Co-opting January 25

“Take care when you are demanding your rights, take care, don’t lead us astray with you.” This was part of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s message to Egyptians earlier this week as he spoke before police officers to mark Police Day, a date which coincides with Egypt’s 2011 uprising.  “Nobody is against human rights…but today Egypt is in an exceptional condition,” he added.

Many people were expecting more change over four years than actually occurred. The winter of 2011 saw nationwide protests that led to the end of Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year rule. Shortly after, his National Democratic Party was officially dissolved.

The 2011 uprising stands for different things to the various, diverse people and groups in Egypt, so marking the anniversary has always been a point of contention. Each year arguments over whether to commemorate the anniversary through protest or celebration have dominated the lead-up to the date. Last year thousands of Sisi supporters flooded Tahrir Square while police confronted protesters kilometers away, leaving forty-nine dead.

However this year is unique. While January 25 remains a divisive issue, there have been no loud calls to protest—with the exception of the Brotherhood’s persistent calls that have continued unabated since the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi. Crowds heeding these calls to protest are as unlikely as celebrations, with the military expected to block entry to the same square that served as the epicenter for the uprising.

Sisi’s regime finds itself at odds with January 25. Throughout the past four years Egyptian courts have not held anyone accountable for the killing of protesters during those eighteen days, including Hosni Mubarak and his interior minister Habib al-Adly. Meanwhile the judiciary is currently in the process of trying 129 defendants, predominantly Islamist figures among them Morsi, for the Wadi Natroun prison break that occurred during the uprising. The case alleges they conspired with foreign groups in order to “destroy the Egyptian state and its institutions.”

Although the January 25 uprising was in large part fueled by anger at police brutality, the police’s grip on the country continues to intensify. State security units said to have been shut down in the wake of the uprising have since been reinstated. According to independent daily, Al Watan, during the first ten and a half months of 2014, around ninety detainees died while in police custody in Cairo and Giza alone, with credible evidence from several rights groups that torture in police stations continues. Last October, the Ministry of Interior announced it had arrested approximately 16,000 people since Morsi’s ouster, while by some independent estimates, the figure could be more than double that. Reporters without Borders said Egypt ranked second globally for the most journalists arrested in 2014, and by years end, at least twelve remained in prison.

As Egypt’s “war on terror,” in response to near-daily terrorist attacks throughout the country, has taken priority, many have welcomed stability and security in exchange for any gains that came with Mubarak’s ouster. An anti-terror bill passed at the end of 2014 offers a vague definition of terrorist groups, and will likely be used to continue detaining dissidents who were not involved in acts of terrorism. The rise of terrorism and its conflation with peaceful political resistance has profoundly compromised any opportunity for a healthy political environment, and legislation has expanded the scope of military trials for civilians, especially as they apply to protesters.

So what did January 25 actually achieve? Democratization, personal freedoms, and security reform have not only failed to progress, but have reverted in many instances. January 25’s biggest achievement was simply that it happened. It was an organic, popular movement with a shared goal: the removal of Hosni Mubarak from power. Egyptians took to the streets in unprecedented numbers to make their demands. While the topic of January 25 has become a polarizing issue, the state knows that it cannot speak disdainfully about it, the way some of its supporters do (especially those in the media).

Instead, it’s safer coopting the uprising. January 25 was enshrined as a “revolution” in the constitution last year. Instead of pointing out conflicts between January 25 and the post-June 30 transition, the state has elected to claim that June 30 “corrected” January 25, drawing parallels between the huge numbers of demonstrators who protested in both cases. Last month Sisi announced plans to issue a decree criminalizing “insulting the January 25 and June 30 uprisings.” The government also has plans to unveil a larger monument in Tahrir Square, where it built a smaller one last year.

Reports indicate that Sisi’s presidency will mark January 25 this year by pardoning 584 prisoners, which will result in the release of a small fraction of activists and citizens arrested, tried, and sentenced for dissent. The April 6 Youth Movement said that key January 25 activists, including their founding leader Ahmed Maher, and prominent activists Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Douma, all serving sentences on charges of breaking the protest law, will not be among those pardoned.

January 25 will not be forgotten by either the people or the state. It will continue to be used by the government and various political factions, each claiming to work on behalf of the January 25 Revolution.

What happened four years ago may have failed in the minds of many who protested on that day, but it has shaped the dynamic between people and state. Drastic changes in Egypt, whether they happen sooner or later, will depend on whether or not mistakes surrounding January 25 are realized and corrected. The government must take it upon itself to examine what authorities did to push the masses to protest and political groups must in turn determine where they misstepped during the transition.

If the Egyptian government wants to avoid another January 25, co-opting it and employing repressive tactics is unsustainable. It needs to examine the country’s conditions leading up to 2011 and the root causes behind popular frustration. If the government neglects to make fundamental changes and preoccupies itself with running away from another possible January 25, it will find it more difficult to co-opt what may happen as a result.

Basil El-Dabh is an Egyptian American freelance journalist based in Cairo. He was a reporter and politics editor at Daily News Egypt

Image: Photo: Supporters of Egypt's army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hold a poster of Sisi in Tahrir square in Cairo, on the third anniversary of Egypt's uprising, January 25, 2014. (Reuters)