Democratic hopes fade away in Egypt
CAIRO - Three years after huge crowds of Egyptians rallied to oust Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, democratic hopes have given way to a spiralling crackdown on freedoms in the name of stability.
On June 30, 2013 millions took to the streets of Cairo and other cities to call for the removal of Morsi, whose rule had been deeply divisive.
Their hopes were fulfilled on July 3 when the army stepped in for the second time in less than three years to remove a president following mass protests -- only unlike veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Morsi had been democratically elected.
Now that former military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has become president, the state tolerates no more protests, and little criticism.
"When I look back on June 30, 2013, I feel that we were deceived and deployed by part of the state," prominent rights lawyer Gamal Eid said.
For secular activists, there were initial hopes after the military installed a government with former chief judge Adly Mansour as interim president and a liberal economist as prime minister.
But in the months that followed, security services moved to crush Morsi's Islamist supporters, detaining the ex-president and thousands of members of his Muslim Brotherhood.
The crackdown reached its pinnacle on August 14 when police shot dead hundreds of Islamists at a protest camp in Cairo during clashes -- the worst mass killing in Egypt's modern history.
- Protests banned -
More than 40 policemen were killed across the country that day by Islamists, and the event helped inflame a jihadist insurgency that has killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers.
In May the next year Sisi was elected president with almost 97 percent of a vote boycotted by the Brotherhood and secular dissidents.
Few prominent non-Islamists spoke out during the crackdown, embittered by the Islamists' hapless and heavy-handed time in power and sectarian rhetoric.
But after moving on from crushing the Islamists, security services began jailing left-leaning dissidents who had helped spark the 2011 uprising that deposed Mubarak.
Three years later, activists like Eid say little remains of the democratic ideals that had swept the most-populous Arab country.
Protesters were used three years ago "not to topple the Brotherhood and to begin establishing a democratic system, but in the interest of the military -- which is part of the Mubarak regime -- to take over power," said Eid, the executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.
He is among several civil society activists accused of receiving illegal foreign funding and banned from leaving the country.
Protests are now banned unless they are approved by the police. Calling for one can get an Egyptian jailed, as can posting an amateurish video on Facebook poking fun at the president, or wearing a T-shirt denouncing torture.
- 'Worst in history' -
Hundreds of Islamists, including Morsi, have been sentenced to death in mass trials so hastily convened that dead people and a toddler were mistakenly included among the defendants, lawyers say.
"Today, and without exaggeration, the human rights situation is the worst in Egypt's modern history," said Eid, whose group estimates that authorities are holding some 60,000 political prisoners, mostly Islamists.
The government regularly denies there are political prisoners and says those in jail -- who include a number of journalists -- have all committed crimes.
Sisi has said it will take decades for Egypt to have a proper democracy but that the country nevertheless enjoys unprecedented freedom of speech.
Rights activists and many journalists disagree, and are concerned that restrictions on freedom of speech and media may be tightened further.
In one of the most prominent cases against the press, authorities last month arrested three top members of Egypt's journalists' union -- including its chief Yahiya Kallash -- and charged them with harbouring two wanted journalists.
The two journalists had been arrested in an unprecedented raid on the syndicate's headquarters, for allegedly inciting protests.
- 'Steady steps' -
The two had been involved in protests against the government's decision earlier this year to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.
That deal has been a rare setback for Sisi -- Egyptians have grown up reading in textbooks that the islands belong to their country and many have opposed the move.
There is also increasing frustration with the government's failure to address a deep economic crisis and to meet its pledge to eradicate jihadists who continue to carry out regular attacks, mostly in the Sinai Peninsula.
"There is resentment among the majority of citizens due to economic policies," said Mostafa Kamel al-Sayyed, a political science professor at Cairo University.
But Sisi's supporters say he is making progress, and that at any rate there are few or no alternatives.
Sisi inherited an already battered economy and a devastated tourism industry, supporters say. And he has said human rights include not only free speech but also economic rights afforded by stability.
Indeed, few Egyptians would welcome further tumult.
Mahmoud Badr, the founder of the Tamarod group that spearheaded calls for protests three years ago, said they were aimed at "achieving national independence... and improving social and economic conditions."
"I think we are taking steady steps towards achieving that," he said. "We are on the right track."