25 Jan 2013

Egypt: what has changed for Tahrir Square’s protesters?

On 25 January 2011 Tahrir Square became the focal point for a public outpouring of anger against the rule of Hosni Mubarak. As violence breaks out in Egypt again, Channel 4 News asks what has changed?

Egyptian riots in 2011 and 2013 (picture: Reuters)

Two years on and Egypt has a democratically elected president and the beginnings of a constitution. However, it also has an economy in freefall and a beleaguered president who has been accused of making dictatorial moves to consolidate his power.

Thousands have once again taken to the streets of Cairo and Egypt’s other cities in protest (see video, below). Violence has erupted, with missiles, from stones to petrol bombs, being thrown by the crowds, and the police using teargas. Egypt’s interior ministry has said at least 61 civilians and 32 members of the police force have been injured.

But why do people in Egypt still feel the need to protest?

“The anniversary is a moment to take stock of whether you are better off or not,” says Heba Moyaref, Egypt director at Human Rights Watch. “When you look at the issue of social justice there really hasn’t been any change. There has been no structural change, no legislative reform.

“25 January has become for some a rallying point of opposition to President Mursi and serves as an opportunity to send him a message that he hasn’t done enough.”

Mohammed Mursi (pictured, below) came to power in July 2012 on the promise of “bread, freedom and social justice” – but it in these areas that some feel he has failed to deliver.

Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi (picture: Reuters)


Providing bread for the masses is more of a headache to the Egyptians than one might at first think.

Firstly, the Egyptian economy is struggling. The instability created by the Arab Spring across the Middle East and north Africa led to a drying-up of foreign capital flows into the region. Coupled with this is the fact that Egypt’s economy is heavily based on tourism – which was also decimated by the turmoil in the country.

The government is in the process of acquiring a £3bn loan from the IMF which will come with a number of austerity restrictions, such as duties on alcohol and cigarettes. The IMF, which agreed the loan in November, announced earlier this month that it was reviewing Egypt’s budget before progressing further.

Secondly, Egypt has historically subsidised food and fuel. These subsidies are going to have to come down, which will lead to an inevitable increase in prices.

What has changed is there is much more space for criticsm and protest. Heba Moyaref, Human Rights Watch

“Things aren’t going to stabilise until the country stabilises,” says Gita Subrahmanyam, a north Africa expert from the London School of Economics and a consultant to the African Development Bank. She says as food prices rise across the planet, Egypt will suffer further.

“Egypt imports most of its food and even though they have fuel reserves they are still a net importer of fuel.”

“People feel they have just removed an under-performing leader and they want someone who is responsive. Part of listening to the people is to have government fund programmes that are going to benefit poor people. As far as this government is concerned, social subsides continue to benifit from the non-poor.”


The obvious freedom that has emerged post Mubarak is the sense that people can protest against the ills they see in society. This led to protests in November and December last year when Mursi gave himself powers which effectively put him above the law, and also against the constitution which was being drafted in secret.

The emergence of political opposition has led to an increase in protest with opposition leaders such as Mohamed El Baradei, who tweeted on Thursday urging people into the streets to “complete the objectives of the revolution” encouraging people to make themselves heard.

Ms Morayef said: “What has changed is there is much more space for criticsm and protest, as well as more space for political parties. That space is not safe, but it has meant that people can mobilise much more freely.”

However, she predicted that this will mean an increase in violent clashes. She said that on one side you have an unreformed police force which is inclined to resort to its former tactics of brute force, being met by a public which is more ready to respond with violence of its own.

There is a continuing sense of impunity for the security and armed forces – Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International

And though there is a sense that people are more free to express their protest, Ms Morayef also raises concerns that freedom of expression is in fact worse under Mursi than it was under Egypt’s dictator Mubarak.

“You might say that we can see eveybody criticising Mursi in the media, and that this is a positive sign,” she said. “That is not how I would measure freedom of expression.

“What we have seen is a surge of prosecutions against journalists and unprecedented instances of the presidency pushing for those prosecutuions itself. If those journalists are prosecuted they will be going to jail.

“This would happen under Mubarak from time to time but not the amount we are seeing now. A related problem is an increase in the number of blasphemy prosecutions,. These are extremely worrying and specific to the post Mubarak era.”

Protestors in Tahrir Square on the second anniversary of the Egyptian uprising (picture: Retuers)

Social Justice

One of the key issues at the centre of the current protests (pictured in Tahrir Square, above), however, is directly related to the actions of security forces during the original 25 January uprising.

More than 800 people died in the clashes over an 18-day period, and there is a feeling, Amnesty International researcher Diana Eltahawy says, that the security forces still retain immunity from prosecution for any human rights violations.

“People are protesting because the aspirations of two years ago have yet to be realised,” she told Channel 4 News from Cairo. “The fact that every single official who has been elected has pledged to change things, to hold people accountable for human rights violations, and has yet to fulfil these promises.

“There is a continuing sense of impunity for the security and armed forces.”

She said that most cases that have made it to court have ended in acquittals, and that one of the reasons for this is that investigations are often be conducted by members of the security forces into “their own buddies”.

“(The lack of perceived justice) is a very significant,” she said. “There are slogans being put up now calling for ‘justice for the martyrs’. And it is not just those killed in the 25 Jan protests, it is also the 120 who have died since.”

“But one thing has changed, people have come to realise that they won’t be going back to the 30 years of Mubarak rule. They know they have the power to continue protesting, to continue reacting to negative events.”