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Tahrir Square 10 years later: What happened to Egypt's revolution?

President El-Sisi: The interview Egypt didn't want aired
Egypt's President El-Sisi denies ordering massacre in interview his government later tried to block 13:41

Cairo — Exactly 10 years ago tens of thousands of Egyptians packed into Cairo's Tahrir Square to demand change. The military backed the popular uprising, and President Hosni Mubarak was forced out of power after 30 years.

The protesters were lauded as heroes, and there was a new feeling of hope in the country. Egyptians had seen that peaceful, mass-demonstration could bring about real change. Many believed the square in the heart of the capital was not just a symbol, but a tool; Tahrir Square will be always there, they thought. We all know the way to Tahrir. If we want change, we fill it again and change will come.

"It was a beautiful dream that turned into a nightmare. We were naïve back then and thought we could change the entire world," Shadi Al-Ghazali Harb, a surgeon and political activist, told CBS News ahead of the 10-year anniversary of the uprising. 

Day Of The Martyrs
Celebrations are seen off Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, Egypt, February 11, 2011, following the resignation - under huge popular pressure - of President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of rule. Kim Badawi/Getty

When Mubarak stepped down, he handed power over to the military. That wasn't the outcome that many of the protesters envisioned, and thousands remained in the streets, demanding a transition to a new civilian government.

Clashes between military forces and the protesters quickly saw the chants in the streets change from, "the army and the people are one hand," to "down with military rule."

A majority of Egyptians grew tired of protests, strikes, unrest, chaos and the dire economic situation — tired of the revolution. But Islamists, who want religion to serve as a frame of reference for government and society, seized on the unrest and their role in the uprising against Mubarak to make their way into power.

National elections gave them a majority in parliament and, in 2012, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood — an organization whose slogan is "Islam is the solution" — won the presidency by a thin margin.

"The problem is the revolution lacked leadership. It was taking on the old regime, the military that didn't really have the intention of giving up power, and the Islamists who saw a chance to seize power," Ammar Ali Hassan, a novelist and socio-political researcher, told CBS News. 

"The Jon Stewart of Egypt": Bassem Youssef 14:08

The Islamists' narrative played heavily on the sectarian divisions that plague many Muslim nations. That, combined with the new government's inability to deliver on ambitious promises made before the election, left the country deeply divided. Many feared that Egypt could descend into civil war.

Egyptians who once stood together in solidarity on Tahrir Square turned on one another, in many instances along sectarian and political lines, and there were violent clashes in the streets.   

On June 30, 2013, the first anniversary of Morsi's inauguration, tens of thousands of people — protected by the police and the army — gathered in front of the presidential palace demanding an early election. It was an election the Brotherhood and its backers knew they would lose, and they refused to call for a vote.

Three days later, the military, led by Minister of Defense General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, removed Morsi from power and arrested him. He died in a courtroom in 2019.  

In 2014, El-Sisi ran for election himself. Seen by many as having rescued his country, he won in a landslide. He then quickly adopted a zero-tolerance policy for any dissent, and there was an unprecedented crackdown on basic freedoms and on the media.

Many of the revolution's political figures — writers, artists, and activists — ended up in jail or exile. It's been hard since then to keep up with news of who's been arrested, rearrested or is facing new charges.

"I would have never imagined that, within 10 years, there would be less freedom in Egypt than under Mubarak's era," said Harb, who spent almost two years in jail in pre-trial detention on charges of joining a terrorist group and spreading false news.

Those who support the regime point to the chaos in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and the ongoing challenges to stability in Iraq. Sparing Egypt that fate is worth the sacrifices to personal freedom, they argue.

In 2018, El-Sisi won his second presidential election with 97% of the vote — an election criticized for irregularities and in which some opposition candidates were barred from even taking part. Under term limits in Egypt's constitution, it should have been his last election. But that was about to change.

"The moment I believed the revolution failed was is in April 2019, when the Egyptian constitution was amended to allow El-Sisi to stay in power until 2030 instead of 2022," Hassan, the writer and researcher, told CBS News.  

Egypt's President el-Sisi visits White House, seeks to extend his term to 2034 06:29

Ten years ago, one of the most common refrains heard and printed across Egypt was: "Egyptians demolished the wall of fear."

Now, with every call to protest social media users give each other tips on hiding their accounts, because the police are randomly searching the phones of people around the Square. It's easy to argue that the wall has been rebuilt.   

But Harb, who spent two anniversaries of the uprising in solitary confinement, says he has no regrets.

"As a surgeon, I can say the patient didn't die but also didn't recover. I still have hope that the revolution will achieve its goals," he said.  

Tahrir looks healed. The buildings have been repainted, trees have been planted and a new lighting system has been installed. But no protesters will be allowed to go there now.

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