October 1 – 5, 2012
The statistics could not be clearer – tourists have stopped coming to Egypt after the revolution.
In Cairo this fact was difficult to absorb, where everywhere is teeming with people. The revolution’s full effect was much more apparent when we landed in Luxor, a town of half a million that relies almost entirely on tourism. The road from the airport to town was deserted. Our hotel, the Nefertiti, was only 30% occupied. The surrounding bazaar was as empty as the morning after the Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Not a single restaurant was opened for business.
Has the revolution brought nothing but misery? Now is obviously too soon to draw a conclusion, but those who say the Arab spring has failed are ignoring the preceding period of stagnation and its impact on ordinary Egyptians.
In 1960 Egypt and South Korea shared similar life-expectancy and GDP per head. Today they inhabit in seemingly different worlds. Although many more Egyptians now live in cities and three-quarters of the population is literate, GDP per head is only a fifth of South Korea’s. Poverty and stunted growth from malnutrition are far too common. Egypt used to attract international attention by producing quality art, music and literature; its main relevance in the present is its potential to destabilize the entire region. Its status as the most important country in the region is long gone, eclipsed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and arguably the tiny but oil-rich United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
Egypt’s deeply-entrenched problems are the creation of military strongmen like Hosni Mubarak. That said, the Muslim Brotherhood’s incompetent government has done nothing to revive the collapsing economy. Its determination to introduce Islam into public life has driven away foreign investment and tourism, two major pillars of the country’s economy.
People who are struggling to make ends meet in this dire economic climate are increasingly losing patience for the revolution to bear fruit. The consensus of everyone we had met – hotel staff, shopkeeper, driver – was business had never been worse, including the lean period following the massacre of 62 people by Islamist terrorists at the nearby Hatshepsut’s Temple in 1997.
I signed up for a horseback riding session on the west bank of the Nile, mostly because I wanted more interactions with the locals. The town centre and most of the tourist infrastructure, including the Luxor and Karnak temple complexes, are located on the east bank. According to ancient Egyptian belief, the west leads to the underworld, which explains why all the necropolises and tombs are located on that side of the river.
Getting to the stable was half the thrill; the local ferry my guide and I boarded had stalled, requiring all passengers to jump from its upper deck to an adjacent ferry. A long walk followed until we reached our destination – a brick and corrugated iron barn in the heart of a residential area of narrow streets and brick dwellings.
There I was introduced to Omar, a man in his mid-twenties who would be riding with me. He picked for me a white female horse, one which he described as “has good temperament but very sensitive to sound”. The horse started to back-pedalled as I approached her, which gave me slight concern, but it didn’t seem like I had another option at this point.
Despite my first impression the ride was smooth as promised, and a few turns later we were out into the countryside. The sun was about to set, casting a glorious glow onto everything in sight. The surrounding corn field was empty except for a cow here and a few kids there.
I might be enjoying the serenity, but Omer could find no peace. The dreadful economy was weighing heavily in his mind. How could it not be? I was his only client in the past two weeks.
“I took two years to train as a cook. Then the revolution happened. I couldn’t even support myself now. My parents and my younger brother are barely getting any work too.”
Our conversation was interrupted when his sister called. Quickly it turned into a heated argument. Increasingly agitated, Omer’s voice filled the countryside with his agony of living in this challenging time.
“She thinks only her life is difficult. Everyone has it tough here. If I could afford it I would leave for the Gulf in a heartbeat.”
I didn’t expect a Muslim, majority of whom I assume to be highly conservative, to openly speak about his family’s dirty laundry to a stranger. What’s even more surprising was Omer’s matter-of-factly confession that he, and most of his peers, enjoyed the occasional bottle of beer.
Just when my mind became occupied by a sudden craving for beer, a tractor cut into our path. My horse, true to her “sensitive” nature, completely lost it and galloped towards the opposite direction. Omer reflexively grabbed onto my reins. An exhaustive round of tugging later, he finally got my horse under control, though not before being dragged off his own ride.
A dozen meters ahead laid Omer’s torn flip-flops, proof of the physical struggle that just took place. Staring at his bare feet, he murmured in English to make sure I could hear his displeasure, “I am making a fool of myself in order to save this tourist.”
I was a little beaten up as well. Blood was gushing out from a cut just under my eye suffered during the earlier tussle. Without another word we rode back to the stable under the starless night sky.