I’ve been in Egypt since Sept. 26, hanging out at the Mena House in Giza until I join a Uniworld Splendors of Egypt tour that I’m covering for Cruise Critic. It’s a very posh way to spend a few days, so I’ve been removed from the typical day-to-day life of the Egyptians, many of whom are personally hurting since the Jan. 25 revolution.
Tourism is Egypt’s second largest income source, and it’s dropped dramatically since the revolution. At the Mena House, occupancy stands at 30 percent, and several of the hotel’s restaurants and nightclubs are temporarily closed. Traditionally, western tourists visit Egypt between October and April, with a concentration at Christmas and New Year. In the summer, tourists from other Arab countries come; this year, the Arab Spring and unrest cut travel way down, people told me.
As a result, my time in the hotels reminds me of Mexico after the swine flu scare. From a tourist viewpoint, it’s a mixed bag: you get fantastic service, continual upgrades (I had a four room suite at Mena House, and a Nile River view at the Four Seasons) and reduced prices. Yet quiet hotels and empty restaurants feel a bit eerie, plus I felt continually guilty and tipped more to compensate (sorry, Don).
The Egyptian Gazette – the Middle East’s oldest English language daily – came to my room every day. There, I read about many of the problems that have affected Cairo since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took control after President Hosni Mubarak was forced out. Cairo’s traffic, already deadly, has gotten worse as the police pulled out, as has theft and crime. Strikes and protests over jobs and wages have diminished public services, forcing people to use illegal (and expensive) private transportation.
Despite these issues, the Egyptians I met say they are optimistic. From the few people I talked to, they are eager to experience a society under a Western-style democracy, led by politicians elected by the people with term limits – instead of the president-for-life style leaders they’ve had in the past. “Now we know what freedom is,” my guide Abdo El-Lahamy said. “Before it was just a word.”
I had hired Abdo as my guide for two days, both to see the sights and run some errands. I had debated doing the trip in a closer-to-the-ground manner, but decided that since I was alone (and exhausted after back-to-back press trips), I wanted someone to make things easier. He turned out to be a great choice for me, as he not only spoke good English and knew the ancient sites such as Saqqara, Dashur and Memphis, he was politically active and involved in the January revolution. His services cost $120 for two seven-hour days; I ended up paying him more (again, sorry, Don). If you’re coming to Egypt, he can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. I found him on TripAdvisor, where he has many positive reviews. He’s also active on social media, which gave us a common interest. “With Facebook and Twitter, we can say what we want,” he said. “It’s better. It’s the Facebook revolution!”
I went into Tahrir Square Friday to watch the preparations for the Sept. 30 protest, which had been billed in the newspaper as a million man march. The US Embassy had sent out an alert about the protest to those signed up for its STEP program, but Abdo assured me that we’d be fine in the morning before prayers let out.
And we were, save for one vendor who wanted to cause trouble about my photos. A small crowd gathered around, but Abdo, who was in the square during the revolution, quickly diffused the situation. I received permission from organizers to walk around freely, and they even told the young touts selling jewelry to leave me alone. I saw my angry friend again on Saturday, and she waved.
I had dressed for my day in Cairo carefully, wearing a maxi dress and carrying a scarf, which I put on my head when we entered the square. Most Egyptian women that I saw in Cairo were wearing loose full-body coverings and hajibs, although black niqab – where the entire face except the eyes are covered – were also common. Abdo told me that women’s clothing has been getting more conservative (between the 1920s and the 1970s, you rarely saw headscarves here).
As we walked around, Abdo explained the Arabic signs. The protest was taking place because Egyptians don’t trust the Army to handle the upcoming November elections in a fair and uncorrupt manner, he said. One of the transitional leaders caused an outrage earlier in the week when he showed up in public wearing a suit; although he claimed he was going to a wedding, many Egyptians felt the clothing change signaled that he was gearing up for campaign mode.
Egyptians are also upset with the current state of emergency law imposed by SCAF. Such law should only be imposed by Parliament, which has not met, Abdo said. It also means that people can be arrested and put in jail without a hearing, and promotes censorship (since I’ve been here, the offices of Al-Jazeera have been raided twice). The law, first enacted in 1958, has been in effect almost non-stop since 1967, and it’s the main problem that protesters had with Mubarak’s government and now the Army.
Discovering that I was American, one protestor chastised me for the recent decision by the US to boycott Palestine’s entry into the United Nations. This came up again, when I drank tea with Abdo and his cousin in Coptic Cairo. People in Egypt have been watching carefully how the US handles its relationships with other countries during the Arab Spring time of transition, and they asked me about all of its permeations: Why is the US still supporting Syria? Why is the Senate considering imposing conditions for its foreign aid? Does anyone in the US care about the killings in Bahrain? I didn’t have the heart to tell them that when I had turned on CNN that day, the main story was the Michael Jackson trial.
Although Cairo is primarily Islamic, I didn’t experience any discrimination for my religion (which is considered Christian, even though I can’t remember the last time I went to church as anything other than a tourist. Egypt doesn’t recognize atheists, Abdo told me: “That’s between you and your God”). We visited Amr Ibn el-Aas Mosque, the oldest mosque in Africa, where one of imams greeted us personally, giving me several English booklets about Islam and allowing me to take photos.
At the mosque, I did have to don an unflattering overdress that covered my arms and head. There’s just no way that a blonde woman can be inconspicuous in Egypt; while in Coptic Cairo, two diminutive Arabic women wanted to take their picture with me. “Is it because I’m big?” I asked Abdo. “No, it’s because you are very blonde,” he replied.
Religions have co-existed in Cairo since the beginning of the city, Abdo told me. “All religions come from Egypt,” Abdo said, pointing to Moses’ upbringing and the Holy Family’s flight from Israel. Mainstream Egyptians worry about fundamentalists getting more power, he said. “Cairo is for everyone.”
Tell that to the police. Today, Abdo drove me from Mena House to the Four Seasons at Nile Plaza in Cairo, where I’ll be meeting my cruising companions from Uniworld. We stopped back at Tahrir Square so I could pick up a duffel to house the fabric wall hangings I bought, and encountered packs of police lined up on the corners.
Abdo seemed disgusted. “The people want to go back into the Square, but they won’t let them,” he said, referencing the sit ins that the revolutionaries have been threatening to hold. It wasn’t the only protest going on today; streets were blocked by members of the medical community, upset over their wages and hours.
“Are the cops paid well?” I asked Abdo. “No one is paid well,” he said. “Unless you are a businessman or take bribes.” Perhaps it’s the lack of pay that’s responsible for their ineffectiveness; we sat in traffic for nearly 40 minutes to go a few blocks to the hotel after police forced us to go down a street the wrong way. As the horns blew, a few men took matters into their own hands and started directing cars. “This is what we do now,” Abdo said. “The police, they are useless.”
Now once again ensconced in a 5-star bubble, I can hear the horns continue from my room, 17 floors above the chaotic streets. The tour I’ll be taking is a luxury one, and I wonder how my traveling companions will react to Cairo, even as I’m not quite sure how I feel about it. Tourists fearing problems should know that they easily can avoid them, even as the Egyptian Revolution continues to be a work in progress. “We will not stop until we have true freedom,” Abdo said. Judging by what I’ve seen so far, I believe him.