In 2009, President Hosni Mubarak declared January 25 a holiday celebrating Egypt’s police forces.
In 2009, President Hosni Mubarak declared January 25 a holiday celebrating Egypt’s police forces. On that day in 2011, a long-festering discontent with Mubarak erupted into widespread protest. Tens of thousands of people gathered in Cairo and other Egyptian cities to protest the regime’s rule, governmental corruption, and rampant police brutality. The unrest that grew in the following days was pivotal in the outcry that would lead to the Egyptian Revolution and the eventual overthrow of Mubarak’s 30-year rule.
Last year, Egyptian authorities took extensive precautions to prevent unrest in the lead up to the anniversary. The current Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, is keenly aware of the potential for civil disruption on the symbolic date, and judging by reports, Egyptian security forces are planning mass arrests. Eight years on, Egypt faces the same difficulties that existed before the revolution, and their repercussions have been on the forefront of Egyptian politics throughout 2018.
The revolution of 2011 sprang from years of dissatisfaction with Egypt’s leadership, and a generation of activists with the means to express their rage turned it into outright dissent. Using social media, they denounced the corruption, nepotism, and brutality of a repressive regime. Bloggers documented the country’s social and political malaise, with a medium that provided a freedom of expression unavailable through traditional media.
The seeds of revolution had been sown long before the events of January 25. Critics of Mubarak’s main grievance was the lack of democracy in the Egyptian political system. Mubarak, acting under the terms of a “state of emergency” in place since 1981, had significant power to alter the constitution and set the conditions for national elections. He had run unopposed in five elections up to 2005, with voters having a mere “yes/no” choice on the ballot.
The abuses of the police force were of particular concern to activists. Multiple instances of police brutality involving the use of torture as a routine procedure in the investigation of crime were highlighted in a 2009 US embassy report. According to the report, inmates detained for relatively minor crimes faced torture at the hands of their jailers. Female prisoners especially faced sexual violence during their interrogations and while in prison. Further reports of unwarranted and accidental killings by police during regular operations cemented a general perception of a ruthless police force bent on acting above the law.
It was appropriate, therefore, that the protests occurred on the day set aside for honoring Egypt’s police. Organizers relied on social media to spread word of the protests and to encourage people to join in. On January 25, demonstrations erupted throughout Egypt. Protesters, declaring it a “day of rage,” gathered on the streets of Cairo and marched to the offices of the ruling party, ultimately coming together in Tahrir Square.
Initially, police had difficulty containing the growing crowds, but by the morning of January 26, they had managed to drive the protesters back towards Tahrir Square, using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse them. Street skirmishes continued on the following days, resulting in police and civilian casualties. At various points, internet users reported disruptions to network services, ostensibly an attempt by authorities to prevent further coordination through social media.
What began on January 25 grew in strength. By February 11, Mubarak had announced his resignation as president of Egypt. The initial fervor and optimism of the revolution was short lived, however, giving way, in the months that followed, to the difficult reality of structuring a new political system. The election of Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi as Egypt’s first democratically elected president in 2012 was soon met with opposition from large sections of society, many of whom harbored justifiable fears regarding his commitment to enshrining Islamic law in the constitution.
Morsi granted himself extensive executive powers over the judicial system in November 2012, including immunity from prosecution for his actions as president.
Morsi granted himself extensive executive powers over the judicial system in November 2012, including immunity from prosecution for his actions as president. This last move caused widespread, violent protests that escalated over the following months and eventually led to his forceful deposition, through a military coup, by al-Sisi in June 2013. Only two months later, during clashes at another protest in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, in what became known as the Rabaa Massacre, al-Sisi’s security forces fired on Morsi supporters, killing over 800 people. On July 28, 2018, Cairo’s Criminal Court sentenced 75 people to death for various crimes alleged to have taken place during the course of the protest in Rabaa Square.
The issues that Egypt has faced pre- and post-revolution—the tension between secular and Islamist politics, governmental corruption, and the repression of dissenting voices—continue to be relevant today. Egypt finds itself starting 2019 in a situation that is uncomfortably similar to its position before the Revolution and Mubarak’s downfall. Its leadership before, during, and after the revolution has consistently failed to provide a fair and democratic system for its citizens.
Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Egyptian authorities have allegedly been using counterterrorism and state of emergency laws to silence opposition. The report quotes Michael Page, deputy Middle East, and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, as saying: “There’s simply not much room left to peacefully challenge the government without being detained and unfairly prosecuted as a ‘terrorist.’”
In January and February of 2018, just before the presidential elections, authorities carried out a series of arrests of suspected political dissidents. The elections that followed took place in an environment described by HRW as lacking “the minimum requirements for free and fair elections.” It appears that the avenues for peaceful opposition that existed for Egypt’s citizens at the outset of protests against Mubarak are being eroded today. In order to create and sustain a fair, democratic system, the suppression of dissenting political opinions must be ceased.
Many of the problems that spurred protesters into action in January 2011 have seen little progress towards resolution. The police force remains as violent and untouchable as it was under Mubarak, and has been increasingly used to suppress burgeoning dissent. In a September 2017 report, Human Rights Watch outlined the use of torture by security forces on political dissidents.
Those arrested may be kept in temporary detention for up to two years, and have little recourse to obtain justice for the torture and abuse performed on them during their time imprisoned. The violence perpetrated by security forces was one of the major concerns of the protesters in 2011. Until a concerted effort is made to combat both the political suppression and the egregious abuses of human rights carried out by police, Egyptian society will suffer from injustice.
The protesters and activists who sparked the revolution strove for civil liberties for Egyptian society, and to give a voice to its citizens.
The protesters and activists who sparked the revolution strove for civil liberties for Egyptian society, and to give a voice to its citizens. This year’s anniversary of Revolution Day will mark eight years since the fateful events in Tahrir Square, yet many of the problems that existed under Mubarak’s rule have yet to be resolved. Egypt still has a long way to go. Real change will only come with freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of press.