I just flew from Seattle to Cairo. After being here for just a day, it seems like a week. Of course, I swung by the pyramids, got my mug shot with the Sphinx, and rode a camel. But the real fun has been feeling the pulse of post-revolutionary Egypt in the chaotic streets of ancient Egypt, nothing about life survives. No palaces — only tombs. But experiencing and exploring today’s Egypt is all about life: struggling, finessing, surviving, embracing.
The big news this decade: a people’s revolution to replace the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak with the only alternative well-organized enough to win an election, the Muslim Brotherhood…and the resulting nervousness about what the current government’s true vision for the people is.
The revolution in Egypt is clearly about freedom. With my guide, Hammad, I take a welcome-to-Cairo stroll under once-elegant French facades that seem battered to a pulp and caked in soot. Watching a car pull a U-turn into oncoming traffic, Hammad points out the fine line between freedom and chaos: A four-lane street is now a two-lane street with clothing sales racks swinging under commercial neon, constricting traffic. Women in scarves browse through displays of daring dresses, ignoring the commotion filling the sidewalks.
A merchant tells me, “People can talk freely about our government now. Before the revolution, bite your tongue. But our revolution is only just starting. We have much left to do.” While the country has veered in the direction of fundamentalism and religious rule, the people are most disappointed not with the new religious fervor…but with simple incompetence. There’s a pretty clear consensus on the streets: People think the guys in power simply don’t know how to rule. They’ve managed to put up racks of free books about Islam at all of the tourist attractions, but have yet to figure out how to organize the streets…or even collect the garbage.
Tourism is vital for the Egyptian economy. Oil-rich countries can afford their crazy leaders: Ahmadinejad, Chávez, Gaddafi — Iran, Venezuela, and Libya all had oil to fund their crazy and corrupt ways of governing. But Egypt has little oil, and its economy is in crisis. Egypt needs tourism. The tourist industry here directly employs four million people, and indirectly supports many, many more. I say, “The airport was quiet today.” Hammad says, “That’s not the word. It is dead.” He points to a towering Sofitel Hotel and says, “Only two floors are open out of 20. This is killing us.”
I saw a few German cruise groups at the pyramids, but I didn’t see an American tourist all day. And yet, while tourists are scarce, there are masses of locals everywhere. The city is absolutely teeming. Working my way through chaotic traffic back to the refuge of my hotel, I thought, “Egypt is too intense for many, but I’m really glad I’m here.”
I often call Europe “the wading pool of world exploration.” A city like Cairo isn’t the wading pool. It’s the deep end — and someone turned on the jets. If you can swim, the water’s great. But if you’re not quite ready to dive in, follow me here on my blog for some armchair Egyptian adventures. Starting today, and for the next two weeks or so, I’ll be sharing a couple of posts a day, including video clips, so you and I will be riding the same camel.
Photo by Trish Feaster (For her Egypt blog, see http://thetravelphile.com/.)