Laura Dean's Cairo Diary

Cairo Diary, July 11: My Day as a Tourist

By Laura Dean
Friday, July 12, 2013, 8:39 AM

As I promised yesterday I would, I go back to the Egyptian Museum this morning.

In the old days---the days when Egypt was a repressive but stable police state---as many as 10,000 people would come through the museum doors on a good day in high season. Nowadays, things are a little different.

Today, I count 24 armed personnel carriers lining the street outside the museum, which is located right at the edge of Tahrir Square. While I'm sure protecting the Egyptian patrimony is a genuine priority for the ruling armed forces, parking soldiers outside the museum also provides a good, entirely-plausible excuse for putting armored vehicles so close to a protest hub. The soldiers are there to protect the mummies and the sphinxes, but they are also right there should the protests get out of hand.

There are three ticket prices: the Egyptian price, the Arab price, and the non-Arab foreigner price, the latter more expensive than the former by a factor of ten (the equivalent of about $8.50). I'm not buying one today though as I'm here to see people, not artifacts.

I peer into the dusty gloom of the vaulted entry hall. Nothing stirs inside. I think back to 2007 when busloads of tourists would crowd in, sometimes waiting in long lines outside the gate, many of them, to my surprise at the time, clad in shorts and tank tops.  In those days, the air inside chattered with Russian, English, Japanese, Italian, French, Chinese. Now the largest group of people here is the cluster of security guards at the entrance. 14.8 million tourists visited Egypt in 2010, the year before the Arab uprisings. Before the last two weeks, business was slowly beginning to come back and according to the Minister of Tourism, around five million tourists have come to Egypt since the start of the year. However, since the June 30 demonstrations many have canceled their flights as foreign governments issue security warnings to their citizens and many foreigners residing in Egypt have chosen to evacuate.

In Egypt, permits and passes are very important. I try to speak with a museum employee and she informs me that none of them are authorized to speak to the press and that I must seek out the museum's spokesman at the Ministry of Antiquities, which is conveniently located in another part of town.

I go out into the garden, where it is free to sit. People pray in the shade of scrub trees or read the Quran amidst relics of a pre-Abrahamic past. I learn later that many of the men I see are tour guides, passing the time and hoping for a customer.

Abdel Nasser Fayed (Nasser for short), 50, from the Cairo neighborhood of Giza has been a tour guide for 25 years. He asks me if I'd like a tour when he sees me sitting, scribbling in my notebook. I decline but ask if he might talk with me a while.

Nasser specializes in Italian tourists but speaks excellent English as well. While he admits that business was better under the Mubarak regime, he says he was nonetheless enthusiastic about the former dictator's ouster. In the presidential election, he voted for the socialist candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi. Sabahi did not make it to the run-off, however, so in the second round, Nasser said he voted "against Shafik" the longtime Mubarak-era politician whom now-ousted President Mohamed Morsi defeated. Many Egyptians who voted for Morsi frame their votes this way: as a vote against the old regime, rather than for the Brotherhood.

As for the current political divide, he finds himself without a side to back. "[I'm] not at the side of Tamarod, [and] not with the side of Morsi, [I'm] with the side of elections," he says. "You cannot make any changes by force." He suggests that Morsi's government should have been allowed to serve out its term, "Not after one year we can judge them. . . . They don't have the magic stick of Moses."

It comforts me to see that he is at a loss as to how to read the events of the last 12 days. "We are lost; we don't know who to believe, what to believe, Morsi partners or the other side," he laments.

Ossama el Bassiouni, Nasser's colleague who specializes in German- and English-speaking tourists, sits down beside us. His five minutes is up. The guides take turn standing by the door, so they can get the first crack at the tourists when they come in.

But, Nasser says, "No one comes in or goes out, and the ones who do enter don't want a guide."

Ossama contends that though things are bad now, "the period after the [January] 25th [2011 uprising] was worse than this; we stayed three months [and] there was no work." In the hour I spend there, I see three small groups of foreign tourists come in, two of them Spanish. That's right, Egyptian tour guides are depending for their livelihood on tourism from a country with more-than-25 percent unemployment.

When I ask about some of the xenophobia that has been reported in Tahrir, they are both dismissive and say there is suspicion of the US government, but Egyptians have no problem with people from any country.

Despite the dearth of tourists, neither one of these men has a second job. All over Egypt, there are places whose entire economy depends on tourism---like Luxor, where the Valley of the Kings is located, and all of the smaller towns along the Nile that rely on cruise ships for their survival. How are these people surviving if there is no money coming in from tourists?

Nasser says soberly, "They sell what they have. If you have jewelry, you sell it. I you have a car, you sell it. If you have land you sell it. If you have a house, you sell it, to cover your expenses.  Or maybe you borrow from someone you know."

"Your father, your relatives," Ossama adds.

Nasser sighs, "after what has happened in Egypt, there won't be any progress, at least for the ten to fifteen years that remain in my life. . . . We see [the] wonder [in] people who come and enjoy the monuments and we [want to] cry . . . for what is happening now."

The Army, the Brotherhood, and Rational Conspiracy Theories

"[General] Sisi acted wrong," says Nasser, the first time I've heard someone say that outside of a pro-Morsi protest, "They (the army) could have made a deal without betraying Morsi."

"I'm a pessimist," he admits. "I am against military rule because they governed the country for 60 years from the days of Abdel Nasser and ruined the country."

"I think Sisi, instead of giving Morsi 48 hours, he should [have] act[ed] better than this, but . . . the army didn't want Morsi, and the judges and the police" didn't want him either.

When Morsi came to power, he faced entrenched and often unfriendly institutions that made governing a difficult task. "Morsi has political stupidness because he fought against all three political powers in Egypt [at] one time," referring to the army, the police and the judiciary. That "should be step by step," says Nasser, who adds that he studied political history.

I am relieved to hear that neither Nasser nor Ossama approves of the language of "terrorism" used to refer to the pro-Morsi protesters. "I think they are very annoyed people. But terrorists attack [people]. If you're a peaceful protester, you're peaceful" Ossama tells me.

Nasser agrees: "Those at Rabaa [are] not terrorists. Terrorists take things by force."

Ossama says that societal unity is the answer---a sentiment as hard to disagree with as it is hard to imagine effectuating.

Both men express skepticism about the grassroots origins of the Tamarod movement: "We are confused, because if you look at the three young guys from Tamarod [the leaders], they are 19 or 20, and I don't think these young people in two months can get 20 million signatures"---that's Nasser's take.

Ossama thinks time will tell, "after one year, we will see what happened---we will know everything. If Tamarod from Egyptian military, this is my opinion [that the movement was engineered by the military] because they are very organized people. They covered all Egypt, [including] the villages."

He adds, "After one year we will see is this a military coup or no."

"It was pretty much a military coup," says Nasser.

I say goodbye and wish them luck and Ramadan Kareem. As I leave, I take a moment to try to surreptitiously count the armored personnel carriers.

On a Lighter Note

I've mentioned before that one of the joys of living in this country is that humor and wit enjoy pride of place in Egyptian culture. Cairo is a place where people have "light blood" as the expression goes in Arabic (as opposed to "heavy blood")---meaning they like to laugh. Here are two excellent New Yorker posts on Egyptian political cartoons, written by a good friend named Jonathan Guyer, a Fulbright scholar, associate editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs and a cartoonist himself.

For more of Laura Dean’s Cairo Diary: