The first thing we see when our ferry drops us in Nuweiba after having spent some weeks in Jordan (LIEN), it’s a pyramid, yes the pointy thing. But not the one that is on the postcards, here it’s a construction out of rusted metal with dirty windows. We had read before that Egypt is amongst the cheapest countries in the world, and poverty choked us while walking through the houses in Nuweiba, which are usually one half broken and the other half not finished. Egypt that we will discover seems very different from Cleopatra’s one.
From the big rock pyramid to the small rusted metal pyramid. What happened?
After having peeled all the bushes of the neighbourhood in -10,000 (more or less hé), the hunters-gatherers started to think that it wouldn’t be so much of a bad idea to settle down for a little while. So they invented agriculture followed by writing, to start many empires and to change Pharaoh often, to get invaded by the Persians, the Ottomans and co, and to build some pyramids, like the well known Gizah ones in -2,500. We will let you read the history of Ancient Egypt for those who want to know more in detail.
The control of the Ottoman Empire ends in 1914 and the country falls under a British Protectorate, until Nasser forces King Farouk during the 1952 revolutions to leave the power. Nasser has been a great actor of this time dreaming of a bigger unity of Arabic states (Pan-Arabism) and the motor of a strong liberalisation wave for Egypt. Very authoritarian, which is something that has often been reproached to him, he managed to implement many reforms concerning among others education, the status of women, social care, or nationalisation of big companies like the Suez channel. At the end of his term, which happens to be his death as well (yeah man, you shouldn’t overstress like that), the economic situation in Egypt is critical and the country is far from being out of poverty, but it became in the meantime the Arabic countries’ cultural hub and a significant actor worldwide. Someone told us that “the books were written is Egypt, printed in Lebanon and read in Irak”!
This era is followed by a Sadat’s decade , who’s main (and only?) achievement is a peace treaty with Israel and the taking back of Sinai territories. He is assassinated by an extremist. Mubarak takes over in 1981 and remains in power until the recent Arab Spring revolutions of 2011.
All these years, many different extremist groups made their way in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood being a major one. Since 1980, attacks against tourists and officials are relatively common and Mubarak struggles containing on one side the feeling of terror spreading across the country and the huge population growth, who like many populations, would love to work and eat a little bit.
2011 Egyptians cannot take it any more, and the revolution explodes. The constant state of war, the lack of freedom and justice, the abuses of police forces, corruption and the excessive price of goods of first necessity like bread are all factors that led to this revolution. Demonstrators invade the cities yelling “bread, liberty, social justice” and ask for Mubarak’s retreat. This one ends up leaving the country because the protests became too important, and the Muslim Brotherhood establish their control of the country through Mohamed Morsi who puts into strategic positions a good amount of the crew. But well, he will not stay long on his throne, ’cause Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has prepared a nice cute coup d’état, zoum zoum, like this, happening in July 2013. The Muslim Brotherhood, declared terrorist organization by many governments, is a powerful foe for Sisi who kills or puts into jail hundreds of them during the demonstrations.
It is at this time that un tour deux singes comes in to rock the place and solve the conflict, like we are used to. Our article has to be read like if we were in July 2015 because things change quickly in Egypt. When we were crossing the country, the Egyptian government was in the middle of a war against the Muslim Brotherhood and all their supporters. For example a friend of our hosts in Cairo, in student exchange, has been thrown out of the country while she was writing her thesis about the Muslim Brotherhood and had met some of them. Egypt is traditionally a very militarized country, and nowadays, army is even more in shape than usual. Freedom of speech is not far from non existent.
And we arrive in the middle of all this with our beautiful ideals, that solving problems by killing people is never a solution, that media cannot be censored no matter the finality, and more of this young European blabla. From the discussions we had, especially in Cairo, it seems that reality is not that simple. The demonstrations and the different attacks created at the times of the revolution a real feeling of terror for the Egyptians, especially the average people living in Cairo. The seizure of the state by the army truly has calmed down the situation and improved the general tensed climate, even if it was by enchaining (literally and figuratively) all journalists and bloggers, and killing many Muslim Brothers.
So, like we saw, it’s quite a bazar now in Egypt.
Lack of tourism and security reinforcement
On the way from Nuweiba to Dahab, “the hippie Mecca of Egypt”, incredible diving spot which made the city very touristic, we are racing with a camel who found himself on the middle of the road, before stopping with emotion at our first Egyptian check-point. It will not be the only time that we will be stopped. After a paper control in order to check that we are not mean terrorists (yep, ISIS is in Sinai), and the Red Sea opens again in front of our eyes. Surprise here, the touristic centre we were expecting is almost empty of tourists! So empty that we manage to get, without really trying to negotiate, a room for such a cheap price that we wonder if the owner is not losing money hosting us. Since the Arab Spring, Egypt that accounts on a fair amount of its budget on the Suez canal and tourists has seen its country deserted leaving the Pharaohs really happy and chilled in their pyramids. The huge boats operating Nile cruises are all stopped on the side of the river. Tourists got afraid and chose more calm places like Greenland, despite police and army doing their best to secure most areas. All along the country our travelling style allowed us to have the most interesting relations with the “bulice” as they call them there. Egypt is really afraid for its own image that anything could happen to a tourist, therefore policemen, probably only wanting the best for our safety, defend us from camping and make us sleep at the bulice office, or forbid us to hitchhike and pay us the train or bus ticket. We were also looking suspect when hitchhiking so doing only their duty, they stopped us at every check-point. And sometimes just to be real cowboys they drove crazy after us in their big armoured car to forbid our driver to drop us anywhere before reaching Suez (out of Sinai and therefore more secure). Actually it is quite simple: there are the place for tourists, a bit lame but it’s allowed to be here. And all that’s in between two tourists sites is, not theoretically but in practice, “forbidden” for the traveller. Egypt with our travelling style is difficult and tiresome, especially in our relation with the bulice.
Aggressivity, tension and hospitality
But tiresome as well in our relation with the restaurant or diving centre hawkers only pooping out of their siesta (LIEN) to jump on to our necks, offering the most marvellous deals or tours with half-starved horses. Because we are “not allowed” to stay out of touristic areas, we have mostly monetary exchanges with the locals. Negotiation, talent that neither Rémi nor Arthur is blessed with, is a normal thing here. But the sellers don’t really play the game: when we have negotiated to bread price the first day, it will have changed every day after when we come back, sometimes doubling. Prices seem to be very random and each time one wants to buy something, it has to come prepared. Several days in a row in Aswan, several times a day, we cross the Nile on a small ferry, and every time we have to get angry because we know the official price, and we would like to pay this price. (Getting angry is by the way a very good technique to get what you want in all Egyptians exchanges!) And Egyptians, like Jordanians, will always try in random ways to extract some money out the tourist; for example when we go sleep on the beach in Nuweiba on our first night, locals try to make us pay until they understand we will not, and then become so nice and let us do what we wish.
The tension of the Ramadan end because people are tired adds a lot of aggressivity between people and in our relation with vendors. In Cairo we will see more than one time a day fights and conflicts, which of course attract the entire neighbourhood. Here, one likes to jump into other people’s affairs. Egyptian seem as well not to have the same conception of sleep as we have. They can sleep anywhere and it is very normal to wake up somebody any time and for any reason. For example when sleeping at the police station after forbiding us to camp, they were waking us up every hour to ask us questions like “but actually how do you finance your trip?”.
And at the same time hidden in between all these tough aspects of Egypt, we still have found this hospitality and kindness of people. While the European conception of hitchhiking is unknown here, cars stop quickly and we soon hop from the one to the other. Well, after they still didn’t get our point and drop us at the bus station, but the intention is good! When we look for Sharm el-Sheikh’s public beach in order to spend the night there, the first answer we get is “no no not possible”. Five minutes and a light negotiation later, here we are facing the sea, people from the surroundings bringing us more food than our stomachs can absorb, and even two beers each from the pub next door.
Conservatism and other worlds
We have been talking a bit about Ramadan in our article about Jordan, and like there, we have been invited several times as well in Egypt during Iftar, sometimes on the sidewalk between the cars of Cairo, with Bedouins in the middle of the Sinai desert, or with the checkpoint policemen. It’s the tradition: during Ramadan everybody, especially the traveller, must be able to eat at nightfall. This religious tradition is not the only sign of a strong conservatism in Egypt which is in clear opposition with the others tourists and the expat world. While during Nasser’s era society was much more liberal, it is now trying to take distance from Western influence to get back to values closer to Islam. Most women wear the veil, and an impressive percentage are totally covered (niqab). Bars are by law not allowed to serve alcohol to Egyptian citizens during Ramadan, no matter if they are Muslims or not which forces Christian Egyptians to follow the rule. The beers our nice beach hosts offered us in Sharm el-Sheikh seem therefore to touch the boundary of law. But these “tourist parks” are exceptions just like the rich hotel rooftops which are full of expat. Sharm el-Sheikh city, a giant Ruskovland, is a big hamster wheel for Russians and British coming to buy plastic souvenirs and admire fake whirling dervish. And here Egyptian law has no real enforcement, like Dahab we talked about earlier.
From time to time we must as well undergo sexist notice while travelling with our female friend Marie, or a classic preacher trying to convince us to read the Quran, either persuaded that you will become a better person if you do so, or afraid for you when the bells of your death will ring and you didn’t convert.
We mentioned as well the poverty that shocked us in Nueiba but something else surprised us: it is this huge Mosque, new and clean, shiny and neat, all surrounded by houses falling apart and poverty.
Mess and noise.
While travelling here, there is something that is impossible to miss and that seems to be in the very heart of Egyptian culture: the mess. This is really Egypt’s picture for us, people everywhere at any time, honking cars, noise, camels on the road, goats in the middle of Cairo’s soukh, and thousands of others crazy things, Cairo being the peak of it. In Cairo, when you don’t know what to do simply walk around because it is a real life theatre. So impressive that after half an hour your brain is done with all this turmoil! We had the whole lot with Ramadan’s end when everybody is nervous and tired, and stop to sleep during the night. So people get into conflicts all day long, or sleep EVERYWHERE in the most random places.
Cairo is considered as the most noisy city in the world, and from our experience it is true! Here you better convince yourself that honks are pretty bird songs, even though you manage to get used to it (a little bit). Shisha bars all around the city are often packed and the chaos there is very organized. Waiter come every five minute to check if your coal is still burning well, and one of them is spending his entire evening only preparing shishas in an industrial way. One drinks tea, one discusses politics, one tries to stop the waiter to tell him a joke. And of course, only men or (female) foreigners.
Crossing a street in Cairo is a sport, an art. Cross the first line, then stop just so two buses can drive right in front and back of you, three steps forward, the car avoids you, forward again. Those who are good or born in Cairo develop some kind of sixth sense and manage to calculate instinctively the way to walk in order to, without changing pace, go through all this cars driving at different speeds! We tried as well but it was not always a success. And in between all these cars there is a very special specie, the on-bicycle-bread-deliverer. It is someone on a bicycle zigzagging through the cars (which is already an exploit), but at the same time carrying on his head a 3-meters long wooden mesh holding a bread pyramid. It allows the bread to cool down and for the delivery man not to burn himself on the way from the bakery to the place he has to bring it.
This is our article about Egypt, article written with quite some hindsight as we were there more than seven months ago!