Watching events unfold in Egypt, it’s hard to believe that I was there 3 weeks ago. I went as part of a tour that whisked us around the country, seeing all of its incredible ancient sites. With a packed itinerary, we didn’t have much free time to explore Egypt’s cities on our own, and I can’t say that I got a feel for what life in Egypt is like. But I watched hundreds of miles of Egypt go by through the windows of buses, cars and trains and here’s a taste of what I saw:
Egypt makes a concerted effort to ensure that tourists see the best of their country – tourism is big business there and a major part of the country’s economy. The areas around the tourist sites are cleaned up, largely free of beggars (but not purveyors of every tschotskes imaginable), and under the watch of police. But stray from the beaten path, as we did one afternoon, and you start to see a different, poorer side of the country.
No matter where we went, the police presence was very visible – perhaps they want to reassure tourists that they’re safe, perhaps they want to discourage the attacks that have targeted tourists in the past, probably it’s a little bit of both. There were checkpoints on just about every road we travelled on, and we learned from our tour guide that the police roughly knew where each group of tourists was throughout the country. And while most of the mandatory police convoys have been eliminated in much of the country, a few still remain; most notably for tourists headed to visit the temple at Abu Simbel.
Another thing you couldn’t miss were the posters of President Hosni Mubarak. They are everywhere. In some, like the one above, he wears mirrored sunglasses and for days we tried to guess (unsuccessfully) what was reflected on his lenses. In others, Mubarak appears to be much younger than his 82 years. But no one ever talked about politics with us. Just about the only time we heard Egyptians talk about Mubarak was when we spent the night in Aswan while Mubarak hosted French Pres. Nicolas Sarkozy at a hotel across the River Nile from ours.
Despite all of these efforts to manage our perceptions of Egypt, we still saw signs of the country’s long-standing troubles – there was no hiding the poverty – particularly rural poverty – that we saw as we travelled around and the New Year’s Day bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria happened while we there. (Being on the tourist track on the opposite end of the country, we didn't really notice a big security response to the bombing and Egyptians didn't really talk about it with us either.)
So I’ve been checking the news from Egypt all week long, seeing how many people are gathering in the streets, watching the government and the police respond, and trying to imagine how this week’s events will change the country.