Egypt’s 2011 revolution changed Sameh Abdelbadie’s life. The uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak, the country’s longtime autocrat, inspired the 18-year-old to paint revolution-themed murals and organize protests at Cairo University.
“I felt freedom for the first time,” he recalls of the pro-democracy protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which will mark their 10th anniversary on Jan. 25. “I felt like I mattered.” Egypt’s military launched a coup two years later, ousting the country’s democratically elected president. Fearing arrest for his political activities, Mr. Abdelbadie left Egypt for Germany in 2017.
Despite the efforts of the government of President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi to crush the legacy of the Arab Spring, millions of Egyptians still hold on to something that the state can’t touch: memories of an uprising that catalyzed a decade of revolution and war across the Middle East. Today, an Egyptian government that is perhaps even more repressive than Mubarak’s is engaged in a clash with many of its own citizens over the meaning of its recent past, with the country’s future at stake.
Egypt is the only country in which the Arab Spring gave rise to a new strongman regime. Mr. Sisi, a former general, was appointed defense minister by President Mohammed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood elected in 2012 in Egypt’s first—and, to date, only—democratic presidential election. Egyptian generals deposed Mr. Morsi in 2013 in a coup backed by a massive wave of protests against Islamist rule under Mr. Morsi. Since then, the authorities have arrested thousands of Egyptians on political grounds, and thousands more have died or been forced into exile.
In recent years, Mr. Sisi’s increasingly autocratic government has removed reminders of the revolution, erasing downtown Cairo’s political graffiti and rewriting school textbooks to minimize the 2011 revolt. In Tahrir Square, the government installed an obelisk and four ancient sphinxes—monuments to Egypt’s Pharaonic ancient past, not to its more recent history of popular protests.