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Egypt's Three Years on the Misery-Go-Round

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Spotted on the side of a bus in my local area in east London the other day: "We're moments. We're timeless. We're Egypt". Yes, it was one of those bus banner adverts, enticing us to book a holiday in sun-kissed Egypt. Meanwhile, slightly less enticingly, the UK's Foreign & Commonwealth Office currently has the following travel advice for those who fancy a trip to historic Cairo, the Nile and the ancient Pyramids:

25 January is the 3rd anniversary of the 2011 revolution. A number of groups have called for demonstrations to mark the anniversary. Protests and disruption to travel around the country are likely in the days before and after 25 January. You are advised to take particular care in the vicinity of government buildings, and to avoid all demonstrations and large gatherings. Before embarking on a journey seek information about any disruptions to your route and consider your travel plans carefully. Protests, marches and demonstrations are common across Egypt. Demonstrations often happen on Fridays, but can occur at any time and with little prior notice. The atmosphere at demonstrations can change quickly and without warning. Police may use water cannon, tear gas, birdshot or live ammunition for crowd control. There have been several violent clashes since July 2013 resulting in a large number of deaths ... If you become aware of any nearby protests, leave the area immediately.


Hmm, maybe pause a moment with that online booking form. Well, a couple of observations here. First, I'm not sure it's necessarily the FCO's business to be telling people to leave protests - what about if you're a protest sympathiser who's travelled from the UK, perhaps even an Anglo-Egyptian? On the other hand, given the murderous record of the security forces in crushing protests in recent years, the Foreign Office has ... a point.

I've noted before how political turmoil and violence in Egypt has - unsurprisingly - caused a massive drop in tourism to the country since the 2011 revolution. Revenues are apparently still going down and there's a rather desperate note to the Egyptian Tourist Authority's director Omayma El Husseini's recent observation that "Although there have been some clashes inside universities, they have not targeted tourists". She was still hoping, she said, that "Egypt will flourish" later this year. Perhaps ...

Or perhaps not. Certainly it's hard to imagine a thriving Egypt where civilians are tried by military courts (as provided for under the new constitution). It's hard to imagine a harmonious Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood's millions of supporters are told the organisation is now an illegal "terrorist" group whose hundreds of affiliated charities must all be shut down. And it's hard to believe in a happy, tourist-friendly Egypt which has draconian laws that virtually prevent protests and allow the courts to impose five-year jail terms for those who break such laws.

Egypt, a country of 80 million people, has a population heavily skewed toward young people - a demographic "youth bulge" - and it's surely storing up trouble for itself if it allows its security forces to regularly treat the country's young people and students as some kind of enemy within. A new Amnesty report marking three - highly troubled - years since 2011's "25 January" revolution has a depressing section on Egypt's post-Morsi clampdown against students. Hundreds have been arrested, at least five killed, and so far three have been jailed - including one for 17 years (for participating in a gathering of more than five people, "thuggery" and other supposedly violent acts). Meanwhile, groups of arrested students have allegedly been beaten up in police stations, forced to strip naked and made to sing pro-army songs.

As I say, depressing, and a particularly bad omen for the future. Looking back, most of the last three years has been a bewildering merry-go-round (or misery-go-round) of crushed protests, arrests and dubious trials. The security forces have been horribly trigger-happy (never more so than during the immensely bloody attack on the pro-Morsi sit-in at the Rabaa a-Adawiyah mosque in Cairo last August), and the overall effect is of a sort of "Revenge of Mubarak", with the veteran leader physically deposed but his spirit still wreaking havoc in numerous spin-off versions.

The heady days of Egypt's "Arab Spring" are now a distant memory (indeed I always doubted that Egypt's revolution would very easily shake off decades of authoritarianism). Now, nothwithstanding the wishful thinking of the Egyptian tourist industry, the future looks bleak for Egypt. I've got no idea what the copy writers for that bus advert had in mind with their sub-perfume ad "We're moments ..." nonsense, but it has a certain ominous relevance to the country's present plight. There have been moments of hope for the country in the last three years, but Egypt is more and more trapped in a sort of timeless crisis.

"The atmosphere at demonstrations can change quickly", says the Foreign Office. These days I'd say that Egypt's protests have an atmosphere of unremitting gloom and desperate defiance.

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