The Egyptian History Podcast's trip to Egypt continues; we are now 18 days into our trip, with about 18 more to go. It has been an exciting, distracting and all-round fascinating trip so far. The monuments of Egypt remain as they are (with some degradation) but it is the people and way-of-life here that has proven most informative, post-Revolution.
When TEGHP last visited, in 2008, the country was some 3-years from overthrowing Mubarak, the autocratic President. Today, nearly two years to the day after the Revolution, very little change seems to have occurred. In Cairo, many social services have broken down: rubbish is barely collected, and piles up in the streets, beside motorways and in the Nile (it was like that in 2008, but it's many times worse now). The infrastructure is crumbling, with major accidents seeming to occur daily throughout the land. Police are a token force at best, and they are routinely ignored by everyone except the foreigners. After the Revolution, respect for the military and police dropped precipitously due to their part in supporting Mubarak.
This sounds worse than it really is: Egyptians are among the most hardy and friendly people you'll meet, and the country continues on the same path it had for years, but that is exactly the problem.
The population who overthrew Mubarak wanted change, they wanted an end to the stifling corruption, endemic social and economic inequality and the collapsing jobs market. The population demographic has skewed wildly as a new generation begins to make itself heard. Students, young workers, twenty-something parents etc. were the primary drivers of the Revolution, and they are the ones who suffer the most under the collapsed economy: unemployment sits around 12%, but it seems to be even higher for this age group. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood is set to put the country back decades in social policy, and the mistakes of their leaders have caused fresh unrest in the capital in the past couple months.
In the Desert Oasis of Dakhla, the listless youth have begun forming motorcycle gangs (harmless ones) for the young'uns to let of steam and try to attract girls. The social cycle is approaching a critical mass as the new generation try to establish themselves economically, while an older generation currently in power struggles to cope with the rapidly changing demography. Liberal Islam, once the cornerstone of the nation's socio-religious identity, is in danger of being swept under the rug but the general population are not fundamentalists; where they are, it is partly influenced by external factors (family history, rural economic hardship, social pressures etc) that do not make make for hateful people, but do attract those who are angry.
This anger could be the downfall of the Revolution: frustration over slow (sometimes regressive) approaches to change caused many to boycott the referendum on the new Constitution. This seems counter-productive, but that's the nature of anger: it clouds judgement. Many of those we've talked to here in Dakhla say they voted Yes for (paraphrase) "stability now, then we sort out the details." But of course, this drive for stability is a Trojan Horse, it is the mechanism by which the corrrupt can introduce policies that benefit them at the expense of the mass, in the name of 'stability.'
Of course there is also the rising tide of gender-tension, sexual harrassment and violent crime, including armed incursions against antique sites: those are issues which are rising post-Revolution, but like the issue of Rape in India, are symptomatic of a generations-ingrained mental attitude towards women. This attitude is far less prevalent among the young population but economic hardship and social inequality, if left to fester long enough, could prolong and worsen the cycle.
The burqa is far more visible today in Egypt; where once the hijab was the most common head-covering (and many didn't even bother with that), it is far more common now to see full-on coverings. This is partly due to location: rural areas tend to be more socially conservative, but Cairo is not immune to the rising tide of "morality."
Egypt is in trouble; there is no two-ways to say that, but there is hope. Egyptians, as I said, are hardy and friendly folk, and are more than capable to taking their country decisively in hand in order to stimulate a change in long-established practices that harm the greater population for the benefit of a few. What place Egypt takes in the rapidly-shifting sands of the post-Spring Arabic world remains to be seen; democracy is a fragile thing, and not every society is equally ready for it. It is up to the Egyptians, especially the new generation, to build the society they want. It is up to Outsiders to not treat the country like an economic-playground and exploit instabilities. If you plan to visit Egypt within the next couple years, a few tips:
1. Don't be scammed, but remember that the harder you bargain the more you propagate economic desperation. There is a middle ground between getting ripped off and ripping off in turn.
2. Manners - Egyptians may have different manners to a 'Westerner' but they are manners nontheless; a polite smile and willing handshake will ease your way as much as 100EGP will. Remember your sala'am aleikums, your shokrans and your maa sala'ama, they will serve you well.
3. Don't bat an eye - this is straightforward: though you may be dismayed by what you see, remember that those living in it have a harder time than you and yet remain proud of their country. You should be proud of what they achieve against the odds, and supportive of the Egyptians' efforts to improve their home (incosistent though they may be - see rubbish disposal).
Above all, remember that while we come to Egypt for the Antiquities, these are the legacy of a people long dead. Their heirs face a set of challenges of which the ancients couldn't have conceived, and all things considered they are doing reasonably well.
So, until next time, sala'am aleikum, here are some photos of TEGHP's experiences the past two weeks.
A church of the reign of Constantine I "the Great." This is what I like to imagine when I think of Egyptian monuments: pieces of history rising out of the sand, begging someone to come and give them life once more.