At a modest apartment in downtown Cairo, Ahmed Ibrahim, a 30-year-old computer programmer, was resting after a long day of work when, suddenly, a loud knock at the door cut through the silence. When he opened the door, several police officers pushed him aside and rushed into his apartment. It was part of a security protocol, they said, while rummaging through his belongings. They told him the raid was in preparation for the anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution, which began five years ago on January 25, 2011.
"They kept asking if I was politically active, as if that would be a crime," Ibrahim said, adding that the cops offered few details about what they thought they might find.
Ibrahim is one of scores of tenants living in downtown Cairo whose houses were raided over the past week. The Egyptian Ministry of Interior says it searched about 5,000 rented apartments in the area around downtown Cairo. Ibrahim was also head of the April 6th youth movement, a once popular opposition group, in one of the cities of the Nile Delta between 2012 and 2013. Disillusioned, he gave up on politics in April 2013.
"Walking around downtown has become a nightmare," Ibrahim said in reference to the small army of police officers in civilian outfits roving around the streets of central Cairo as the fifth anniversary of the revolution nears. The government has blocked the roads leading to Tahrir Square, where the revolutionaries gathered in 2011 and eventually ousted Egypt's longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak.
The police found nothing objectionable in Ibrahim's house, so they left quickly. Others weren't so lucky.
On January 14, police forces raided the home of Taher Mukhtar, a member of the Freedoms Committee of the official Doctors Syndicate. Mukhtar, along with his two roommates, were arrested and charged with possessing leaflets that called for people to protest on Monday to topple the regime. The closest thing resembling such a document in the official police report is simply a paper issued by the syndicate on health conditions in Egyptian prisons.
Others have been arrested over the past few weeks on similar charges, including journalists, and the crackdown has extended far beyond Cairo flats to include a sweeping clampdown on social media, the medium that famously helped organize the protests in 2011. Egyptian security forces have been monitoring Facebook and Twitter, and at least 254 people have been arrested so far on charges of publishing false news.
'They kept asking if I was politically active, as if that would be a crime.'
Even websites that are marginally critical of the government have been blocked. A December press release from the Egyptian Interior Ministry said 3,343 Facebook pages had been reported for posting anti-government comics and memes.
"It's a clear violation of privacy," human rights lawyer Mukhtar Mounir said.
On Friday, all imams in Egypt were instructed to hammer home a single point during their weekly sermons: demonstrations will not be allowed. They delivered speeches from an official script published earlier in the week by the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments, the body tasked with managing mosques. The sermon included a fatwa, or religious order, from Al-Azhar, the country's highest Islamic institution, accusing those calling for protests of "implicating Egyptians in acts of violence and terrorism in favor of Egypt's enemies."
Most activists, parties, groups, and organizations have not called for rallies or demonstrations on the anniversary of the revolution. Mounir expects the day to pass quietly — nobody will seek "a suicide by demonstrating," he said.
One of the few calls for protests has come from the Muslim Brotherhood, the now-banned political party of former president Mohamed Morsi, who was deposed by current leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2013. VICE News spoke to Brotherhood members living in exile who said their supporters will take to the streets, though the group only maintains a presence in small and scattered neighborhoods in Cairo.
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With a sprawling crackdown making dissent unlikely on the revolution's anniversary, Sisi's greatest threat might not even come from frustrated activists ready to take to the streets.
"The threat facing the regime comes from within it," said Mohamed Samy, member of the Strong Egypt Party, pointing at the economic failures of the government. Citizens are being pushed to the limit as economic conditions continue to deteriorate and prices of goods rise.
"Egyptians will soon wake up to find no food in their homes, no water in their taps, and no money in their pockets, and realize they may have made a wrong decision," Samy said.
Egypt has also been fighting terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula, where one militant group has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. Assassinations and bombings have become regular occurrences that are no longer confined to the hostile turf of the Sinai. Just last week, a bomb set off just outside Cairo killed seven police officers and three civilians, the result of a booby-trapped house that detonated as officers rushed inside. The fact that attacks have occurred in the once relatively safe confines of the capital has eviscerated the image Egyptians once had of their general-turned-president as guarantor of security.
Since June 2013, the government has eradicated all sources of possible protest by keeping some 40,000 people behind bars — many without any official charges, according to human rights groups. Courts have sentenced hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood officials and sympathizers to death, though these rulings are not final.
Those still free have been shown zero tolerance by police forces, who over the past two years have aggressively put down protests by using teargas and sometimes live ammunition. Those who are caught are often sent to jail on charges of breaking the controversial law that bans demonstrations.
Five years after the revolution, most activists who are not dead or detained now choose to ignore the political scene entirely.
"People chose to leave the country's leader alone at the helm," Samy said. "And now the roads to Tahrir have been blocked."
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