Published: May 2012

Nile Journey

Nourishing waters of the Nile River in Egypt

Egypt in the Moment

In the wake of the Arab Spring, the country is full of unprecedented hope—and gnawing fear.

By Jeffrey Bartholet
Photograph by Alex Majoli

“Thieves and thugs” is our taxi driver’s description of the people we will meet on the third-class train from Aswan to Luxor. This seems to be a common view in the Egyptian countryside after the revolution: Watch out for your safety and avoid the riffraff. At the train station a scowling police officer manning the gate won’t let me pass. “No foreigners are allowed on third class,” he barks. “Forbidden!”

I’m traveling in the fall of 2011 with an Egyptian colleague, Khaled Nagy, who has spent more than 200 days and nights chronicling the rebellion in Cairo. We’re on our way from Abu Simbel in the distant south of Egypt to the Mediterranean city of Alexandria in the north, with many stops along the way. The idea is to travel far from the epicenter of the revolution, Tahrir Square, to see how the changes are playing out in the rest of Egypt.

After much argument and a four-hour delay, we eventually make our way aboard a train. We quickly pay the ticket collector 21 Egyptian pounds, or about three and a half dollars, for two fares to Luxor, more than three hours away.

In our car several of the windows are cracked or broken; many are jammed open to let outside air whip through. This is necessary because there is no air-conditioning in the still-hot days of autumn and also because an acrid smell from the toilets permeates the cars when the air inside is stagnant. A flap to an electrical panel swings open and shut against the wall, and the glass case to the fire extinguisher is smashed in. The extinguisher seems intact.

Some passengers sit motionless, their weary eyes fixed on some invisible point outside the train. A few chat on cell phones. A gap-toothed woman, clad in a black dress common to peasants, carries a cardboard box with three chickens in it. Occasionally one of the birds escapes, flapping its wings and clucking madly.

Men and boys walk up and down the aisles selling tissues, watches, wallets, sewing kits, polyester blankets, cold water in reused plastic bottles, pumpkin seeds, nuts, bread, boiled beans, religious pamphlets, and tea that is poured from giant tin kettles. I get my dusty shoes shined for 50 cents, including a generous tip. A handicapped man slides along the floor on his buttocks, holding up a hand for donations. Across the aisle, a man in a turban points to the view of the palm-fringed Nile from the window and asks, “Do you have a river as beautiful as this?”

As the train rattles along, our fellow travelers gradually warm to us. The passengers we meet, including a muezzin who makes the calls to prayer at a mosque near Luxor and a young man doing his military service in Aswan, seem apprehensive about the revolution. The events of Tahrir are far from their lives. “In the end isn’t life simply about being safe?” says the muezzin, who is traveling with his wife and two young children. He complains about the lack of financial security people feel and about a declining economy. He gets a government salary every month, but others live job to job, some earning as little as ten pounds a day, or less than two dollars. The muezzin may be better off than many, but his wife looks miserable. She spends most of the trip staring blankly out the window, holding a tissue over her nose.

“There is no trust, no security,” says Momen Hassan, the 22-year-old conscript. When I ask his opinion of the revolutionaries in Tahrir, he says, “I’m not against them, but I’m definitely not for them.” He’s not surprised by the misdeeds of the former regime, but he likens corruption to a tree with deep roots: Cut it down, and over time it will grow back. “Democracy is good,” he says, “but we can’t rush it. If you let the leash go completely loose, people will do whatever they want. We need a firm hand.”

This view is not uncommon in the countryside. Nearly everywhere we go, Egyptians express anxiety about al amn—security. Many seem almost paranoid about growing thievery, which was nearly unheard of in Egypt before the revolution, and a potential breakdown in order. A taxi driver in Luxor has bought a Beretta pistol to keep under his seat. Some Egyptians speak darkly of smugglers bringing guns across the border from Libya.

In the Shadow of the Pharaohs

The anxiety and tension alone may be enough to drag the country down. Tourism is a major contributor to Egypt’s economy, yet the tourist sites we visit are all but deserted. At the temple of Ramses the Great at Abu Simbel, souvenir kiosks at the entrance are shuttered, and metal turnstiles are still. Watchmen dressed in galabias look out over Lake Nasser, waiting for fish or crocodiles to poke ripples in the placid surface of the water.

Inside the temple itself there are no jostling tourists. No scents of European perfume, no complaints about the heat or the hassles of travel to flyblown corners of the globe. No tour guides explaining why Ramses II is slaughtering the Hittites in one ancient wall relief or stabbing and stomping Libyan enemies in another. During normal times up to 3,000 foreign tourists would visit this site on a busy day. They’d file through the hall, flanked by eight massive statues of the pharaoh, to reach the inner sanctuary, the holy of holies, where rays of sunlight penetrate precisely twice a year. But eight months after the Egyptian revolution ousted President Hosni Mubarak from power, the number of visitors has plunged to about 150 a day. At four on a Saturday afternoon no other foreigner is in the complex. No one else at all is inside the temple. A solitary swallow flits among the columns.

Just outside, in the shadow of four colossal statues of Ramses, Ahmed Saleh invites me to sit on a wall and have a glass of hot tea. Saleh is an Egyptologist and the general director of Abu Simbel and other monuments in the region of Nubia, in the far south of the country near the Sudanese border. “This is the problem after the revolution,” Saleh tells me. Much is unsettled, and “tourists are afraid that if they come here, they might be attacked.” I mention to Saleh that many Egyptians regard the economic troubles they’re experiencing now as a necessary passage. They see Mubarak as the “last pharaoh” and believe that a new era has arrived—a break with more than 5,000 years of history.

Saleh offers a coy smile. “Both Ramses and Mubarak knew how to use propaganda,” he says. “Both were military men, and both formed family dynasties.” But Saleh is unsure that Mubarak, who was grooming one of his sons to replace him before the revolution, will be the last strongman of Egypt. Pharaohs have been toppled before: Even in ancient times, he says, the aged Pepi II was overthrown in a popular revolt, but dynastic rule returned. “The political life in Egypt has not changed enough to say Mubarak will be the last pharaoh. We’re on the edge of democracy, but we’re still not there.”

Saleh gives many reasons for pessimism: Remnants of the old regime and ruling party remain at many levels of federal and local power. Illiteracy rates are high in Egypt (roughly 40 percent among adults 25 to 65). Many Egyptians see the revolution only as an opportunity to grab what they want or to make wage and contract demands. Unlike Eastern European countries that broke free of communism, Egypt is not part of a wider region with a history of democratic practice. “Arabs won’t easily accept democracy,” Saleh says, “partly because it is against the rule of the father in his family or the chief in his tribe. If a father says, ‘Don’t play,’ you don’t play. He is a dictator. How can you change the mentality of the Egyptian in such a short time?”

Such talk of a static mentality seems cynical at best. Yet it’s a recurrent theme, at least in the Egypt that exists beyond Tahrir. It’s an argument made by those, like Saleh, who support the ideals of the revolution but remain cautious and also by those who want to justify autocratic rule. Taken together, the doubts raise many questions: How strong and deep is Egypt’s revolutionary spirit? Are we seeing one revolution with shared goals or many competing revolutions? Is it possible that Egypt will revert to strongman rule—initially less corrupt than Mubarak’s final years and with some superficial freedoms, but fundamentally the same?

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