The most powerful example of people’s power among all the “Arab Spring” uprisings will observe its fourth anniversary on Jan. 25, 2015, still officially proclaimed Revolution Day since the fall of dictator Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 2011.
But for those commemorating the thousands who shed blood in the name of democracy and freedom, there is very little of the Revolution to celebrate.
“Today, my comrades are either dead, in prison, in exile or laying low,” Ahmed Salah, co-founder of the prominent dissident group Kefaya, told me somewhat somberly.
Salah himself was dragged to jail from Tahrir Square in the early hours of Jan. 26, 2011 but released from the Cairo court house with dozens of others on Jan. 28 in the ensuing confusion and command breakdown among the besieged police.
Returning to the protests, he was then shot in the head the next day on Jan. 29.
His example is symbolic of the frenetic pace and devoted commitment of so many thousands who accomplished the unthinkable during those ever-so brief 18-day rebellion.
Then, exactly one year after being shot, Salah barely escaped the country after the interim rulers of the country, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, issued dangerous threats against him.
He still carries in his skull, fragments of the U.S. made rubber-coated steel bullet and faces charges of treason if he returns from political exile in the United States.
Nonetheless, despite these and other personal examples of very serious repression that no one expects to end anytime soon, Salah says many radical observers see the social base of former top army boss President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government eventually eroding, partly because of the deteriorating economic situation and partly because of rivalries and tensions within the regime itself.
Economy, From Bad to Worse
According to Middle East Institute data, the government cut petroleum subsidies this past year by 30 billion Egyptian pounds just as they also hiked consumer energy costs. This two-pronged blow resulted in enormous hardships for the Egyptian people.
Gasoline prices rose 78 percent, diesel prices 64 percent, fuel oil prices 40-130 percent and natural gas prices for industrial users 12-75 percent. In addition, there was across the board electricity price increases for both households and commercial sectors.
“Complete despair is infecting the population,” Salah tells me. “It is becoming really, really so hard. Many times you say it is the worst we have seen in the country but then it gets worse again.”
Aside from these hardships potentially triggering a social explosion from below, there are other problems for the military government brewing from the top.
There is an uneasy alliance of convenience between the generals and the entrenched economic power brokers of the Mubarak-era, who desperately want to launch a comeback to directly run the government themselves.
The discredited and despised cronies of Mubarak include his notoriously corrupt son, Gamal. The whole cabal is characterized disparagingly as the “deep state.”
These stale leftovers got a big boost when charges were dropped a few months ago against their former chaperone, Hosni Mubarak, for ordering murderous police attacks on peaceful protestors in the 2011 rebellion.
But the generals are not about to rollover and recede into the background. Too much has transpired. A very dramatic indication that the military is determined to stay in power is that shortly after their July 2013 coup against the elected Muslim Brotherhood Mohamed Morsi government, al-Sisi stacked the 25 available provincial governorship positions with 17 generals.
While it’s true the army normally preferred to stay backstage during previous decades of political repression, they put everything on the table to depose Morsi. They are not going to risk being held accountable for their murderous and criminal acts by a government not under their direct control.
Indeed, the military has a lot of blood on their hands as any genuinely democratic government would certainly agree.
While it is not likely that the rulers would allow a political breech among themselves to widen too far, these desperate times require activists to look for the slightest political weakness in the ruling sector which can, along with mounting economic frustrations, possibly create some political space for democracy activists to again safely take to the streets.
However, at the moment and into the foreseeable future, there is no doubt that the military regime is in firm control.
Military Solidifies Control
According to legal specialists from four reputable institutions interviewed by the British Guardian newspaper, Egypt is enacting authoritarian laws at a rate unmatched by any regime in 60 years.
For example, in Nov. 2013, the government essentially issued a ban on protests. The law requires police approval for all demonstrations and gives police the power to withhold approval in the interests of national security.
Police violence is also a huge issue.
A June 2014 Human Rights Watch report noted the post-July 2013 coup era has included the “worst incident of mass unlawful killings in Egypt’s recent history” and that “judicial authorities have handed down unprecedented large-scale death sentences and security forces have carried out mass arrests and torture.”
Government officials concede to 22,000 detainees since the coup but critics like Salah believe the actual number is double this figure.
Worse, it’s possible prisoners will remain in jail indefinitely without trial because in Sept. 2013, the pre-trial detention limit for those accused of crimes punishable by life sentences was removed – technically allowing for detainees to be remanded in perpetuity without trials.
Human rights advocates also accuse the regime of stoking exaggerated fears of Muslim Brotherhood terrorism to justify repressive laws which are then applied against all forms of dissent.
Clearly, there is tighter police oversight of democracy activists, human rights groups and journalists. And, very significantly, the several thousand worksite labor protests that have occurred in each of the last few years are now becoming increasingly targeted for police attacks.
Political Repression Boosts Economic Privilege
Already controlling around one-third of the economy, repression provides the military’s top officers ample opportunity to further solidify their economic privileges and they have acted swiftly and quite unilaterally to do just that, particularly since there still is no overview, with parliamentary elections not scheduled until March, 2015.
For example, a Tender law was issued in September 2013. It allows government ministers to award contracts to companies without public input. In the months after the decree, the army was awarded building contracts worth about $1 billion, a portion of which will undoubtedly line the pockets of elite officers.
Another decree issued in April 2014, precludes any appeals of these government-awarded contracts. Thus, along with violent suppression of human rights, there is plenty of corruption reminiscent of the Mubarak years.
Yet, Salah advises his comrades at home, “we must remain calm, wait our time, be safe and avoid confrontations” until the worsening economy and regime blunders open some political space for activists to once again appeal to the revolutionary and democratic aspirations of the people who so bravely made history only a few short years ago.
In the meantime, while the vast unpopularity of the deposed Muslim Brotherhood government still resonates so deeply and while the constant media drumbeat against Muslim Brotherhood-related terrorism still remains so effective, the people’s attention is being diverted from the brutality, theft and plunder taking place in their name.
Carl Finamore began reporting from Egypt in the first hours after Mubarak fell in 2011. His last visit was in 2013. He is Machinist Local 1781 delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org