– visited December 2014 –
I had left Wadi Halfa in Sudan early in the morning. My hope was to reach Abu Simbel in early afternoon and to be able to visit this famous temple on the way to Aswan. I had tried to get on the first bus. My hopes were soon dashed as all the five buses left at the same time with mine actually being the latest. We arrived at the Sudanese-Egyptian border and it was still closed. It took three-and-a-half totally ineffective hours to leave Sudan. At the Egyptian border, the portrait of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi stares at me from the wall. Egypt is back in the hands of a strongman, who came to power by military coup but has since advanced to being president, elected with the 97% that are typical for elections that are neither free nor fair. It takes a further ineffective one-and-a-half hour to enter Egypt. We get on the ferry crossing lake Nasser in late afternoon and pass Abu Simbel after sunset.
Aswan has a beautiful setting on the Nile with both banks raised and a few islands in the middle of the river. Traditional feluccas are sailing on the water. I take half a day to wander around town, visiting mosques, Coptic churches, the unfinished obelisk and just taking in the city. In the afternoon, I take a small ferry to the other side of the river and explore the Tombs of the Nobles. The ticket is 40 Egyptian pounds (around 5 €), I put a bill of 50 on the counter and say one ticket please. “Student?” “No, I am not a student anymore.” “Student, student!” I think “student” is the only word the ticket seller knows. I get a ticket and a surprising 20-pound bill back. The ticket says student and is worth 20 pounds. So that is the game that is being played. I get a student ticket, the government has been defrauded of 20 pounds, ten of those go to the ticket seller, ten go to me. First (and so far last) time that I come upon this scheme.
Coming from Sudan and the Horn of Africa, Egypt feels a lot more developed, a lot more similar to the world I grew up in. Aswan to Luxor is a distance of about 200 kilometres and in most of the countries I visited on this trip that would be a journey of four, five, six or even more hours. In Egypt, I can hop on a comfortable train in the evening and three hours later, I have reached my destination. I am on a tight schedule as Christmas is coming near and my return flight (from Alexandria) is in a few days so I cherish the option of moving quickly.
Luxor (Thebes) has been characterized as the “world’s greatest open-air museum”. It is breath-taking. The temple complexes of Karnak and Luxor are in the city, across the river is the famous Theban Necropolis with several major temples, the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. Right outside the city limits is the ancient Egyptian city of Waset. I do not have time to visit all the sites but I rent a bike to explore the Necropolis, including the famous and wonderful temple of Deir el-Bahari. Thankfully, the temple of Luxor is open until late at night, allowing me a visit when I return to town after sunset.
The Egyptian economy is in deep trouble. Many tourists have been reluctant to come due to the upheaval of the last years. Luxor has plenty of horse-drawn carriages and I get offered absurd low rates. At certain spots are signs with “minimum fees” but I get offered rides at a fourth or a fifth of these rates. Several coachmen tell me that there are just no customers. Of course, this is also a sales tactic but it is obvious that the business is bad. Already back in Aswan, I got offered cruises on the Nile for equally incredibly low prices. Most boats were just lying in the harbour.
I head to the bus station, my night bus to Cairo is leaving.
I chose (by following some other travellers) a hostel close to the city centre. The famous Tahrir Square with the magnificent Egyptian Museum (no pictures inside) is nearby. The square had originally been known as “Ismailia Square” but became know as “Tahrir (Liberation) Square” after the revolution of 1919 and was officially renamed after the revolution of 1952. In 2011, as the Arab Spring swept through the Arab World, it became the focal point of the next Egyptian Revolution. As I visit three years later, the revolution that elicited so much hope as it forced long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak from power has failed. We are back at square one. Tahrir square has been rebuilt, it looks like an underground parking lot has been added leading to several smaller structures and concrete walls on the square making it harder for people to congregate. Police forces are stationed at the side, with the burned-out former headquarters of Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party in the background. Armoured personal carriers of the Egyptian army are waiting in a side street, soldiers in the turrets, ready to react, ready to (maybe) shoot.
A missed chance for Egypt which has missed too many chances in the recent past. I feel the pain personally, I had cheered on the protesters, a democratic development in the Arab world would be such a great progress. Back in 2011, I had even considered a visit to Cairo and now I see the failure. Egypt has one of the longest histories of any country, its heritage reaching back to the 6th–4th millennia BCE. A cradle of civilisation, ancient Egypt saw some of the earliest developments of writing, agriculture, urbanisation, organised religion and central government. And now, in 2014, Egypt is ranked on place 110 (out of 187) in the Human Development Index. How did it come that far?
Egypt had fallen under Ottoman rule in 1517. It was granted the status of an autonomous vassal state in 1867, and in 1869 the Suez Canal, built in partnership with the French, was successfully opened. Money disappeared and Egypt was unable to repay the loans, leaving no other option than to sell its shares in the Canal to the British. French and British controllers soon sat in the Egyptian cabinet. In 1914, Egypt declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire as a protectorate of the British Empire. In 1922, nominal independence as the Kingdom of Egypt followed but the country still had British troops on its soil. In 1952, the king was overthrown by military officers and in 1953 the Arab Republic of Egypt was declared. The last British soldiers left in 1956.
The leading force behind the military coup was the charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser. A Pan-Arabist, he wanted to restore the Arab world’s most populous country to its rightful place and unite the Arab world. This soon led to a short-lived alliance with Syria. In 1967, Nasser took steps to pressure Israel (he had initially reacted on faulty Soviet intelligence that Israel was amassing troops at the border) and in late May he closed the Straits of Tiran for Israeli ships. He declared that “the battle will be a general one and our basic objective will be to destroy Israel”. As with many of Nasser’s policies it was more style than substance and it took Israel only six days (hence the name of the war) to inflict a crushing defeat on Egypt. The deteriorating economic situation led to a dent in his popularity and he reacted in the way authoritarians (no matter on the right or left) usually react, by making the society less free. During the 1967 war, an Emergency Law was enacted, with extended police powers, suspended constitutional rights and legalised censorship. The law was not lifted after the war, in fact, with the exception of an 18-month break in 1980/81, it remained in effect until 2012.
Nasser died in office in 1971 and was succeeded by the reformist Anwar el-Sadat. He struck a peace deal with Israel (after first fighting another war), getting back the Sinai Peninsula in the process, freed some political prisoners and initiated economic reforms. He was assassinated by Islamists in 1981.
Hosni Mubarak followed him as president, ruling Egypt for nearly 30 years. In his early years in power, he expanded the Security Services. Mubarak had been a military man himself and was hurt in Anwar el-Sadat’s assassination. Mubarak sought advice and confidence not in leading ministers, senior advisers or leading intellectuals, but from his security chiefs – “interior ministers, army commanders, and the heads of the ultra-influential intelligence services.” All through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, violations of human rights by the security services in Egypt were described as “systematic” by Amnesty International. Egyptian police routinely engaged in “beatings, electric shocks, prolonged suspension by the wrists and ankles in contorted positions, death threats and sexual abuse”. The state remained large under Mubarak employing 8 million people out of a population of 75 million. The army has an outsized influence, men have to serve three years as conscripts and the military is active in nearly every important area of the economy, be it agriculture and food, furniture, tourism, infrastructure or in the oil business. Estimates about the army’s share of the economy vary widely, from 5% to 60%, no wonder as all the numbers are secret. The Egyptian government under Mubarak expanded bureaucratic regulations, registration requirements, and other controls that often feed corruption. The NGO Freedom House judged: “corruption remained a significant problem under Mubarak, who promised to do much, but in fact never did anything significant to tackle it effectively”. In 2005, the presidential elections were for the first time held as multi-candidate polls but with heavy restrictions on the candidates and with strong government interference. After the election, the runner-up Ayman Nour, was arrested and sentenced to five years of hard labour on trumped-up charges.
This style of governing was a good recipe for a state rich in corruption, nepotism, military influence and incompetence but poor in personal freedom, justice, rule of law, advancement based on ability, innovation, sensible political debate and economic development. Nonetheless, Mubarak managed to portray himself to the world as a beacon of stability. As often happens with authoritarian leaders, at some point there is no alternative anymore, no one outside their circle has any governing experience, no one has any contacts, no one has any public profile. The future with the strongman seems bleak but the unknown future without the strongman is maybe even worse. My advice: Do not stick with the devil you know, he will only lead you deeper into hell and there will be an uncertain end anyway, human devils are not immortal.
In absence of a free political sphere, the Muslim Brotherhood developed to be the main opposition force. Originally founded in Egypt in the late 1920s, it was a pan-Islamic movement which sought to redirect Muslims to their roots. Under the banner of “Islam is the solution”, the Quran and the Sunnah were seen as laws passed down by god, that should be applied to all parts of life, including the organization of the government and the handling of everyday problems. Many Islamic extremist of today have their intellectual roots in this strain of thinking. First outlawed by the British, it was outlawed under Nasser again. President Sadat left the Brotherhood more breathing space. Officially still banned it developed into the largest opposition group, calling for “Islamic reform”, and a democratic system in Egypt. It built a vast network of support through Islamic charities working among poor Egyptians. After the 2005 elections, members of the Brotherhood, all running as independents because of the ban, were the biggest opposition group in the parliament (88 seats to 14 seats for the legal opposition). Their exact ideology remained uncertain, did they just demand democracy to reach power, would they stick with democratic principles after having power in their hands? Many members espoused more liberal views but a detailed political platform in 2007 demanded, among other things, a board of Muslim clerics to oversee the government and to limit the office of the presidency to Muslim men. The 10-15 percent of Coptic Christians in the country would thereby automatically be excluded. A woman was not suited to be president because the office’s religious and military duties “conflict with her nature, social and other humanitarian roles”. Mubarak could always present himself as a bulwark against “the islamists”, if I institute democratic reforms they will come to power, so you better stick with me, the devil you know.
Many countries in the Arab World faced the same situation. Long-term authoritarian leaders were running their countries badly and the people had to deal with the consequences. Pressure for change was building up, the young generation was jobless and angry. In December 2010, the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in response to the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation inflicted on him by a municipal official and her aides. Protests spread, Bouazizi died in early January and in mid-January Tunisia’s authoritarian ruler fled the country. Protests began in nearly every Arab country, leading to minor political concessions. Six countries became engulfed in major upheavals and it is harrowing to realize that only one country of those, Tunisia, managed to achieve a positive outcome. In Bahrain, the protests were violently supressed. In Libya and Yemen, the government was overthrown but afterwards the countries descended into civil war. In Syria, the government decided to murder as many Syrians as necessary to stay in power.
And what happened in Egypt? Hosni Mubarak fled in February 2011. The military stepped in and organized a constitutional referendum and free and fair elections leading to the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, becoming President. He had a rough year. The Brotherhood had little government experience (how could they have), sections of the state bureaucracy seemed openly hostile, the liberal opposition felt they tilted too much in the Islamic direction and the economy was doing badly. In response against perceived and real enemies, President Morsi became more authoritarian (not unlikely for a person having spent all his live under authoritarian rulers). Millions protested his rule at the end of 2012, millions took to the streets again in June 2013 and then the army acted. Morsi was given 48 hours to meet the demands of the Egyptian people (whatever they may be) and after the ultimatum passed, was removed from office. Ten months later, the leader of the coup, the Minister of Defence and the Commander-in-Chief of the Military Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, had been elected president. Egypt had run the full circle, again it was under the rule of a military man (no matter his civilian clothes).
I visited five months after el-Sisi was sworn into office. Amongst the people I spoke with, he was popular, no one voiced any dissent. Most were hoping for things to become stable and the economic situation to improve. As I write this post (July 2020), things have certainly become stable but of that suffocating stability which kills all initiative and all change. Egypt is more repressive than ever.
I head out to the pyramids of Giza. Nowadays, they are just at the edge of Cairo. The pyramids are breath-taking but I expected the sphinx to be a bit bigger. The souvenir sellers and especially the camel drivers are aggressively looking for business. There is too little pie to feed everybody. In the political turmoil, they had strongly backed the military takeover. In a country with a strong tourism sector political change, as long as it doesn’t come swift, is harder to achieve. If the process is drawn out, tourist numbers will dwindle as possible visitors will think twice about going to a country with an unclear and possibly volatile situation. This leads to an economic downturn which makes every new beginning harder.
The next day, I visit Cairo, first the modern parts like the Cairo Tower, and later the old town with the famous Al Azhar University (and Mosque). I take a guide who brings me to many small mosques and historic buildings. There are so many things to explore.
Modern Alexandria does not reach the level of attractions the city once had. Still, it is a beautiful city with major historic sites (Roman period), mosques, the Alexandria National Museum, Qaitbey fort and the Mediterranean. The Bibliotheka Alexandrina (in memory of a famous predecessor) is an outstanding example of modern architecture. I run twice into trouble with police, who object to me taking pictures of things they should not have the slightest reason to be concerned about. Don’t fu***ng waste my time, do something serious. Be of help to the Egyptian people, not a nuisance.