The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cairo’s Tahrir Square was once the symbol of the Arab Spring. Now it’s just a traffic circle again.

What a difference five years makes. On Jan. 25, 2011, protests against the entrenched regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak broke out in the heart of the capital of the Arab world's most populous nation. The unrest eventually led to Mubarak's departure — an event so seismic that its tremors rippled throughout the Arab world.

The Arab Spring was in full bloom, with pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt inspiring similar revolts in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. Sadly, though, the trajectories for most of these protest movements have been grim, leading to either full-blown wars or harsh crackdowns by the state or counter-revolutionary forces.

In Egypt, the central Cairene landmark of Tahrir Square repeatedly was a staging ground for mass protests. But today the scene was rather different, as described by the Wall Street Journal:

The scene Monday in Tahrir Square was a far cry from those heady days. Unlike five years ago, when hundreds of thousands of protesters had thronged in the square to demand the country’s long-running dictator leave office, only small clusters of bystanders gathered to wave Egyptian flags and hand out flowers to the hundreds of police standing guard.

Egypt has undergone numerous upheavals in the past five years — most dramatically, the July 2013 coup that unseated Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and was soon followed by a bloody crackdown on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters by the military backed-interim government.

Observers say that freedoms under the government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the architect of Morsi's ouster, have backslid to levels similar to, if not worse than, what existed under Mubarak. Opposition groups have been sidelined, while tens of thousands of suspected political opponents have been rounded up.

“In today’s Egypt there is no real opposition," Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told the Middle East Eye website. "None of the groups that are part of the current political process such as those in parliament can be called opposition."