I’m just back from another Sinai trip. A few days in Cairo then 10 1/2-hours by bus to Dahab.
In Cairo I stayed at the same $10 Downtown hotel I’ve briefly called home on numerous occasions since my first visit to the city in the late 1980s. I’ve seen the place buzzing, filled by young Israelis and foreign backpackers, and empty, save for the elderly Scots lady resident who has long preferred Cairo to Edinburgh, with no fuel for hot water. This time it was different again. International visitors were few. The reasons for the collapse in Egypt’s tourism are well known. However, domestic travellers appear to have taken up some of the slack. An almost 50% devaluation of the Egyptian Pound (LE) has made foreign travel expensive for Egyptians. As a result many are choosing to restrict their travel to Egypt. My hotel was full.
Travelling from Cairo to Sinai involves either a 50-minute flight or a 10-hour bus ride. The British government advises against flying to Sinai’s airport gateway, Sharm el Sheikh. Following the bombing of a Russian MetroJet flight in 2015, killing all 224 passengers and crew, no Russian or British direct flights have operated. Lapses in airport security were identified in the subsequent investigation. Though no advisories are in force for Sharm el Sheikh itself, the British government advises against overland travel through the entirety of the Sinai peninsula. For UK tour ops the glittering jewel in Egypt’s mass tourism tiara remains off limits.
I took the overnight GoBus from Cairo to Dahab – about 90km north along the coast from Sharm el Sheikh. A ticket cost LE145 (about £6.30). The bus left at 9:00pm and arrived into Dahab the following morning at around 7:30am. Police and military check points punctuated the route. Standing in a line, in the middle of the night, my ‘checked bag’ was searched twice. My passport was examined more times than I can remember. Egyptians themselves require special permission to travel to Sinai. Checks on their IDs and documentation were even more stringent. That said, a raft of alternative-minded young Egyptians have adopted Dahab as a weekend escape, a kind of turn on, tune in and a bloody long bus ride to somewhere less conservative. For tourists Dahab is a breeze.
Dahab existed before tourism. It has grown chaotically but organically. It’s still small – though no one is quite sure how small, maybe fewer than 10,000 people. It’s relatively resilient style of tourism has helped it endure the worst of the Egypt’s downturn. Visitors today are either domestic weekenders or summer holiday families, foreign residents or independent foreign travellers. Perhaps most surprising is the number of young Israelis now choosing to venture across the border to Dahab. Some estimates bandied around suggested 50,000 have journeyed to Sinai this year. This influx in the face of government travel advice at least as negative as our own.
I’ll write about my travels for the Indy, but in the meantime I thoroughly recommend Sinai. For adventurous hikers, have a look at sinaitrail.org – something I tackled last year – and for an alternative Red Sea break (see indirect flights from the UK with Turkish Airlines or Egypt Air to Sharm – then a taxi) Dahab for tourists is engagingly earthy crunchy.
It’s said that those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it, and collective memory can be surprisingly short. Last week former Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi slipped into something more comfortable than his usual freshly pressed military dress uniform, determined to look his best civilian self for next month’s Presidential elections.
It’s perhaps worth reprising the last days of President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first ever freely elected head of state. In March 2013 amidst increasingly erratic policy changes, amateurish gerrymandering, a perceived conservative Islamic agenda and political naivety, for Morsi the writings were not only on the city’s walls, but typed on glowing screens and sprayed on white bed sheets, once more held aloft in the protest camps of Tahrir Square. The tenure of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government was coming to an end. It was no longer a matter of ‘if’, only when and how. Both these questions were addressed by the July military coup, the deaths of an estimated 1,000 Egyptians and detention of almost 16,000 others.
Returning from Libya, I spent a few days in downtown Cairo collecting the thoughts of those I encountered. The piece I wrote was overtaken by July’s events, but at this juncture it might have regained some retrospective value. Churchill once said, ‘No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…’ What happens in May determines the political course of the Arab world’s most populous state for four years… However, the staying power of previous former military men suggests Egyptians may have rather longer than four years to privately ponder on the wisdom of Churchill’s words.
Cafe Critics – Cairo – March 2013.
Five minutes from Tahrir Square, amongst grand 19th century French facades, Café Riche has seen revolutions come and go. In 1919 an assassin hurled two bombs from its doorway, attempting to kill British-backed Prime Minister Youssef Wahba Pasha – he failed. In 1952, nationalist hero, Gamal Abdel Nasser shared tables with the ‘Free Officers’ whilst plotting the demise of another Riche regular, the widely reviled King Farouk.
More recently novelist, Naguib Mahfouz, to date the Arab world’s only literary Nobel Laureate, critic of ruling regimes from Nassar to Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood, based his book, Karnak Café, on the microcosm of Café Riche. Today the café’s basement bar still has a hidden door leading to a secret escape tunnel, a succinct exit for those whose outspoken views attracted uninvited attention. In 2011 revolution was again on the menu at Café Riche, activists seeking the council of café elders who’d lived through previous struggles, wooden tables and bespoke chairs cleared away, its floor space ready to treat those injured in Tahrir Square.
Historically Café Riche’s vantage point at the heart of Cairo has offered a clear view as high-minded ideals deferred to realpolitik or were ignored by those who never held them anyway. ‘I’ve been coming here for half a century but now the atmosphere is not the same because the income of the people is not the same. The intellectuals, the creatives, the artists, they’re still all here,’ And so it appears are Cairo’s grumpy old men many of whom have little time for Egypt’s current leaders. ‘Which government? Here we have a government? It’s something new for me.’ My elderly interviewee’s sagging features transcend idealism. To him the suggestion that governments might improve the Egyptian people’s lot seems farcical, his dismissive expression lacking even the merest hint of a smile confers impermanence on the current incumbents. ‘Look, no names. I don’t make speeches,’ he says, wearily but definitely. ‘I tell you the truth not dreams,’ this last word appearing to carry a bitter taste, ‘This is a country with no programme. You don’t know what is to be done day-to-day, you don’t even know what is to be done for the rest of the day. A very strange country.’
Egypt’s new democracy seems at odds with Café Riche, which may account for the attitude of its clientele. The Muslim Brotherhood’s finest minds are unlikely to be found huddled around a Riche table, sinking a cold bottle of Stella or savouring a glass of Omar Khayyam over a plate of deep-fried calamari any time soon… The serious old men in suits occupy their regular seats and talk for hours, sharing their private jokes,but the politics of Egypt has spilled out into the open air.
Down an unpromising alley just along the street the plastic chairs and rickety tables of the Al Bustan describe another café society. ‘Café Riche? It’s for the rich,’ says Ahmed drawing on his cigarette, ‘The revolution is here, all these people. That man there,’ he points, ‘His son died. I myself saw blood in Tahrir Square. I don’t forget this.’ However, despite the change in venue political perspectives appear remarkably coincident. ‘Morsi was in Tahrir for one hour. I was there for four days. There are 95 million people in Egypt, Morsi’s support comes from just a section of five million. Where are the people of the revolution? Not in the government.’ I ask why more did not vote for the other presidential candidate, former Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafik? ‘When the election came it was a choice between the fire and the frying pan, and the people did not want another Mubarak.’ Ahmed lights another cigarette, ‘Morsi has no programme. Many of his people were in gaol during the Mubarak time. They were all chained up and in the dark. They need psychological counselling not to be put in power. Morsi’s president now, maybe for tomorrow, maybe for two more years, maybe four but not more. The people will not choose another from the Muslim Brotherhood.’
Overlooking the new tented protests pitched across Tahrir Square, tea drinkers at Café Wadi Nil have their own views. ‘These people don’t represent Egypt,’ says Mohammed, casting a glance across the square, ‘They want to go backwards not forwards. Morsi is not a bad man but he’s not experienced in leading a country.’ I ask about Egypt’s chronic levels of youth unemployment. ‘There is work in Cairo,’ replies Mohammed, ‘But it’s not well paid. If people take a job and keep working they’ll earn more in the end but they don’t have the patience. Instead they stay at home or come here.’
Walking across the square a smiling small boy approaches, boldly telling me, ‘Fuck you!’, immediately taking a precautionary step back. I pretend not to understand. A young man follows behind, ‘So what about you? Why are you here? Are you with us?’ he demands. I tell him that the future of Egypt is best determined by Egyptians. He wanders off thoughtfully, satisfied or mystified, I’ll never know.
Sitting on the concrete surround of a Cairo metro ventilation shaft I’m offered tea by kindly, open-faced woman. A crowd of the curious and the bored gather to watch me drink. Two well dressed young women from Upper Egypt in turn ask to have their photograph taken with me – I smile. My tea drained, the small boy still lingers, racking his infant brain for more profanity but before finding the words he’s shooed away by a tall youth. ‘Hi, I’m Imed, Imed the Iraqi, everybody here knows me. Shall we walk around?’ Grateful to exit the limelight I join Imed. Beyond the tents the grass is brown, pavements scorched by fires, once shady trees chopped for firewood, the scorched windows and burnt out shell of the National Democratic Party’s headquarters looms large in the background. ‘There are real protesters here, but also many just looking to cause trouble,’ says Imed. ‘I’ve watched while children throw stones at police. They have nothing, so nothing to lose.’ Walking across Qasr Al-Nil bridge the view of Cairo is expansive as ever. We stand in the sunshine for a moment, looking down at a moored and empty flotilla of tourist cruisers, watching the powerful Nile current.
For many in Cairo the outcome of the Egyptian revolution remains uncertain. Freedom was a unifying goal. Blood was spilt and a dictator overthrown. Across the city’s cafes and squares there’s freedom to talk but the question now for many Cairenes is whether anyone is listening? (Cairo. March 2013)
Last month I travelled to Benghazi, the de facto capital of ‘Free Libya’, in a manner that would make Simon Calder proud. Over two days, a succession of coaches, buses, minibuses, share taxis and otherwise incentivised hotel porters helped me cover the 791 miles (according to the RAC’s trip planner…) from Cairo to Benghazi. En route, even by the high standards of Arab hospitality, I met some of the kindest, most generous and most helpful people I’ve come across for some time. An experience that made me think such a journey should be a mandatory refresher for politicians, lawyers and policemen the world over, highlighting the essential goodness of humanity.
Pasted below are a couple of short reportage pieces I wrote in Benghazi and filed by satellite link on the dates indicated. Both were then silently sat upon by the commissioning paper until well past their sell-by-dates. Some tosh regarding Ryan Giggs apparently took presidence.
Though Libya’s situation has certainly evolved I thought there may remain some vestigial non-monetary value in posting the copy here. I suppose that’s for you to judge…
Benghazi 12th May
Benghazi – May – 2011
‘Here in Benghazi people are dying every day but this news is not given out. I hear it on the street, from the families, but I do not hear it on the radio.’ Mohammed’s father had given me a bed for my first night in an outer suburb of the city. Last night he’d told a story of fear, for the present and for the future – one that we in the West probably don’t want to hear. ‘Even in one house, half with Gaddafi, half with the revolution. Not just the old against the young – it’s a mix, both, you can’t say. When Gaddafi forces entered Benghazi everyone waved the green flag. Now if you ask on the street everyone is with the revolution. People are not free to express their opinions – there is fear. I see Libya as a new Iraq.’
On the Benghazi corniche Mohammed’s bleak outlook is at odds with the new day. Looking out over the Mediterranean, blue sky melds seamlessly with the sea, waves roll in, and canvas tents are driven to wild flapping by the freshening sea breeze. Between the tents two well-used tanks are parked – one careful owner, M Gaddafi. For them the war is over. Children clamber over turrets and gun barrels. Elsewhere, parts of missiles, aircraft, heavy machine guns and RPGs are corralled into an enclosure – weapons used by Gaddafi’s forces to kill Libyans, I’m told. Covering the walls of the buildings opposite, and studied by a reflective crowd, are hundreds of photographs. For the most part young men without fatigues or weapons whose expressions do not foretell death as sombre hand-coloured images of WW1 seemed to – but annotated dates reveal the brutal truth.
Corniche – Benghazi – May – 2011
Following a trail of heady odours through the covered souk I make my way to the bright sunshine and fresh air of the corniche, and Benghazi’s revolutionary encampment – if you’ve seen Al Jazeera’s shots you’d recognise the scene. Beyond moneychangers, glittering jewellery shops and stalls of revolutionary flags, banners and badges a scene of semi-normality is fractured by the uncompromising crack of a nearby gunshot – its reverberations sending shopkeepers and customers into a crouch. Three youths loiter at the end of an alley, one in the process of shouldering an assault rifle – the smell or cordite wafts towards me.
‘How are you?’ Bashir, a former flight engineer with Libyan Arab Airlines, smiles across the crowd. ’42 years, can you believe it? Look at this place, the broken streets, the rubbish. You are asking us to be in good shape after just three months – it’s too much.’ I ask whether enough is being done to assist the Libyan people. Bashir is quick to respond, ‘Some people here they think we don’t like the foreigners, they’ll invade our country. They’re thinking like this because Colonel Gaddafi is saying it to them. We need advice on how to run this country, and the British they are already doing it – it’s not a shame to ask. I have no problem at all to ask British or Americans “Can you help me?” because one day, God knows, maybe we will help them – this is life.’ Bashir continues in a hopeful vein: ‘Now people are free to say what they like – this is freedom. I remember one American guy, I never forget it, he said if you want to say you are Libyan and live in a free country you must have the courage to shout: “Fuck you Colonel Gaddafi! Only then you are right.” Now we are achieving this.’
Benghazi 13th May
Najib – Benghazi – May – 2011
The volley of shots ended, traders relaxed into a relieved collective chuckle. A prospective customer was trying before buying, letting fly a few rounds over waste ground in front of the burned out Internal Security headquarters – he seemed satisfied. ‘Hey’ it’s like Harlem. You can buy anything here’, offered a smiling young man. Certainly automatic pistols, revolvers, AK47s and M16s, bayonets and bullets were on display, juxtaposed with mobile phones and copy CDs. He was surprised when I suggested that Harlem had changed a little in recent times.
Ears still ringing, I needed a coffee and fortunately in Benghazi’s old city, crumbling though it may be, echoes of Italy are never far away. Espresso, macchiato and brioche start the day, along with that inseparable Libyan male appendage – a cigarette. ‘ “mangeria”, “cucina”, “via” we use all these words from Italian’ says Najib, a 58 year old former soldier, ‘and if someone talks too much we say “musica maestro”’ His friend Fatti, joins in the conversation outside the Bou Ashreen (Father of Twenty!) café. ‘You know I wasn’t surprised that Italy wasn’t the first to help us because they have good relations with Gaddafi, many economic links. What has surprised me is how quickly they changed to the opposite side.’
Fatti continues, ‘But it was the UN Mandate and the British after the war that shaped Libya and we were very grateful for this – it was amazing, I remember it. The UN wanted to make a showcase of Libya. People came from all over the Arab world, everybody expressed themselves, it was free.’ I ask why, if it was so good did Gaddafi’s revolution succeed? ‘That’s a good question’ says Fatti. ‘Many reasons. King Idris was a very old man and the prince was not qualified to take over. There were other factors, other families trying to exert influence and there was the charisma of Nasser in Egypt. I think Gaddafi took advantage of these others forces and the atmosphere using them for his own purposes – he was the wrong man at the right time.’
‘Gadaffi ruined my life’ complains Najib. ‘I was conscripted into the army, at first he said for three years – I was there for 25 years. Can you believe it? Three times I ran away, once staying in a house in Chad for two years, but there were many Chadians in the Libyan army and most of them were spies, so I was caught.’ Najib takes a sip of his machiato and a draw on his cigarette. ‘I wish Israelis and Palestinians would stop fighting, you live here you live here, it would solve so many problems. You see this area, it was Jewish, there was the synagogue – no problem. Then after the Israel Egypt war the Jewish they go out. Now it’s Egyptian Christian church – I know the priest, a friend, very nice man.’
What about the future I ask? Fatti responds quickly, ‘It’s true there are still “Taboor Hamsa” Fifth Columnists in the city, so we must be careful but Gaddafi cannot come back, he is finished here. Today this is, how the Americans call it… our Independence Day.’