By Mahmoud Mourad and Maggie Fick
ZAGAZIG, Egypt (Reuters) - When protests erupted in Cairo in 2011, liberal activist Hassan El-Erian quickly mobilized demonstrations in his hometown of Zagazig, risking arrest, or worse, to push for democracy.
Inspired by the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Arab Spring uprisings which removed other veteran autocrats, Erian then contested parliamentary elections.
Nearly four years later, Erian, now 30, is a prime example of disillusionment with politics in the biggest Arab country.
Discouraged by what human rights groups say is widespread repression and what he says is a disinterested public, Erian, whose father was also an activist, plans to boycott parliamentary elections in March and April.
Egypt's government describes the polls as critical, the last leg of a roadmap to democracy announced after the army ousted the nation's first-democratically elected president in 2013.
"The street no longer believes in the youth and the revolution. They fear change," he told Reuters at a cafe near the university in Zagazig, north of Cairo, and a center for the cotton and grain trade of Egypt.
Once thrilled by the people power which removed Mubarak's ruthless security forces, Egyptians are now tolerating tough crackdowns under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for the sake of stability after years of upheaval triggered by the Arab Spring.
As army chief, Sisi pushed out President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood after mass protests against his rule which critics say was characterized by growing authoritarianism.
The departure of Mursi, whose hometown was near Zagazig, was followed by one of the fiercest campaigns against Islamists -- hundreds were killed and thousands arrested -- and then liberal activists.
Critics accused Sisi of delaying the polls to tighten his grip on power by passing legislation that curbs freedoms. Mubarak's former military intelligence chief says he is committed to democracy.
CHANGE IN SPIRIT
Draft legislation further narrows the space for dissent. One bill loosely defines terrorism as anything harmful to national unity. It could give security forces a freer hand to crush opponents.
Those changes contributed to a change in spirit in Zagazig, the scene of lively campaigning and fierce competition during parliamentary polls in 2011 and 2012 after Mubarak's demise.
The Brotherhood fielded candidates and organized rallies, eventually trouncing liberals like Erian, who says the movement was just as power hungry as Mubarak.
Nevertheless, he was happy just competing in polls after growing up in Mubarak's 30-year dictatorship.
There is no sign of that passion now, only a few reminders of how bitter Muslim Brotherhood members are after suffering from what they say was a coup which robbed them of power.
In a drafty apartment building near the city's university, Brotherhood members and former politicians who once promised to transform Egypt are too nervous to talk to journalists because many of their comrades are behind bars, some sentenced to death.
Old, red graffiti is scrawled on walls of the building, where Mursi once lived. "Sisi is a killer" and "Mursi is President".
With no signs that Western allies will apply significant pressure on Egypt to press for the kind of freedom sought in the 2011 Tahrir Square protests, change is unlikely.
While activists languish behind bars, a court last month dropped charges against Mubarak, and acquitted his interior minister and six aides over the killing of protesters in that uprising.
Erian was detained several times by Mubarak's security forces for protesting. He now wonders whether his pro-democracy efforts were wasted.
"The Mubarak regime never fell until now," said Erian who delayed his engineering studies for full-time activism but is now returning to university.
COST OF RESISTANCE
The repressive climate has made the cost of resistance higher than ever. Under Sisi's watch, protesting is riskier than ever because of a new law that restricts demonstrations.
"The sacrifices in 2011 and before had real outcomes. Now the sacrifices are huge but unfortunately fruitless," said Erian.
There are no indications that Egyptians will stage another uprising, and there is no credible opposition to challenge Sisi.
During Mubarak's time, the Brotherhood was officially banned but tolerated and allowed to run in parliament as independents. That room for maneuver is gone.
"In 2015, the opposition is in a weak position indeed--its boycott threats have been largely ignored and the regime does not seem to mind driving Islamists outside the system," said Egypt expert Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University in the United States.
"It is not really clear that there is an above-ground opposition in Egypt today."
Some Egyptians in Zagazig and elsewhere are encouraged by the political landscape.
Magdy Ashour, a former Zagazig MP from Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP), said he is excited by the election.
Loyalists of the man who ruled with an iron fist have a right to compete for seats again as long as they are not corrupt, he said.
(Editing by Michael Georgy)