Tahrir Square, the cradle of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, is almost unrecognizable today. It looks like one of the countless traffic circles in Cairo, one which has been turned into an open-air construction site.
A yellow fence shields the works in progress from the eyes of passers-by. Through a small opening, one can see dozens of workers bent down, working under the supervision of engineers and site managers. “They are building an obelisk in the traffic circle,” says Ahmed (not his real name, for safety reasons), one of the many young Egyptians who took part as a student in the protests in Tahrir Square nine years ago.
It is not a coincidence that the construction works are taking place at the same time as the anniversary of the Revolution on Jan. 25, 2011. The square is full of soldiers supervising the works, which serves to put to rest any notion of organizing a protest. Trucks and tractors are driving back and forth from the work site as traffic is directed towards the side streets.
The men of the Mukhabarat, the Egyptian secret service, are clearly recognizable, many of them wearing black leather jackets. They are scrutinizing every pedestrian and car that passes by, assisted by the dozens of cameras that are monitoring the entire area. Taking photos is not allowed, but a young Egyptian man dares to set up a reflex camera on a tripod. After a few quick shots, he has to run away and vanishes into the heavy traffic. Any group of people that is seen as threatening to the authorities will be stopped and arrested.
Every form of public protest is forbidden. However, the memory of the revolutionary days is still alive: “We used this KFC as a hospital, we were helping the wounded,” says Ahmed, pointing to the Venetian blinds on the windows of the American fast food restaurant that overlooks the square. He remembers those days very well, when there were thousands of wounded (about 6,000 in total) and the number of martyrs (as the victims of the Egyptian Arab Spring are called here), according to official data, is at least 846.
Despite everything that has happened since, these sacrifices were not in vain, Ahmed tells us: “The most important result of those days is that now, whoever is in power is afraid of the people,” he says with a bit of regret. Perhaps this is why General al-Sisi’s repressive measures have reached incredible levels of severity, effectively eliminating the possibility of any form of dissent whatsoever.
The sidewalks of the square have been recently refurbished, and the color of the concrete is still very light. “In the days after the saura [the Revolution], hundreds of us came to repair the sidewalks,” Ahmed continues, praising the civic spirit of the demonstrators. The pavement stones had been broken into pieces and thrown at the police during the clashes.
Compared to nine years ago, the situation has not changed. Thousands have been arrested, including activists, journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders. In 2019, more than 2,300 arrests were made from Sept. 20 to Oct. 3 alone. According to Amnesty, this may culminate in one of the largest Egyptian criminal proceedings for events connected to street demonstrations.
The freezing of funds and unexpected travel bans are increasingly widespread. One public figure who has denounced the restrictive measures she has suffered is the Egyptian journalist Rana Mamdouh, in a long article in Mada Masr, the independent newspaper for which she works. The newspaper’s editorial office was raided by security agents, ending with the brief arrests of Rana, director Lina Attalah and journalist Mohamed Hamama, who were released after a few hours.
A few days earlier, Rana had been prevented from boarding a flight to Jordan, where she was supposed to attend a conference on investigative journalism. She asked for explanations and was told that she had been put on the no-fly list by the Egyptian National Security Agency. When she asked why, she was simply told, “You are a journalist, you must have done something.”
In 2019, Egypt, along with China, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, was one of the countries with the highest number of journalists arrested, according to data from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ): “Most of the journalists jailed in Egypt are grouped in mass trials and charged with both terror offenses and false news,” a CPJ report says.
The repression is justified by al-Sisi through stirring up the specter of Islamic terrorism and the risk of an internal civil war, as happened in Syria and Libya.
But this is not just a question of freedom and denied rights. According to the latest World Bank data, “some 60 percent of Egypt’s population is either poor or vulnerable,” and youth unemployment is still around 33 percent. Economic inequalities continue to increase, and the wealth resulting from the constant growth of the country’s GDP has not been redistributed equitably to the general population, which is being crushed by the neoliberal policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund.
The only positive note is the minimum wage, set at 2,000 Egyptian lira (€115), enough for one to be able to survive, although barely. On the other hand, “coming here to the square to protest is almost impossible, especially on Jan. 25: you are stopped and you risk immediate arrest,” Ahmed concludes. This year, it was a silent anniversary, shrouded in terror.
Meanwhile, in Europe, four years after the events, we are still demanding justice for Giulio Regeni, who was another victim of a violent and undemocratic military regime, just like Ahmed and the other young Egyptians.