Following a brief but glorious revolution (according to popular legend, it began when a 26-year-old woman posted a note on her Facebook page saying, “People, I’m going to Tahrir Square”), Egypt is now stuck with the long and messy business of deciding what comes next.
According to a recent report in USA Today, the country’s unemployment has risen by a third over the past year, while its foreign exchange reserves have dropped by more than 50 percent and revenues from tourism are down a staggering 80 percent. Against the harsh reality of an unsettled political condition, continued outbreaks of violence, and a shattered economy, the whoops of joy in Tahrir Square that greeted the collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s government on Feb. 11, 2011, have become a distant memory. As for the brief three-sided honeymoon involving secular liberals, Islamic fundamentalists, and leaders of the army, that too is a shattered dream.
I returned recently from a week-long trip to Upper Egypt—making a small contribution to the country’s depleted tourism industry and having a delightful time. My wife and I went by boat from Luxor to Aswan and back, with side trips to see the Valley of Kings, Abu Simbel, and other ancient wonders. Getting up at 4 a.m. one day, we took a dawn balloon ride over the Nile at Luxor—brushing over the top of a sugar cane field, rising, crossing the river, and sailing over the magnificent ruins at Karnac, which we had explored on foot the previous day.
Though cocooned in the luxury of a guided tour, there were delays and minor inconveniences that made us almost comically aware of the larger problems confronting Egypt. The group of which we were a part (about 20 people) had to switch boats twice—hurriedly packing and unpacking in the move to new cabins.
We were two days late in casting off from Luxor because of shortages of passengers and diesel fuel. Making the best of bad situation, Angelotel (our hosts) waited for the arrival of a new group from Europe and then put us all together on another vessel. And when at last we sailed, headed south, or upriver, we soon ran into another obstacle. Striking workers had shut down the locks at Esna—making it impossible for our boat and dozens of others to proceed. So now Angelotel moved us by bus to another boat on the upstream side of the locks.
On the bus we saw long lines of stranded trucks—unable to move because the petrol stations had run out of diesel fuel. We also saw lighted and speeding trains that were empty of any passengers because the railroad workers had gone on strike—leaving displaced passengers with bags in hand to queue up on the road for buses to continue their journeys. Like the lock workers, the railway workers were demanding higher wages from their near-bankrupt government.
Throughout these misadventures, Mahmoud, our tour guide—trained in archeology at the University of Cairo—never lost his calm, his charm, or his sense of humor. But he did seem almost ready to despair of the “Revolution”—as he repeatedly and lovingly called it at the outset of the trip. He told us jokingly on parting: “If you would do a favor for me, please put me in your suitcase and take me with you.”
Yet as Mahmoud also told us, no other country in the world comes close to Egypt in the extraordinary wealth of her archeological treasures—the product of a long history as a single close-knit cultural entity. In some Moslem countries, it is possible to believe that history begins with the prophet Muhammad around 600 A.D. But the Islamic period comprises less than 20 percent of Egypt’s history—and everywhere there are reminders of how the country has held together and prospered over seven millennia. In the richest of her past, I believe, lies strength for Egypt’s future. What other hope is there?