I am a firm believer that you have to visit and experience a country in order to be able to write about it with at least a degree of authority. I studied the history of the Arab world – from the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 BC to the Arab Spring – for over four years, but it is not until you visit the country and chat to its citizens that you truly get a sense for the atmosphere and general feeling. Having said that, for me Egypt defies this theory to some extent, it remains unfathomably complex: my visit gave me a very clear picture of the general mood of the country: one of desperation and tension; but there is so much more to every story. I had a long conversation with one of my course mates who studied there for the year, and his reflections proved revealing to an extent. It could be very easy to travel around Egypt ignoring the politics and the people, just focusing on its ancient history, but it would also be ignorant to do so.
Egypt is one of the oldest countries in the world, with traces of civilization tracking back to 6000 BC. Within its lands, writing, urbanisation, organized religion and notions of government were born. It has been ruled by some of the most formidable leaders of all time, from Rameses II and Cleopatra VII to Alexander the Great and has been within the realms of all the great empires: Pharaonic, Ptolemaic, Roman, Abbasid, Ottoman and British to name but a few. Modern Egypt, as we know it now, traces to 1922, when it gained independence from the British Empire (note here once again, the immense British influence in the region). British military presence remained prominent up until the 1952 Coup d’état, led by Gamal Nasser and a group of Egyptian soldiers. They ousted King Farouk and established a republic, with Nasser as the President. Nasser promulgated pan-Arabism throughout the region and outlawed political parties. His rule was oppressive and authoritarian in nature, but he was a cult figure, not least after the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956, a huge political victory for Egypt over the Western powers. A comrade of Nasser’s in the 1952 coup, Anwar Sadat, succeeded him, and u-turned on many of Nasser’s policies, opening up Egypt economically and reinstituting a multi-party system. Six years after victory in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, where Egypt regained the Sinai Peninsula from Israel, he signed a peace treaty with them. Although many in Egypt were happy, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamist movement, denounced it. It was a major factor in his assassination by in 1981 by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. From here, Hosni Mubarak took over, and proceeded to rule over Egypt for 30 years. It was an oppressive, corrupt and military style rule; Mubarak was paranoid of succumbing to the same fate as his predecessor and with good reason – the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to assassinate him six times. In the latter years of his presidency, increasing police brutality and internal oppression, combined with an economic crisis that saw low wages and food prices rising, saw the Egyptian people took to the streets as part of the region wide Arab Spring.
This revolution was not spurred on by the inspirational leadership of an individual though, nor by the collective spirit of an ideology; it spread online through social media and into the streets throughout Egypt on one, organized day in January. Strategic essentialism prevailed – nationalist, liberal and even Islamist groups came together to violently oppose the government. Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the place and symbol of political discontent, was home to over 300,000 protestors at one time. Dozens of people have been killed in clashes on the anniversary of these uprisings every year since. Mubarak stepped down after just 18 days of demonstrations. Mohamed Morsi, a political figure aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood took over, but there were no significant changes in the regime or its policies. The Egyptian people now held the belief that they had the power and ability to demand change, and Morsi was ousted by what manifested ultimately as a military coup, and current President General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi seized power. He remains in power now, but rules with no true popular mandate. He won the 2018 presidential elections with 97% of the vote, with 41% turn out.
Egypt’s violent and tumultuous modern history then, under the leadership of five major authoritative men, provides the backdrop and context for exploring the country. We travelled down Egypt from top to bottom, driving over, training beside and sailing on the River Nile. We began in Cairo, last year voted the most polluted city in the world and the worst city to live in as a woman. The city is big, busy and bustling, with a thinly veiled cloud of fog hanging over it – both physically and metaphorically. Many Egyptians are extremely poor by global standards, which for foreigners, makes the country cheap. In 2018, oil prices rose by over 50%, in line with IMF-backed austerity measures. Just like us, Egyptians want value for money and to be treated fairly, and just like us, they are not afraid now, to voice their opinion about it. Whereas western media outlets consistently label this as ‘rising tensions’ or ‘disgruntlement’ and ‘discontentment’ with the government, I challenge you to turn around for a minute and look at the nature of our own politics. Hands up who is disgruntled or discontent. We spent an evening sitting in a baladi bar of downtown Cairo, what used to be the finest drinking establishment in the city, with the best cabaret shows and a prime location for topical conversation. Whilst the glamour has been lost – the vast spaces are now a mish-mash of wooden tables and chairs, cigarette smoke and waiters circling the room with trays of Egyptian Stella – the conversation and debate is still flowing.
The politics of the nation may have engulfed it in recent years, but 10,000 years of history still makes Egypt incredibly special. The Great Pyramids of Giza, that sit in their own little desert expanse next to the unfinished buildings of the city, are a spectacle. They made us gasp in awe and in wonder, not least because of their sheer size. The area is packed with tourists and sellers; but walk beyond the biggest pyramid and you are left wandering alone between the rocks and ruins of the tombs of the early Pharaohs. We roamed for hours around the Cairo museum, where many of the jewels and treasures hidden in these Pyramids, and much of that from the Valley of the Kings, has now been displayed. Our guide made a joke about the UK still having the Rosetta stone in its own British Museum (British troops having transported it to London in 1801); a joke yes, but the uncomfortable undertones of what he said insinuated something else.
We travelled, seven girls, on a local microbus to Alexandria, where to my naivety, surprise and disappointment at expecting to see two more Wonders of the Ancient World – the Lighthouse of Alexandria and its famous library – I learnt that both no longer existed. Alexandria itself is now is an industrial port town; fantastic fish, a lively corniche, but just an inch of the city that it must have resembled under Alexander the Great. Harassment in Egypt, too, is noticeably more present than in other Arab countries. We were shouted at more often, leered at more obviously and had men coming up to us more frequently.
Back in Cairo, we boarded an overnight train that followed the meanders of the Nile. I went to bed reading Agatha Christie’s ‘Death on the Nile’, to wake up looking out over papyrus and palm plantations and the river glistening in the morning sun. Between mice in the compartment and food poisoning, we reached Aswan, a small town in the south of Egypt. What became evident very quickly, is how desperate people are. Tourism, once Egypt’s biggest source of income, has all but vanished since the Arab Spring. We went riding into the desert, passing shops, hotels and restaurants that were completely boarded up. One man I met even said that he felt times were better under Mubarak, so much is the economy and tourist industry suffering. The south of Egypt, close to the Sudanese border, has a very different feel about it. Although actually, a lot of Egypt outside of Cairo has a different feel to it. Rural life versus the urban one provides a stark contrast. Bedouins still roam the remote parts of the country and I was told a story that reaffirmed the notion of Arab hospitality that I feared had been lost on Egypt. Hitchhiking outside of the desert, Bedouins took in my friend, shared everything with him – the bones of the lamb they had found, pasta they had and gave my friend the sole bedroom that they usually all shared.
We drove over the Aswan Dams and took the bus to the Abu Simbel temples, escorted by the police. These enormous rock temples, were relocated in an historic archaeological project, on the formation of Lake Nasser; they would have been completely submerged otherwise. From Aswan, we took the train up to Luxor to visit the Valley of the Kings. Most of the jewels and treasures were robbed by tomb raiders (yes, think Lara Croft and Indiana Jones for reference), but those of Tutankhamun were salvaged and relocated to the Cairo Museum. Tutankhamun himself was a relatively unimportant Pharaoh, but discovery of his tombs and treasures preserved almost perfectly by British man Howard Carter in 1922 made interest in Ancient Egypt, and in King Tut himself, skyrocket.
You cannot deny that the history of this country is magnificent and rich, but the conditions of the country at the current time are a picture of despair, fear and tension. In Egypt, tensions have boiled over, subsided and boiled over again; but with the rate of female genital mutilation at around 85% and the President contending the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as a political party as well as fighting the presence of ISIL in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt is facing big, internal battles that mean its future is hard to predict. Just this week even, the government restricted the sale of yellow vests in fear of protests akin to those of France; next month is the anniversary of the 2011 uprisings. But politics with a capital P is one thing. Whilst we may often peer in on the nation and its woes, we have to remember that the people, Egypt’s vast population, are just that: people, trying to make a living and get on with their lives amidst and breathing in this cloud of pollution and political uncertainty.