By Sarah Lynch, Special for USA TODAY
CAIRO - The sun beat down on tattered tents throughout Tahrir Square on a recent afternoon as protesters prepared for new demonstrations two years after marching in those that ousted Hosni Mubarak.
"When our revolution started, it was something incredible," said Hossam Mostafa, 29, sitting in the square and remembering the days he demonstrated against the dictator. "We wanted to change the whole system and everything you can imagine."
Now, on the second anniversary of the nationwide uprising that began on Jan. 25, 2011, Mostafa believes that the rights he fought for during the subsequent 18 days - bread, social justice and freedom - have yet to prevail in Egypt.
"Nothing has changed, but instead things have gotten worse," he said. "The economy is down, tourism is down, life in general is down."
The divide was apparent Friday in giant rallies in Cairo and elsewhere in which protesters complained that the goals of the pro-democracy uprising have not been met and that Islamist President Mohammed Morsi was turning Egypt into another dictatorship.
Thousands of demonstrators filled Tahrir Square and outside the presidential palace in the city's Heliopolis district. Arab Spring chants of Leave! Leave!" and "the people want to topple the regime" could be heard. They demanded freedom of expression and an independent judiciary.
Despite stagnancy and setbacks, however, there have also been gains, and some optimism remains, as Egypt continues on its precarious path to stable democracy.
"One of the very important changes that has taken place is the participation of people from all ages, social backgrounds, in the political discourse today," said Walid Kazziha, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo. "In the future, perhaps, in five, 10 years' time, we will talk about the return of political consciousness to Egypt."
At a café in downtown Cairo, a handful of young revolutionaries sat night after night planning the Jan. 25, 2011, demonstrations that led to the overthrow of Mubarak. But in spite of their influence on the course of events that would change recent Egyptian history, liberal and secular groups have failed to effectively unite in the years since.
"They were unable to transfer their popular demands to real political action when they had the opportunity," said Robert Danin, Egypt expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Instead, the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, won the most seats of any party in parliament and later propelled Morsi to presidency. Other political parties with varying views and demands have also burgeoned in popularity and public presence, and demonstrations and protests continue in the streets, revealing a consistently vibrant political arena.
"People have been mobilized politically in a way that didn't exist previously," said Middle East analyst Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation, a think tank in New York. "There is a different sense of relationship between citizens and government."
In a major milestone last year, Egypt made the transition to civilian rule when it democratically elected a president, pushing the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces - which ruled in the interim after Mubarak's ousting - from power. Late last year, Egypt passed a new constitution.
According to Freedom House, a United States-based non-governmental group, Egypt moved from "Not Free" to "Partly Free" in a recent report that examines freedoms around the world. The nation saw a boost in respect for political rights and civil liberties.
But Egypt has faced formidable problems, the report said, including a crackdown on civil society, a judicial ruling that dissolved an elected parliament on legal grounds and a power grab by President Morsi that his camp framed as necessary to protect democracy. At the end of last year, local press reports said opposition figures were being investigated for treason.
Moreover, while there have been gains in procedural democracy, political mobilization and political life, these haven't yet translated into institutional reform and a radical overhaul of public policy, said Hanna of the Century Foundation.
"The future of the Middle East will depend in significant ways on the success of Egypt's democratic experiment, which in turn rests at least in part on the ruling Islamists' commitment to democratic norms," the Freedom House report said. "In light of the past year's developments, the outcome remains very much an open question."
A key debate as the nation seeks to define itself has been the role of Islam in the state and how that relates to personal freedoms. Women, youth and Christians - constituting 10% of the population - looked forward after the revolution with high hopes to redeem long-waited equalities, said Youssef Sidhom, editor of the Coptic Christian weekly newspaper, Watani. But now they stand together against the domination of political Islam.
"If I speak for Coptic Christians, I would say that nothing has changed for the better," Sidhom said. "On the contrary maybe their concerns and worries about the future of the country have grown aggravated."
One point of concern for many is the new constitution, which passed in a nationwide vote last year amid stark opposition.
Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch's Cairo office said the new charter is "very discouraging," and that among other problems it only guarantees Muslims, Christians and Jews the right to worship. It also stipulates broad limitations on expression.
"At the moment, there is still a lot of political space for critical expression and for demonstrations," Morayef said, noting a gain of the post-revolution period. "But because police abuse continues with impunity and because there has been a failure to actually reform any of the existing laws, it's not clear whether this moment is sustainable."
Egypt is also witnessing ongoing criminal prosecutions against journalists, made possible by the repressive framework of Mubarak's era.
Two years after the revolution, women, too, continue fighting for rights. Articles in the new constitution could undermine prospects for gender equality, and women have largely been excluded from decision-making bodies.
Nehad Abu El Komsan, director of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, said that neither liberal nor Islamist parties are fighting for women's rights and that she expects little from the new government, although she remains optimistic.
"We have women's voices and they have grown up, they became mature," El Komsan said. "I expect in 2013 women will have lots of changes - because of women.
Yet, as various segments of society seek to assert their aspirations, all face a struggling economy that could lead to further instability.
Foreign reserves dropped from $36 billion to around $15 billion over a two-year period and the Egyptian pound keeps falling to record lows against the U.S. dollar. Foreign and domestic investments have drastically slowed, and tourism - a major industry in Egypt - has dramatically suffered. Those in Cairo also complain of rising prices.
"You find sometimes people talking about the revolution of the hungry, and I think one has to look more seriously at this," said Kazziha of the American University in Cairo.
Since November, dozens died due to state neglect - 70 were killed in two train accidents and another 28 last week in a building collapse. Security across the country also remains weak, leading to a rise of violent crimes that in places like the Sinai Peninsula, which shares a border with Israel, could affect stability in the region.
Despite the mounting challenges, however, some still have hope in the new Egypt.
"I know in my heart that we will reach our goal," said Wael Abou Elil, 43, sitting in Tahrir Square. "We are fighting for liberty, pride, and justice."