Egypt – The Verdict

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Egypt is a country of magnificent past, depressing present, and uncertain future.

I’ve left the land of the Nile early this morning, having to wake up at a rather ungodly hour, partly because the roads and traffic in Cairo are a lottery at any time of day and night. In the end the ride to the airport was unusually speedy, with only two security checkpoints slightly slowing down the flow along the way. I wish I could tell you that my four days in the capital made me an instant expert on this largest country in the Middle East. But I came as a tourist rather than a journalist; I didn’t spend my time talking with dozens of Egyptians from all walks of life, touching base with the government, business, civil society, the media and the ordinary men and women. My impressions are coloured at least to some extent by interaction with those Egyptians who rely on tourists for their survival, and they are garnered through casual observation rather than conversation or wide reading.

Firstly, the Egyptian tourist industry is in crisis, which is a tragedy in a country where so many people depend so much on foreign visitors for their livelihoods. Prior to the Arab Spring in 2011, 15 million tourists generated $12.5 billion per year for Egypt, creating employment for 1 in 10 Egyptians. Now the visitors and revenues are down by half, mostly scared off by the concerns about terrorism. The fear is real but it’s just not very rational, as I’ve discussed on a couple of occasions before. True, the neighbouring Libya is a violent mess and Islamists terrorists are active in the Sinai Peninsula. True also that a Russian plane was downed recently and the Egypt Air flight disappeared over the Mediterranean a few months ago. However, these are isolated incidents. The Egyptian security forces have been pretty effective at cracking down on terror; I never felt concerned for my safety and I did not sense that the locals are either. You are infinitely more likely to die or be injured on the Egyptian roads, but no one is ever scared of that prospect. If the spectre of terrorism is making you reluctant to visit Egypt – or Europe for that matter – do yourself, and the Egyptians, a favour and try to overcome it. Otherwise the terrorists will have won.

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Don’t let the terrorists stop you from seeing this – and a lot more.

The tourism slump is just one, though hopefully passing, problem that the country faces. In fact, the range of challenges is vast and the resources limited, a not so unusual combination in a developing country. There are too many people, the economy is too sclerotic, the governance and administration too inefficient and ineffective. As a result, poverty is endemic and seemingly intractable. The institutions don’t promote growth, but neither does culture with its “Inshallah” resignation and abdication of responsibility, as well as its noticeable lack of the Protestant work ethic. It’s one of those sociological chicken or an egg problem; in truth the institutions and culture mutually – and negatively – reinforce each other. Either way, the country seems a bottomless pit of need.

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Off the beaten path… in the middle of the city.

Cairo itself has a population not that much smaller than Australia. The central districts bustle with people and traffic; they also contain some of the most pleasant and picturesque parts of the city, most of them of the colonial vintage. The majority of the population seems to live in kilometres upon kilometres of painfully ugly and depressingly similar shoddily constructed vast tenements of between ten and fifteen storeys. Lots of the buildings seem to have been abandoned at various stages of construction, and even those which seem finished often have steel reinforcements sticking out of the roof as if in preparation for another floor to be added, I’m told because unfinished buildings pay lower rates and taxes. Even the better parts of the city have a somewhat worn and dirty look, and rubbish and rubble are everywhere. Accept it and enjoy exploring – there is plenty to see and do.

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Downtown Cairo; a mile upon mile of this…

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…but Cairo is also this.

Egypt is a land of tiny very wealthy, educated and Westernised elite, small middle class and masses of illiterate or semi-literate peasants and urban dwellers. You don’t see all that many women wearing niqab (the face covering that leaves only the eyes exposed), but virtually all women cover their hair. The notable exceptions are the wealthy and the Christian Copts who make up ten percent of the population. Younger people tend to dress in Western clothes; traditional garbs are more of a domain of the older, as well as the poorer and the rural folk. As with the niqabs, there is a dearth of full Islamists beards. The state employs too many people who don’t seem to be doing very much.  Those who rely on tourism have to be twice as persistent chasing half the money. It can be wearying for a visitor, but spare a thought for the plight of all those millions of traders and service providers who now live hand to mouth. People are friendly and not just because they might want your money; everyone always asks where you’re from. The Australian answer elicit responses ranging from “G’day, mate” in an Arabic accent, through stories of friends and relatives Down Under, to this piece of reportage: “I went to Sydney. I saw the Mardi Grass. I didn’t like it; I’m a Muslim”.

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Lady in the street… It can be a land of contrasts.

I might not have sold Egypt to you very well, thus further depressing its tourism industry. It’s truism to say it’s not Europe, particularly northern Europe. It is what it is; an often exotic adventure in a harsh land. It’s worth the ticket just for its history, but a fascinating, if not always happy for a Western visitor, glimpse into how the other half (or 99 per cent) live is a bonus. I would have trouble living there, but I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and want to come back to see more of it. I hope you will too – and that includes you, John’s mum, whom both John and I expect you’re reading this.

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