Reflections on Egypt in a Time of Turmoil

“The stuff on the news is nothing, Egypt the way we know it is over…it is a full scale revolution and the people will wake up to a different country tomorrow…if they ever go to sleep.”

I read this statement on Facebook a few days ago, on the second day of protests in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt. It was a status update from Shady, the tour manager who guided me and 13 others around the country for two weeks in 2008 (this quote and the others below are reprinted with his permission).  Exactly three years ago today,  I was discovering the pyramids in Giza, exploring the Egyptian Museum and overall falling in love with an amazing country.  Now, the present of this country is in turmoil and its future unclear.

Even though he is not in Egypt right now, Shady’s updates have continued, based on information he is getting from friends and family:

“Protesters are forming human shield in front of national museum to protect from looting!”

And just a few hours later:

Museum has been looted!!!! I just saw Ka-aper smashed on the floor…I think I’m gonna die.

This last update brought tears to my eyes. The idea that artifacts, dating back thousands of years, could so carelessly be destroyed by vandals simply broke my heart.  One of the reasons I visited Egypt in the first place was its history.  I read with curiosity about the legends of Cleopatra, the discovery of the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun and the mysteries surrounding Akhenaten and Tell el Amarna.   I was fascinated by the building of the pyramids and the enormous temple structures in Luxor, Karnak and Abu Simbel. In my mind, the crown jewel of Egypt was its vast history.

“All over Cairo, civil vigilantes together with the military have grouped together in the streets to protect their neighborhoods. The vigilantes are marking themselves with white armbands and are armed with sticks, knives and crossbars.”

One of the things that initially struck me when I visited Egypt was the presence of a metal detector at the entrance of my hotel and the tourist police looming nearly everywhere.  While driving to Middle Egypt on a day trip, we were supposed to be accompanied by an armed guard – my guide told me it was because I was an American (he lied and told the guards I was Spanish to get out of it, not sure how he got away with that!).  According to him, given the amount of aid Egypt receives from the United States, they are especially sensitive to the possibility of American tourists being harmed – they don’t want to risk losing that valuable aid.  Similarly, when my tour group took a bus from Aswan to Abu Simbel, we were part of a convoy led by the police.  And as we drove around the Sinai Peninsula, we passed through numerous security checkpoints where everyone’s passports were checked.  Security definitely seemed to be a top priority.

“The regime has emptied the prisons all over Egypt. Prisoners are let loose in the thousands. There is no police and the civilians are defending themselves in the streets.”

While the constant police presence might seem nerve-wreaking, it was actually reassuring and I felt quite safe during my entire trip.  Sure, there was the occasional hassling by vendors in the markets and touts around the major tourist sites, but I never felt physically threatened. On the contrary, my most vivid memories were my interactions with the Egyptian people:  The children who surrounded me to have their picture taken outside of a mosque.  Mohammad and his friend who showed me around the Tombs of the Nobles in Aswan, acting out stories to explain what I was seeing because they spoke almost no English.  The shopkeeper in Aswan who dressed me up in a tunic and Nubian headdress, posed for pictures with me and then laughingly asked my companions, “how many camels for your friend?”  The vendor in Khan el Khalili who ran from stall to stall trying to find enough small bills to change my 100 pound bill.  My guide Adel, who nearly got himself arrested at Beni Hassan trying to make sure I could take a few pictures and then squeezed in Tuna al-Gebel to my itinerary at no extra cost because he thought it was important for me to see. The touts throughout the markets who, given the unseasonably cold weather in late January, greeted me with calls of “welcome to Alaska!”

“The regime is now using scare tactics on the protestors in Liberation square, as it is ordering F-16 fighter jets to fly, low over the demonstrations. The roar from the engines is met by a roar of defiance by the people every time the jets fly over the square. It is clear now that they are not backing down and are not intimidated. But also, from talking to the people in the square, I can tell that they are embracing for a storm to come.”

I don’t profess to fully understand the situation in Egypt, although the widespread poverty and a low standard of living were evident when I visited.  I saw filthy conditions that just made me wonder, how do people live like this?  Why don’t they do something about it? I think this quote from an anonymous Egyptian blogger sums it up:

“I protest because in Egypt we lack dignity and a sense of humanity. I protest because I cannot take part in any elections and they’re all rigged.  I have no voice, I have no vote.  I protest because poverty around me impoverishes me even though I possess money.  I protest because everyone around me is unhappy and we’re capable of so much more, much more. ”

I have heard some compare this current revolution to the events that took place in Eastern Europe 20 years ago as the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union crumbled. We can only hope that the events of the last week will someday be looked back upon as the impetus for lasting political and economic change for the better. As much as it pains me to read about buildings on fire, thugs on the loose and people getting shot, I try to keep things in perspective that one day, it will all be worth it for the Egyptian people.

And looking ahead, I hope that when the current violence is over, people don’t write off Egypt as a travel destination. The tourism industry accounts for a significant portion of the country’s GDP and, frankly, the Egyptian people need us.  Local hotel owners and staff, tour guides, market vendors, felucca operators, carriage drivers and, of course, the often-annoying touts outside pyramids and other major tourist sites – they all depend on people like us just to stay afloat and feed their families.  No matter what happens in the days and weeks to come, Egypt will suffer if people like you and me stay away.

13 thoughts on “Reflections on Egypt in a Time of Turmoil”

  1. Missed this the first time around but read it when you posted it on your 7 links – love this post. I was planning a trip to Egypt but like lots of the posters above it has been delayed. Egypt and Jordan are still at the top of the list but not as soon as I would have liked.

  2. I think I’m the third commenter to note what an intense post this is. Your love and passion for the country comes through loud and clear.

    We can only hope that things resolve calmly and peacefully in Egypt.

  3. What a sad turn of events going on in Egypt at the moment. Intense post about whats going on over there. It seems there are varying view points from people that have been there and people who have not. Nice perspective.

  4. I can’t believe looters are destroying the museum artifacts. That is truly heartbreaking. I really hope the people of Egypt can come through this a safely as possible. I for one to not intend to take Egypt off my places to see.

  5. I know from my experience in Thailand just how hard it is to watch these massive (and increasingly violent) protests in a place that you’re familiar with. Thanks for sharing your views and experience!

    And if tourism in Thailand was able to survive the weeklong airport blockade and the months of red shirt protests, I’m sure Egypt will bounce back from all this!

  6. Great post & very well written. Its interesting to see the view points who have been there. As you know I have never been there but Egypt has been on my mind since I was a kid. Its such an intriguing country & during my RTW trip I had planned to spend a few months there even maybe find a random job in Cario and live there a bit. Now with everything going on for the moment being I have scratched visiting Egypt of my list but the thing is I dont know how things will be 8 months from now when I am on that side of the world. For now its a no but when it gets closer I will play it by ear and see what is going on. I will hold off visiting the country for years if it mean that the people of egypt will one day have the rights they deserve.

    1. Thanks Jaime! I hope you’re able to make it there, either on your RTW trip or another trip. It’s such an amazing country!

  7. Thanks Lisa & Suzy! Unfortunately, things have gotten more violent since I wrote this. It just makes me so sad – I think once you visit a place and then see something like this happen, it hits home so much more. I really hope things settle down soon!

  8. Very well written post here. I love how you incorporated your tour guide’s quotes. Hearing from the people that actually live in Egypt is far more powerful. I have never been and I would still love to go. I just wish protesting didn’t include destroying precious artifacts that make Egypt so special.

  9. Intense post…well-done! Interesting to see the different things people have been saying. Let’s hope things improve there soon and that the changes are for the better!

  10. Very nice write! And nice good size font too! 🙂 I need to start sorting/segregating blogs based on font size too as this is just the right size not too big not too small to read.

    I have read other blog entries about Egypt you are right on par so far :). I hope everything goes well for the people there and the outcome is reasonable or better than expected.

    1. Thanks! Funny about the font size – the default for this theme was really small. Had to find a friend who knew coding stuff to help me change it. I think it’s slightly too big now, but better than being too small. 🙂

      I’m keeping a very close eye on everything going on and really hope for a positive outcome. I learned my tour manager that I quoted above returned to Cairo yesterday to be part of everything. Quite scary!

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