It wasn’t just the Interior Ministry, the Endowments Ministry and other state entities putting a damper on revolutionary sentiment in Cairo on Monday. Even the wet, cold and dismal weather seemed to mock the idea of an Arab Spring.
With the exception of brave and solitary stands like the one-woman march by Sanaa Seif — the younger sister of imprisoned activist Alaa Abd El Fattah and herself a former political prisoner — political gatherings in downtown Cairo were limited to small groups of pro-regime demonstrators.
In some regards, this is nothing new. If January 25, 2011 marked a pivotal moment in which an unstoppable wave of protesters crashed their way into Tahrir Square — the literal and metaphorical heart of Cairo — the years since have seen the flow of protesters diminish to a trickle, pushed ever further into the peripheries.
Tahrir was still contested space in 2012 and 2013, the years when Egypt was governed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohamed Morsi.
On January 25, 2012, tens of thousands of protesters — liberals and Islamists alike — gathered in the square to protest against the ruling generals. By 2013, when Morsi was in power, downtown Cairo witnessed deadly clashes between supporters and opponents of his administration. In both years, large demonstrations were also held in cities like Alexandria, Suez and Port Said.
Since 2014, Tahrir Square has been the site of “festive” pro-regime gatherings that use January 25 as an occasion to celebrate the overthrow of Morsi and the consolidation of power under freshly elected President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
In 2014, opposition demonstrations were unable to reach Tahrir — they were limited to other downtown locations, like Ramses Street, or stuck across the Nile to Mostafa Mahmoud in Mohandiseen. Marches trying to reach the square were blocked.
Opposition demonstrations were pushed even further to the periphery in 2015, to areas like Haram in Giza and Matareya in Cairo, although dozens of protesters attempted to march from the downtown Journalists Syndicate to Tahrir.
This year, the few demonstrations that occurred were so small, so short-lived and so far from the center of the city that it’s nearly impossible to confirm they even happened. State media confirms that a small protest was held in Matareya and quickly dispersed, and a protest in the Giza district of Omraneya was captured by the privately owned Youm7 newspaper.
Ikhwanweb, the Muslim Brotherhood’s online mouthpiece, claims that “hundreds of thousands” protested across Egypt. As proof, it posted tightly cropped photos in which no obvious landmarks or clear evidence of the wet and rainy weather could be seen. In the photos — labeled with locations like Fayoum, Mohandiseen, Monufiya and Maadi — demonstrators hold aloft signs supporting Morsi or commemorating the massacre of demonstrators in Rabea al-Adaweya Square.
Small and ephemeral as they were, these protests are a sign of fierce determination in the face of weeks of a harsh crackdown against any whisper of dissent. Continuing a tactic already witnessed in 2014, administrators of Facebook pages were jailed ahead of the anniversary.
The government also locked up secular activists, shuttered cultural spaces and conducted arbitrary searches on thousands of apartments downtown.
Since 2011, January 25 has had a split identity: it is both the anniversary of the revolution, and the day reserved to celebrate and commemorate the police. This year, in no small part due to extraordinarily repressive measures, the balance of power on the day — and in the physical heart of the city — was firmly tilted in favor of the security forces.