Today I spent in Alexandria, yesterday in Port Said. Since I’ve made the 3.5 hour bus ride from the ship in Port Said to Cairo five times this season, I didn’t figure I needed to do it again. Today I rode with our guests around Alexandria.
I guess I was surprised that we didn’t abort our call in Egypt, given the demonstrations and convulsions going on in the country. But I am not the Captain or “the Company” who decided, after consultation with the US Embassy in Egypt, that since the demonstrations were political, not aimed at tourists [and in fact quite the opposite, tourists have been welcomed with smiles and open arms throughout our calls in Egypt this season] and given that Cairo is huge and the demonstrations are concentrated, the decision was made to go ahead, but not include the Egyptian Museum which is in the square at the heart of the demonstrations. It turned out to be the correct decision: our guests had a fantastic day in Giza and didn’t encounter any demonstrations or problems.
The initial euphoria of Egyptians has vanished and the reality is that there is still a dictatorship in Egypt, now a military dictatorship. Those out of synch with the military regime have been carted off to military prisons and tried by military, not civilian courts. The Egyptian Army has always been the power behind the throne, regardless of the dictator at the head. Mubarek came out of the army, was supported by the army, was told by the army to step down, and now is held in an army compound as a prisoner. And there are those who think that he may still be influencing the country’s direction from within the army compound. Egypt is by no means free or democratic.
In response to increasing frustration amongst Egyptians, most of whom are as poor, if not poorer, than before the February 2011 Revolution. There is still no transparency in Egypt. The secret police is still active. Everything has changed and nothing has changed. There is a public “line” which is carefully articulated but often has nothing to do with the reality.
Whether orchestrated by troublemakers from the Muslim Brotherhood, ex-Mubarek cronies who were making millions with insider deals, or thugs, or the army, or whomever, attacks against the Christian Coptic minority is producing modern day martyrs for the faith.
The last time I went to Cairo, on the overnight tour twelve days ago, I noticed a distinct difference in the commentary being presented by the guides. Our guide dismissed the demonstrations of February 2011 as a “social protest organized on Facebook”! You saw the February 2011 Revolution on TV: did it look like a “social protest” or a revolution? The guide’s interpretation of history: “to preserve peace President Mubarek stepped down”. To me it looked more like he was toppled and thrown out!
My first trip to Cairo this season we had a fantastic guide, whom I’ll call “Paula” (not her real name). Like all the guides she is university trained and an Egyptologist. When we asked about the Revolution and her personal experience, she frankly told us what led up to the Revolution and about her own activist participation in the demonstrations. Interestingly when I talked to some folks who had the same guide twelve days ago, they complained that she didn’t say anything about the Revolution, or the issues and problems in Egypt, something which naturally is of major interest to our guests.
Obviously the guides had been given a new script and told what to say [“Christians and Muslims all get along together”] and what not to say. And in a climate of fear and secret police, the security man on the bus, or the bus driver could be reporting to the secret police.
So, although for our guests, on the surface at least, things appeared peaceful if chaotic (normal in Egypt), underneath the thin veneer things are still rotten in Egypt. Normal Egyptians, long-denied the basic freedoms and necessities of life that most of us take fore granted are once again taking to the streets. This time the army is not standing by and watching but violently repressing demonstrations and dissent. As of this writing over 37 protestors have been confirmed killed, thousands more injured . . . And against this background how authentic can be the elections for parliament scheduled for next week?
While I know the our visits to Egypt this season were welcomed as a symbol that life in Egypt was returning to normal, and we certainly felt welcome and helped some guides, bus drivers, hotels, camel drivers and street vendors, maybe we were just inadvertently contributing to false hope.
Egyptians are at a cross roads. Democracy does not happen overnight. Several of our guides have respectfully asked for us to pray for Egypt, and we should. Perhaps the prayers are more needed that the billions of US-taxpayer dollars given to further empower the Egyptian army.
[Perhaps the $1.3 billion the US contributes to the Egyptian army might better be used to support our own Veterans. I said something similar in a lecture and one guest assured me that the $1.3 billion wasn’t just “given” to the Egyptian army, but had to be used by the Egyptian army to buy weaponry from the US military-industrial complex. Is that just another form of US bailout money cleverly disguised?]