News flash: the Egyptian February 2011 Revolution was eight months ago. Egypt is open for business.
Yes, there is a lot of trash everywhere. There STILL is a lot of trash everywhere: no change. There still are miles and miles of illegal high rise apartments constructed, believe it or not, with no zoning (“What’s zoning?”), no city services like sanitation, hospitals, schools, garbage collection, and streets that are so narrow it is impossible for ambulances or fire trucks to enter. This was Mubarak policy. Yet there is a lavish, marble palace newly constructed for cruise ships in Alexandria which, of course was designed and built as a “connected” (to the ruling dictatorship) project and is horribly inconvenient for cruise passengers. There are STILL 7 million cars on the streets in Cairo mostly just sitting in traffic and going nowhere. There are still millions living in poverty, children without any school to go to even if they wanted to go to school. It is STILL as confused, complicated, mind-boggling as it ever was, yet as awesome as it ever was.
The only evidences of Revolution I could see were the burned-out headquarters buildings of the old Mubarak ruling party in Alexandria and looming above the National Museum in Cairo, buildings that were burned not by the demonstrators but by the departing dictatorship eager to destroy their incriminating files and papers. Oh, yes, one other difference: the people are happy! People are smiling in the streets. For maybe the first time in thirty years there is hope. People are excited about creating a New Egypt, undaunted by the enormous challenge of rebuilding a society that has been systematically raped for thirty years. Egypt is an economic powerhouse. It has oil, natural gas and, despite being mostly desert, lots of resources. It has a huge population that, in a country already with 82 million people, squeezed into about 15% of the land area of a country three times the size of the US stateof New Mexico, is growing at the rate of about 1 million people a year! Incredibly all the wealth that was pouring into Egypt was in the hands of only 2% of the population. And you had a population where the mean age is and you have all of these literate, educated, and computer savvy young people . . . and they began to ask, “Why?”
What has amazed me most, revisiting Egypt this year, is all the people who smile, and wave as our buses go by, giving us the thumbs up sign, even soldiers on top of tanks waving, and one, on the way to Giza continually blowing kisses to the convoy of tour buses. There is an excitement here. Nobody thinks it will be easy. Nobody thinks it is over. But as Egypt moves this year towards electing for the first time a Parliament (“We never bothered to vote before because we knew before the election was held who the winners would be.”). Then rewriting a constitution. Then next year, actually electing a president, hopefully without superpower interference. [Remember the USA, true to our historical foreign policy, propped up and financed the dictatorship here, as around the world, for years.]
Some things never change. People everywhere are offering the same cheap trinket souvenirs shouting, “$1! $1! My friend, $1.” Life goes on. But the difference is tourists are just returning. One of our guides, a woman with a university degree in Egyptology, told me that our tour group was the first group she had worked in eight months! [“Richard there was a time when I would have killed to have a day off, just to sit at home, without having to work.”] So now that the tourists are trickling back, and people are hungry . . . And that, unfortunately, makes it unpleasant for tourists who come to view the pyramids at Giza and then find themselves assaulted by herds of camel drivers pulling and grabbing at them.
Right now in Egypt there really isn’t a functioning society or government. If there is any shooting going on, it is the tourist industry shooting itself in the foot. Since tourists have to disembark the tour buses to walk through a security check point, why are hundreds of hawkers and camel drivers allowed to enter the Giza monument unchecked? Why have more camel drivers than tourists? To a Westerner the solution seems simple, but in Egypt where there is a long tradition of palms being greased . . .
I know that this is a society where even if child labor were illegal there would be no way to enforce it. But why flaunt it by taking tourists to so-called weaving and carpet “schools” where children work weaving carpets? [“They only work four hours a day.’] “The children do the best work: they work faster.”] By visiting these “schools”, which are about making carpets not education, aren’t the tour companies supported by giant US companies like Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and all the rest complicitly by bringing guests by the hundreds supporting and promoting child labor? As a stockholder I know that this is bad for business and will end up biting Carnival in the butt.
Yes, I know this is not a perfect world. If these kids weren’t in this relatively nice environment (at least what they show the tourists), where they appear to be well treated (Just while we are there or always?), God knows what they would be doing. Supposedly they are going to school which I guess means when they are not working here during the day for four hours they are off to school. When I asked about what appeared to me to be a conflict between school hours and work hours, I was told, “At the end of the year they all have to present a paper saying they were in school.” Of course I had to wonder how much a piece of paper, any piece of paper, driver’s license, whatever, costs in Egypt?)
I know Egypt has a long, long, long way to go, and these carpets (which by the way aren’t nearly as good as those from Turkey which because it is trying to get into the European Union at least has to make a pretense of appearing to outlaw child labor) probably would be made by children anyway since, “The children do the best work: they work faster”, but it leaves a very bad taste in my mouth, and is really an unnecessary part of the tour except for the fact that the tour operator is obviously getting a kick back on cruise passenger carpet purchases. But I think it sucks.
The good news: Egypt is open for business! Egyptians are happy, and happy to see tourists back. Right now you can see Egypt without hordes of tourists.