BY ELIZABETH VILLARREAL
About three months before my family’s Christmas vacation to Egypt, the questions started.
“Are you sure it’s safe?”
“Is there still time to change your plans? It just doesn’t seem prudent.”
“You said you’d wait it out, but the political situation there doesn’t seem to be improving.”
In the weeks before I left, the comments only got more frequent, more insistent— and not without reason. On November 22, newly-elected president and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi granted himself sweeping powers, beyond the scope of judicial review. The move was allegedly designed to “protect the revolution and achieve justice,” but critics around the world labeled it martial law. The nightly news showed images of violence in Tahrir Square that echoed those of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Front-page stories told of a hastily-written Constitution and deep divisions within Egyptian society. All coverage of Egypt seemed negative, the most frequent words “anger,” “opposition,” and “violence.” On December 12, 2012, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman raised the stakes even further when he posed a question to his readers: “Can God Save Egypt?”
But my family went anyway, ignoring all warnings from friends and relatives and boarding a plane almost
completely devoid of tourists.
From above, the first thing you see of Egypt is the Nile, snaking its way through empty desert. As you approach the ground, you see miles of barbed wire, its purpose unclear and its presence intimidating. And even closer, you see the piles of trash. Trash is everywhere: In the canals, in heaps by the road, randomly scattered in the desert. Oftentimes it is burning. The Egypt we saw was not violent. We didn’t see any protests or street fights, but we did see the more mundane effects of a fundamentally weak and inefficient government, struggling to replace an autocratic predecessor.
On a highway circling the Cairo city limits, I see roads choked with expensive BMWs, cars that might be considered vintage if seen in Connecticut, beat-up sedans, and donkeys. The only women I see are smiling white-skinned models on billboards advertising pizza. Although our guide, Mahmoud, one of several guides and drivers our family hired, vehemently denies that there is any taboo against female drivers here, this seems unlikely. As our van weaves in and out of traffic, we pass new luxury developments on the outskirts of the city and the unfinished, illegally-constructed skeletons of houses. There are brightly colored tablecloths drying in the wind, men smoking shisha in cafes on every street, falafel for one Egyptian Pound (about 15 cents), and not a single street sign.
Although I’d promised by mom back home that I’d avoid anything potentially dangerous—especially Tahrir Square—my siblings and I went there the first night, figuring any tour of Egyptian history would be incomplete without it. The tour company wouldn’t let us go unaccompanied, so we took a guide along. On the way there, we saw the dusty streets, dusty plants, dusty piles of trash become a canvass for the colored glow of nightclubs and the little LEDs jauntily ringing car taillights. The square itself is now a tent city, and although the guide had been solicitous up until that point, he refused to let us near the tents. “There’s crime there. You can buy anything, drugs, women, weapons.” My stepsister says that’s what they said about Occupy Wall Street, but I’m not sure anyone ever said you could buy guns in Zuccotti Park.
In the car, my siblings and I start asking about the revolution, and the guide, who asked not to be identified by name, calls the Muslim Brotherhood “liars.” My brother doesn’t hear him, so he rolls up the window and says it again, louder, with more force. “They are liars!” I ask if he was involved in the original anti-Morsi protests, and after a pause he says, “I was involved.” He’s tired and he doesn’t want to talk about it. He wants to talk about the dance hall we’re passing where he was married a few years ago and the house where he takes care of his ailing mother.
Many of the guides I met would use the word “liars” to describe politicians in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. Later, Mahmoud would stand in front of a statue from the Ptolemaic Kingdom—the period in which Egypt was ruled by Greeks who won popular support by adopting local Egyptian customs—and say that members of the Brotherhood didn’t truly believe in God, that they just used it to manipulate people. “If they do something wrong and you can’t question it because it’s allegedly the word of God, then our politicians are no longer men.” Mahmoud and the other guides I met had clearly spent considerable time thinking about and debating the future, the nature of democracy, and the role of religion. Given the consequences for young, educated, liberal citizens like them, living on the front lines of the revolution, it’s no wonder. Another guide, Eman, once told me that her friend is permanently disabled after being shot in the face. “He was so handsome,” she said.
And although no guide ever mentioned it, there is a risk that if the Muslim Brotherhood or another Islamic group radicalizes Egypt, tourists won’t come anymore. My family would not have visited Egypt if bathing suits or alcohol were forbidden, not so much for the specific inconveniences as for the general implication of such bans. At a New Year’s Eve party in Sharm el-Sheikh, a resort city along the Red Sea, I saw the governor of South Sinai, Khaled Fouda, watch a performance of what were billed as “Vegas showgirls” dance onstage. Would he accept a turn toward Sharia law?
We fly upriver to Aswan and board a boat downstream to Luxor, hitting all the major tourist sites along the way. We see pyramids and temples and tombs. Although our itinerary crisscrosses that of the Minister of Tourism himself (on a mission of inspection), we face preventable problems every step of the way. At the Pyramids of Giza, we can’t go inside the Great Pyramid because the lights are out all day. The taxis are unmetered and you have to tip every time you want to use the bathroom. The streets are blocked in many parts of Cairo because no one bothers to regulate the set-up of the markets. Vendors, suffering from a lack of tourism and still forced to pay for government leases on their stalls, push their merchandise aggressively, even desperately.
The number of tourists is unclear. The ministry says tourist levels are at 86 percent of the country’s capacity, a strong number, but the tour guides we met laughed at that figure. They hear stories of cruise ships built for 130 departing with only nine passengers. They see carriage drivers who cannot afford to feed their horses. I personally met few tourists, or at least classic vacationers. One British woman visited because her mother had surprised her with the trip only days before they were to leave– there wasn’t time to worry about security risks. One man from Ottawa used to visit regularly for business, and was comfortable with the country. An elderly British woman, who came looking for adventure, reminisced with me about her mid-century time with the Masai.
But maybe because they are surrounded by millennia of history, the guides see this revolution as just one part of a larger picture. When I asked the guide that took us to Tahrir Square about “the revolution,” he asked “Which one?” The guide Mahmoud said he saw tourism drop almost as much when swine flu hit. Eman, the guide from Cairo, said it was worse after the 1997 Luxor Massacre, when terrorist gunman killed 62 tourists at the Temple of Hatshepsut, and the 2004 Sinai bombing, which targeted tourist hotels and killed 34 people. Mahmoud said that even the Iraq War affected tourism, and a tour was cancelled after the conflict between Israel and Gaza just this year because of a perceived increase in risk.
There seems to be a mismatch between the actual and supposed danger of a journey to Egypt. My trip was peaceful and interesting, but the guides I met are suffering. Mahmoud left the country last year for an internship in America. He says that if he could, he’d want to be a guide for the rest of his life, but he doesn’t know if he can wait out the stagnation. He’s tired of waiting: For Mubarak to fall, for the parliament to form, for the president to be elected, for the constitution. He believes that it will get better. He believes that his country has a bright future. But he doesn’t know how much longer he can wait.
Elizabeth Villarreal ’16 is in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.