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Three Years Later, Tahrir Protesters Drained And Defeated

Egyptian security forces close Tahrir Square to disperse protesters in December.
Ahmed Abd El Latif
Egyptian security forces close Tahrir Square to disperse protesters in December.

Three years after the start of the 2011 revolution, many of the young secular activists who led the protests are behind bars.

Others have gone silent, afraid to speak out as the military and the ousted Muslim Brotherhood are locked in a battle for Egypt itself.

For most of those revolutionaries, this is a dark and bitter time.

"The moment we entered Tahrir remains the most significant moment of my entire life, because I physically felt a wall being broken down, a wall of fear that they're working very hard at rebuilding," says Noor Noor, son of prominent Egyptian politician Ayman Noor and one of dozens of young activists who rose to fame during the 2011 uprising. "But at least I got a chance to see that break, so no regrets."

Noor's life since that day has been a series of protests — against President Hosni Mubarak, then against human rights abuses under military rule. He took to the streets again last year to protest what he saw as the increasingly autocratic style of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

Now Morsi, like Mubarak, has been ousted. The military is back in control, and it's stifling dissenting voices. Noor's father, a one-time presidential candidate in 2005, has left the country.

Noor has decided to temporarily step away from protests. He's become an environmentalist.

"Some of my friends joked about the fact that I went from one almost impossible cause which is ... the protection of human rights, to the protection of the environment," he says.

Noor says he is tired and beaten down after three years of ups and downs, protests, deaths and political and economic turmoil. The last three years feel like 30, he says.

"We've fallen victim to a power struggle, not necessarily between political ideologies, but it's a power struggle between generations," he says. "And 25th of January 2011 was an attempt by the younger generation to undo the mistakes of their parents and their grandparents."

An attempt that failed, Noor says. The youth ultimately didn't provide an alternative, and the older generation refused to be left behind.

He is reminded of that every day on his bike ride to work, which takes him past Tahrir Square, where Egypt's revolution began.

"You're trying to get in and get out as quickly as possible in order to avoid that bitter taste in your mouth at what Tahrir has become," he says.

At the time of Mubarak's ouster, he thought the people had the power. What's become obvious, he says, is that he and his cohorts were never in control.

His words are echoed by other young revolutionaries. Lauded by the world for their bravery three years ago, some are hunted and many have dropped out of view.

Embarrassing taped phone conversations have been leaked to smear some prominent activists on local television. The head of the April 6 movement, one of the main youth groups that drove the uprising in 2011, is in prison, along with two others, as many Egyptians call them traitors and spies.

After four bombs rocked Cairo Friday, the arrests are only growing. Police spent two hours searching the home of video artist and activist Aalam Wassef before arresting and later releasing him.

In an interview with NPR before his detention, he said he remained hopeful.

"Because you can kill leaders, you can kill things, but again we are led by ideas, and ideas obviously cannot be killed, cannot be jailed," Wassef said.

But there is broad popular support for the crackdown on dissent after the turmoil and economic hardship of the past three years. Many Egyptians say they care more about stability and security than political freedom and human rights, especially in light of a recent spate of bombings.

Pierre Sioufi, whose apartment on Tahrir Square became a headquarters for young revolutionaries protesting in the streets, says he feels they were pawns in a game played between the army and the state.

In 2011, the protesters worked in his back rooms and took pictures and video from his balcony. Now, as he looks out over the square, he says that nothing has really changed.

"I feel used," Sioufi says. "Not me personally, but I feel like everybody was used."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.