the third anniversary of Egypt's uprising, Jan. 25, 2014. The government, wary of new protests, has tightened security in Cairo.
FILE - Supporters of Egypt's army and police gather at Tahrir square in Cairo, on the third anniversary of Egypt's uprising, Jan. 25, 2014. The government, wary of new protests, has tightened security in Cairo.

With the approaching fifth anniversary of the January 25 uprising against Egypt’s then-president, Hosni Mubarak, security is being tightened here as authorities warn the public against staging protests.

While large-scale rallies are unlikely for Monday, even small opposition gatherings could lead to arrests and civil unrest, says Ziad Akl, a senior researcher at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies here.

"The revolutionary forces or political forces or social movements — they are not really interested in taking to the street on that day,” he said. “And there are a lot of reasons behind that."

Among these reasons are "preemptive measures" taken by the government, such as imprisoning political dissidents, banning public protests and cracking down on opposition speech. In recent weeks, thousands of homes and two cultural institutions reportedly have been raided and Internet activists jailed.

Before it was taken down, one Facebook page called "we’ll bring down autocracy on Jan. 25" reportedly had 50,000 people signed up for updates.

Demonstrations anticipated

While most former activists are expected to stay home, some supporters of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood and the families of political prisoners are expected to take to the streets, despite the obvious danger, said Akl.

Small rallies may pass peacefully, but any large marches or protests are likely to attract police or anger from the public. Many Egyptians blame the protesters in 2011 for unleashing the chaos of the past five years, saying they ruined the country’s economy and threatened its security.

Supporters of Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi praise the current government for the relative calm in the past two years. They say it hasn’t had enough time to fix the economy, which nearly flat-lined in 2011.

The people behind social movements — like some of the pro-democracy groups that participated in the uprising — have not entirely given up but are wary of acting publicly, Akl added. "Because of the political changes over the past couple of years, the tactics of social movements and political revolutionary forces have changed a lot and those new tactics are more cautious and covert."

Authorities on edge

In recent weeks, Egypt's politicians and religious leaders have in near unison warned the public not to take part in demonstrations. "Why do some people call for a new revolution on the 25th of January?" Sissi asked in a speech last month. "Do they want to destroy this country?"

In Egyptian mosques last week, imams preached individualized versions of a sermon designed by Islamic leaders in Cairo.

"The idea was to just be patient and not to provoke," said Hamada Elrasam, a VOA reporter who attended one of the services, describing the speech. "And being safe is better than any other thing."

In 2011 and then again in 2013, when President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted, massive public protests were the catalyst for the toppling of public leaders. The 2011 uprising followed more than three decades of dictatorship and exploded on January 25, a national holiday celebrated under Mubarak that honors the Egyptian police force.

Protests took place across the country but were centered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where hundreds of thousands of people shouted for the fall of the regime along with "freedom, bread and social justice."

Aside from Mubarak’s departure from office, that call was never answered. Egypt is poorer and more insecure, and its government continues to punish political dissidents, especially ahead of the anniversary, according to Akl.

Current protesters in Tunisia have expressed similar complaints and Egyptian authorities are eyeing the unrest in Tunis with caution. The 2011 uprising in Egypt was inspired in part by Tunisian protesters, forcing then-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to step down.

Waning enthusiasm

Over the past five years, many youth activists in Egypt have also become disenchanted with politics, after participating in two uprisings and ending up with a government that is notably similar to the pre-2011 regime.

"Democracy will never be available in our Arab world," said Nubian Mohamed, a 34-year-old former activist who protested against both Mubarak and Morsi. Like many young Egyptians, he now believes that while many of the protesters intended to install a democracy, the success of the protests was due to military support. Another revolution, he said, would therefore be pointless, he said.

Egypt’s current government, led by a former defense minister, is often viewed as de facto military leadership.

"So this time for sure they will not [lend] support," he added.