I’ve separated this post from the last one. The story is the kind thing that doesn’t make it into travel copy – ‘Social commentary, we don’t have the word count…etc…’
As I described, for visitors Dahab is a funky beach stay – excellent dives sites (the Blue Hole and others) and, even for those packing British Pounds, it’s relatively inexpensive. However, dig down and there’s another narrative.
Dahab is a Bedouin town. Egyptians and Bedouins are, to quote local sources, ‘completely different.’ Egyptians don’t understand Bedouin language, and their brasher, noisier lives are at odds with local custom. These differences have reinforced mistrust and resentment. Ongoing violent incidents, mostly in the north of Sinai, are in part both a symptom and a cause of this mistrust.
Across Sinai access to tribal lands is being restricted. The authorities have banned private 4×4 vehicles. Check points and physical barriers have been erected to close off wadis. For an historically nomadic people these attempts to control movement are an affront. The police would say their actions are designed to inhibit smuggling and improve security.
In Dahab houses built on land where title is disputed have been bulldozed, sometimes before the contents have been removed. Such properties are generally inhabited by poor people. The Egyptian legal system, in common with others, does not favour those of limited means. Cleared sites await redevelopment by whom? Elsewhere, blatantly illegal beachfront development, mostly Egyptian-owned bars and cafes, is tolerated. You have to ask why?
Foreign-owned businesses describe incidents where jealous neighbours have instigated malicious prosecutions. Reports of systematic police harassment resulting in imprisonment and even deportation are commonplace. Shopkeepers in Dahab are being obliged to install CCTV – for many a considerable expense, and to what end?
On a street corner I asked a young Egyptian man about the revolution. ‘The revolution is finished, over,’ he replied. ‘What’s changed?’ I asked.
‘Nothing changed. Nothing good for Egyptian people,’ he said.
In Dahab overweight plain clothes policemen lounge in cafes, watching people, and eating free food. Their jackets fall open to reveal holstered weapons. ‘It’s a police state,’ say many residents. The 2011 revolution and the 2013 military coup have been removed from Egypt’s secondary school history curriculum. What’s unsaid speaks volumes.
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)
A couple of weeks ago I found myself in discussion with a UK-based lawyer, a frequent business traveller to Cairo, who sought to make sense of Egypt’s incomplete 2011 revolution, and its recent rather more emphatic military coup. ‘There were people in Egypt, ordinary professional people, women, minorities – Copts and others. They went to work, got to their offices, locked themselves in and at the end of the day raced home and hoped that in the middle of the night no one was going to break down their door. They were frightened and still are.’ There was earnest conviction in her description of daily life for those she counted as friends and colleagues. The lawyer continued, ‘What was going to happen? Was the Brotherhood’s agenda just to be accommodated, their increasing control of institutions, their creeping conservatism, not to mention their economic incompetence?’ I suggested that democracy is messy and in the long run might it not have been better to allow the Egyptian people to judge Mohamed Morsi’s performance in free and fair elections rather than to rejoin the boom, bust cycle of political oppression followed by popular uprising? ‘What has happened, it’s not democracy,’ she said, ‘but the fact is that sometime, somewhere, someone has to say to these people ‘No!’’
It’s easy to understand the lawyer’s perspective and the real worries of those she described. However, it hardly needs to said that regimes established on oppressive dictatorial foundations in the end always come crashing down. And when this happens there’s little else in place to maintain the humdrum necessities of a healthy economy and semblance of civil society.
The 2011 Egyptian revolution has been likened unfavourably to the case of a dog that chased cars, finally caught one and then realised it couldn’t drive. The Muslim Brotherhood shrewdly played a long game, carefully standing back from the protests in Tahrir Square and elsewhere. Following Hosni Mubarak’s departure, in the absence of any other established opposition, the Brotherhood was seen as the only national network with any kind of alternative identifiable political strategy – except of course for the army.
And perhaps the army played an even longer game, standing back even further. The grinding misery of fuel shortages miraculously ended with the army back in power, so too the greater national debt crises disappeared from the headlines – aided of course by the curtailment of a free press. Was this all a case of ‘give ‘em enough rope’, a strategic military manoeuvre using the overwhelming momentum of popular disaffection to once again propel the army, in the guise of General Sisi, from servant to master?
Where does Egypt go from here? Even the usually unifying October 6th commemorations of 1973’s Arab-Israeli War only served to stoke unrest, with estimates of over fifty dead in the capital alone. Most Egyptians want no more than to get on with their lives in peace. However, against the background of a stalled economy, the FT describing Egypt’s tourism as ‘having fallen off a cliff’, 16% adult urban jobless and shocking levels of youth unemployment, there’s little sign of calm returning to the streets – Egypt’s game may be very long indeed.