By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Egypt today strikes one as a land of symbols. Graffiti on a wall of a faded cross and crescent in the colors of the Egyptian flag in Old Cairo. At first thought an image of harmony, faded because of the hardships people have passed through during the Muslim Brotherhood’s tenure in power in 2012-2013, but on second thought it bares resemblance to part of the New Wafd Party’s logo. Is it a political or a religious message then? A police post at the Great Pyramids has Chinese characters, Chinese seem to be the vast majority of tourists today. At the Coptic St. Mary’s Church there are posters of the political leaders of Egypt going back to Gamal Abdel Nasser. One is missing: Mohammed Morsi. Groppi coffee shop downtown is closed for renovation.
Galal Amin has written a book titled Whatever Happened to the Egyptian Revolution. It is for sale in a few shops and alleys that sell English books. Its title alone poses an interesting question. What happened to the Arab Spring of 2011, six years on. Egyptians still call 2011 and 2013, when the protests and the military overthrew the Brotherhood, “revolutions.” There are other symbols. The composition of the 48th International Cairo Book Fair. Sharjah, Libya National Accord, and Kurdistan-Iraq are all on display, as is ample space for the defense ministry. Iran is not there. Probably the region’s most prestigious and largest, and most historic. Cairo is a capital of culture and history in the Middle East. But it is also one of the few historic Arab capitals that has not been scarred deeply by conflict in the last years, the way Baghdad and Damascus have fallen.
What else strikes one in Cairo is the city’s epic expanse. The City of the Dead, the City of Garbage, the soviet-style buildings and planning. The canals clogged with garbage. The government seeks to cover them up, rather than clean one. Much like one covers up the problems of a country, rather than root them out, or change them. These are some of the symbols.
Tourists at the pyramid of Khafre at Giza
Tourism has been Egypt’s bane since the 18th century. Napoleon brought his scientists and explorers here. Hieroglyphs were deciphered in 1822. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has 26,000 items from Egypt. Egypt is probably the most studied country in the world. Of course that doesn’t mean the whole country, just bits of it. And the same goes for tourism. In 2010 around 15% of Egypt’s economy was affected by tourism and 14 million people came. Built in 2500 BCE and after, they are the most visited site in Egypt (around 4 million a year give or take) although not the most visited in the world.
Since the 2011 revolution there has been a decline in tourism. Even in 2016 there was a further 68% decline from the year before. This has been a disaster for the country. To take up the slack Chinese are being flown in, and they seem to be enjoying it. At the Great Pyramids we saw dozens of buses full of Chinese tourists. It doesn’t seem they buy items at the same volume as westerners and, cozy on their buses, they move in more controlled herds. At the Khan al-Khalili market there were few tourists in a place where there used to be many.
They pyramids themselves are of such epic and grand stature that it is clear why they were one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. They are the only surviving one. The pyramid of Khafre here contains millions of stones and it is incomprehensible how it was ever constructed. Unlike its neighbors it still contains the casing stones at the top that give it a smooth surface once.
Faded grandeur at the Mena House Hotel
Mena House Hotel was the site of the gatherings of European elites for a century. During the Second World War WInston Churchill was here. Later it was nationalized by the government but recently has returned to its place in history as an exquisite hotel. Above the entrance sits a faded and once beautiful kind of hanging light.
It is a reminder of the long and arduous colonial history in Egypt, one that fully ended in the 1950s. Like some of the homes in Heliopolis or the shops in downtown Cairo, the colonial era has been overtaken by history and the almost hundred million people who now live in the country. Minorities, such as the Greek population that once numbered 140,000, or the Maltese (20,000 in 1939) and Armenians (17,000 in 1927) have declined and faded away. The population of Egypt was 20 million in 1952 and 70% of it was rural. That has declined toward 50% today. Fertility rates are around 3.5. Most of the population lives along the Nile river, concentrated on 3.5% of the land area of the country.
The faded light reminds us of the words many used to describe Egypt in the last decades. “Ossified,” or “stagnation.” The dust of the ages built up under Hosni Mubarak’s thirty years of rule, signs faded, infrastructure weakened. The Arab Spring didn’t bring change to that, but it also didn’t bring further destruction. This is a positive thing for a country that was the center of the Arab world in the 1960s, a country whose military affected the region, that once was united with Syria, once meddled in the affairs of Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Whose radio stations and cinema were the most influential. Stagnation is better than decline, better than chaos, and instability. Dust is better than destruction.
Since the Luxor massacre of 58 people in 1997 Egypt has been deeply concerned about Islamist extremism affecting the country. The roots of this go deeper, the conflict with Sayyid Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s, Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the 1980s, the assassination of Sadat, the insurgency and terror of El Gamaa Al-Islamiya in the 1990s, and the terrorism that has stalked Egypt in the last twenty years in various forms. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was born in Egypt in 1951. Terror threats now come from ISIS affiliates such as Ansar Bait al-Maqdis or Wilayet Sinai, and numerous other extremists and lone wolves. Some Egyptians we spoke with claim the Brotherhood carried out around 3,000 crimes during its period in power and after.
What is paramount for the country is protecting itself today. Security for tourists is suffocating to an extent. In 2015 twelve people, including Mexican tourists, were killed by mistake by the security forces. The downing of a Russian airliner in Sinai (Egypt disputes if terror brought it down) turned Sharm el-Sheikh into a “ghost town” as thousands were evacuated and hotels there are now are in the $10-20 a night for those that were far more expensive before. With the Egyptian pound at an all time low and inflation at an all time high, this is a mixed bag for tourists.
Nowadays tourists seem to be no longer permitted to go on desert safari and, if before their movements were watched and curtailed, now it is even more so. It doesn’t matter to the tourists so much, since most of them are on buses. Plainclothes security, the military, interior ministry security and other layers abound. Hotels check the underside of buses. Tourist sites are festooned with police. Much of this seems partly for show, disguised unemployment. Some of it is ham-handed also. Around the US embassy the “solution” to the frequent protests it suffered after 2011, specifically on September 11, 2012, walls of concrete blocks were put on roads leading to it. This temporary-permanent solution is symbolic of the security apparatus. We were told that Nile cruises now no longer depart from certain places in Cairo due to security. Visiting the City of the Dead was impossible without police coordination. But to the country’s credit tourists are now safe. A bombing at a church last year was the most recent attack. What is happening in rural areas is only a guess. Egypt’s security forces are concerned about the ulcer of Libya and problems spilling over from the six year conflict there.
The Mohammed Ali mosque, Cairo
Mohammed Ali was an Albanian warlord who came to run Egypt. Like Salah-a-Din (Saladin) before him, it is reminder of that some of Egypt’s most famous rulers have not been from Egypt. The mosque Ali built was also a copy of a mosque in Istanbul which itself is a copy of Hagia Sophia church. No matter, it’s still beautiful. When were there large numbers of Egyptians, including classes of Coptic Christians, were touring the mosque and the area around it. There were few foreigners.
Egypt has contributed greatly to the Islamic world, particularly through Al-Azhar University and its accompanying institutions where hundreds of thousands are educated and where millions have been educated over more than 1,000 years. The foremost center of Sunni Islamic learning in the world still holds sway and in recent years has attempted to make its message more relevant in a world stung by rising extremism. With tens of thousands of imams in the country and issuing thousands of fatwas a day, the institution has great influence.
The Ben-Ezra synagogue and a Coptic Church, Old Cairo
When the Jewish sage and physician Rabbi Moses ben Maimon commonly known as Maimonides or the Rambam, was in Cairo from 1168 to his death in 1204. He was doctor to the Sultan and his officers and an influential member of the Jewish community. In letters discovered at the genizah in the Ben-Ezra synagogue in the 19th century more of his life was revealed. Maimonides took an interest in protecting Jews in other lands, such as Yemen and his life sheds light on the highly mobile community of the period. He corresponded with men in France and followed his brothers travels brought him in contact with merchants from India. This was a global time, 800 years ago. It was also a time when Jews were treated with admiration and respect in the Muslim world, a far cry from today when anti-semitism and Holocaust denial are often the norm. Today’s Arab world is more often awash in conspiracy theories and blame for outsiders causing misfortune than in cultivating diversity. It is stymied through bloody religious sectarianism and intolerance with little end in sight. We shouldn’t romantisize the 12th century, it was surely a time of slavery and bigotry too. But there are windows we have into the past that might aid understanding of the future. Today’s Ibn Ezra is a center of tourism and many Egyptian students visit it daily. The government has taken an interest in refurbishing and safeguarding Jewish sites like this which include 12 synagogues in Cairo. Those are good signs.
The National Council for Women, Cairo
When I went to Egypt in early February I went with a mostly American delegation that was interested in politics and history. We travelled as part of Dr. Eric R. Mandel’s Middle East Policy and Information Network (MEPIN) with Keshet Educational Journeys. It was an excellent trip and we had the opportunity to meet numerous people from a variety of backgrounds and listen their insights on modern Egypt. These included journalist Gailene Gabr, Ambassadors Mona Omar of the National Council for Women and Ambassador Hagar Islambouly, Samira Luka of the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services, Anwar E. El Sadat, relative of the slain former president and member of the People’s Assembly, businesswoman Maii Magdi, Reverend Andrea Zaki Stephanous, the President of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, Dalia Ziada, the executive director of the Liberal Democracy Institute of Egypt, Mona Makram-Ebeid of MIT, Mahmoud El Said of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs and of the Ministry of Local Development, Dr. Ibrahim Negm, an advisor to the Grand Mufti of Egypt and businessman Dr. Ibrahim Kamel.
At the National Council for Women we were hosted by a large and accomplished group of women who try to balance confronting the issues Egypt faces with describing its successes on women’s rights. There are many pluses, the numerous women in positions in parliament and government, including former ambassadors and diplomats, faculty members and the first female governor of a province Nadia Abdou, are all inspiring.
Businesswoman Maii Magdi, said in an email exchange that we should see a lot of positives here. “On women’s rights, honestly women of Egypt don’t lack rights, we have judges, police officers, businesswomen, you name it. Even in the rural parts we have women performing what most other countries would deem a man’s job & they’re all accepted for what they are. In my opinion, the conservative mindset of the Egyptian Society is just that, a collective mindset that’s embraced by choice not enforcement of any sort. And as long as the other different choices are accepted and embraced, there is nothing to look into. Also, always remember most activists screech lack of something or another.”
Egypt is an ancient land of Christianity and its Coptic community is a testament to that. Numbering in the millions, no one seems to count the exact number, it’s churches are visible throughout Cairo and its heritage can be seen in Old Cairo. The ancient Hanging Church was thronged with visitors, including Muslim women from Indonesia and elsewhere. Young boys in scouts uniforms helped check people for weapons. On one wall is a plaque honoring President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. It’s interesting in a country where the President is often accused of being authoritarian by observers and critics abroad (and at home), there is an absence of his presence from walls and posters. Compared to Syria or Tunisia or old, or even Jordan or the UAE, the President’s face seems to be in a paucity of locations.
Reverend Andreas Zaki the head of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, which he says number up to 2 million people, gave a brief description of how his community suffered after the 2011 revolution. He described his support for removing the “pharaoh” from power initially. “The unexpected outcome was religious tensions, we thought it is new Egypt but we found new religious tensions. The most unexpected outcome was the Muslim Brotherhood in power. We thought it is more of an Egyptian [revolution], but in the end of the day we found the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in power. Not everyone was against the MB in the beginning, it was 51 to 48%. To be honest, 51% gave them the power.
In the days the MB they said ‘we are the people of god, not corrupted, we will bring prosperity, freedom and new Egypt.’ But there are unexpected outcomes. Religious tensions continues and no one can believe it. In the days of former President Morsi, the attack on the Cathedral and plans to destroy Cathedral of Copts and this was the first time the place where the Pope is and is attacked, there was a decline in security. Even former president Morsi issued statements that give him immunity against any decision he takes against parliament and constitution, we heard about possibility of giving Sinai to Hamas and Palestinians. We felt we lost our economy, peace, identity, lands, so over 30 million [came to protest in 2013]…I’m saying this as someone who is not part of the government, I am responsible just for the people who elected me, all the families and colleagues were on the streets; and the churches and Christians and Muslims were so committed to remove the Muslim Brotherhood from power. The MB said 70% of demonstrators are Christians. I was surprised, they used to say we are only 5-6 million and there are 30 million in streets, so then it means we are 40 million Christians in this country [joking]. We were on the streets and together with Muslims, we removed the MB from power, we feared losing identity and end up in religious state, economic decline, we were being pushed to be radical religious state.”
Cairo is perhaps most infamous for its traffic
An Egyptian flag flutters from a car with Arabic Islamic text on the back. Cairo’s streets are crammed with people. It can take an hour in traffic to get somewhere. Even though the streets are massive, the 20 million people in the greater metropolitan area make things slow. The narrative of many Egyptians who discuss the last six years is that the revolutions were traumatic. They promised reform but brought economic hardship. Now they say a corner has been turned with an IMF loan and other plans. They say the Brotherhood tried to steal their “identity,” and erase Egyptianess, the grand history of the country that dates backs 6,000 years. Here is a country on the cusp of something, in waiting, either to be a stable anchor of the Middle East, in dialogue and contest with the increasing power of Iran, or to confront a different future. It is an epic society of mass, unlike the relatively unpopulated Gulf States with their masses of migrant labor, or Syria where half the country has been depopulated. But Saudi Arabia’s GDP is three times that of Egypt. Saudi Arabia has been providing funds to Egypt, but it is a kind of janus-faced embrace. Who benefits. What countercurrents come with the relationship.
A dust-laden sky with the Mohammed Ali mosque in the background
Several days in Cairo bring many insights, but leave many questions. We dined on a Nile cruise with belly-dancers that seemed out of place. We ate on a roof overlooking the immense river and I enjoyed a few nice nargillahs. Like the dust in this photo obscuring the view, there is a sense that something is obscured and unknown, such a fascinating and rich country, with so many people, may not be accessible to the outsider, like so many places you can learn much in a short time and spend a lifetime in a place and not know it.
A map shows some of the places visited around Cairo, not all of them, but to give a sense of space to the city, including the jaunt we took out to ancient Memphis and the Step Pyramid at Saqqara.