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5 Years After Protests Began Against Mubarak, Where Does Egypt Stand?


Let's mark an important anniversary. Five years ago, protesters filled an open space in Cairo, Tahrir Square. It became the center of the protests that soon ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Five eventful years have followed with a democratic election won by a president from the Muslim Brotherhood, whose victory was undone by the military. Egypt is back where it started with a military-dominated government. Rabab El-Mahdi is following on all of this. She is a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. Welcome to the program.


INSKEEP: How, if at all, are people marking this anniversary?

EL-MAHDI: They're not, actually because the military regime occupied Tahrir Square a few days ago, banning any kind of celebrations. They've been barging into homes in downtown to make sure that there are no preparations for celebrating the revolution. So people are not marking it in any meaningful way.

INSKEEP: Is the attitude of the military that this revolution of five years ago - which the military at the time ultimately participated in - that it was a wrong turn, that the last five years were a mistake?

EL-MAHDI: I think it was a mistake for them. They considered it a mistake from day one. They have not participated. They were forced to just sometimes stand and watch how it will unfold. But at no point were they enthusiastic about it. Now that they are back at the top of the regime, they have every opportunity and all the means to try to undo everything that had happened over the past five years.

INSKEEP: So granting that there's no public commemoration on the streets, what does it feel like to reach this milestone?

EL-MAHDI: It's frustrating. It's a little depressive because so many people have participated. So many people have lost their lives over the past five years to move this country into a better place. This has not happened so far. But there are steps that were taken that neither the military government nor the counter-revolution forces inside or outside Egypt can take them away. The fact that people feel that they are part of this country, that they can bring about change, is something that you cannot undo. And when they're not happy with that regime, the idea is always on their minds.

INSKEEP: You know, the prosecution of reporters is just one of the many stories that has reached the United States over the last few years. How open is public debate right now?

EL-MAHDI: It's absolutely not open. In addition to the clamming (ph) down on journalists, we have tens of thousands of detainees - political detainees. Anyone from wearing a T-shirt condemning torture to expressing their views on TV or on university campuses can and will be detained. This is the most repressive moment that we have seen in the past 40 years in Egypt.

INSKEEP: But you're saying that there is this sense, this feeling among the people, that they still do have the power within themselves if they find a way to exercise it. Is that right?

EL-MAHDI: Absolutely. But this has to be in line with the presence of political alternatives that people can rally around. At this moment, we don't have those democratic political alternatives.

INSKEEP: So let me ask about one other thing. There was this revolution. There was a democratic election. It was won by a president from the Muslim Brotherhood who was widely criticized. And when the military finally did shove him out, it was seen that many pro-Western elites in Egypt, if you will, actually favored that move, that they were OK with it. Do the elites in Egypt feel that democracy failed?

EL-MAHDI: I think it's not that democracy failed. I think that they made wrong tactical choices. Those wrong tactical choices have to do with the fact that they are not strong enough to provide an alternative outside the military and outside the Muslim Brotherhood, both of which represent anti-democratic projects.

INSKEEP: Rabab El-Mahdi is a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. Thank you very much.

EL-MAHDI: You're so most welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.