The fifth anniversary of Egypt’s failed democratic revolution came and went this week, without mass protests or visible signs of popular upheaval. There was, however, one unmistakable sign that the symbolically charged date was approaching: Security forces had gone into overdrive in the days and weeks leading up to the anniversary, intensifying a crackdown that reveals the one truth that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi would prefer to keep quiet: Although the revolution has been effectively crushed, el-Sisi, it seems, is afraid.
Five years after the uprising, the best Egyptians can do is try to find lessons from the tumult that backfired so badly, dashing the hopes of pro-democracy activists, Islamic parties and everyday Egyptians who were more interested in seeing their daily lives improve than in the philosophical or political ideologies underpinning a new leadership. But if democracy, rule of law and prosperity remain vanishingly elusive, at least the lessons are not hard to find.
On Jan. 25, 2011, idealistic Egyptians took to the streets, congregating in central Cairo’s Tahrir Square with a goal that would have seemed inconceivable only days earlier, but which suddenly looked within reach: They aimed to topple Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled for three decades, and replace the country’s autocratic system with a genuine democracy. The world was gripped by the drama, exhilarated by what seemed like the beginning of a political fairy tale. Egyptians were trying to replicate what had taken place in neighboring Tunisia, where street protests had already brought down another entrenched unelected ruler. With Tunisia’s revolutionary euphoria gathering momentum in Egypt, the astonishing events began to look like a wave that might sweep clear across the politically ossified Middle East.