It is hard to paint a coherent picture of today’s Egypt from the inside; you experience daily life and news items as a fragmented reality. Things are not following apart, the center holds, but centrifugal forces pull at the periphery of this once brutally centralized state. The ‘Arabs of the Sinai’- the Bedouin tribes- are on the warpath, their long-term vendetta with Mubarak’s police forces breaking out into open hostilities, effectively shutting off the Sinai to tourists and Egyptians alike. It sounds like an atavistic throwback to the era of the historian Jabarti, who wrote a chronicle of Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1789: Jabarti describes the citizens of Cairo fleeing the city ahead of the French forces, only to be driven back by the menace of the Bedouin outside the city walls, waiting to plunder and attack them. So it is today in Cairo, once the safest city of its size anywhere; you will hear people say that central Cairo is safe, but the outlying areas are vulnerable to carjackers and highwaymen.
That was very much on my mind last week as, in a hurry to return to Cairo from the Mediterranean coast, we took the shortcut through the 200 kilometer Natron Valley, an unpopulated stretch of desert where you might not cross another vehicle for hours in the high season of mid-summer, let alone in the dead of winter after dark in these fearsome days of insecurity. Given the risk of carjacking or even a flat tire without a gas station or emergency vehicle in sight, we were luckier than I realized to make it through the Wadi Natron.
Once we rejoined the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road I breathed a sigh of relief, took my foot off the accelerator, and stopped at the nearest rest house, Omar’s Oasis, an old-fashioned restaurant whose main attraction are the fragrant loaves baked to order in a traditional Egyptian bread oven, in full view of the diners. As I walked into the restroom, the attendant handed me a few sheets of toilet paper, and smiled at me as she adjusted her headscarf: “Happy Valentine’s Day!”
It seemed so incongruous a greeting, from such a seemingly unsophisticated person, in such unpromising surroundings. But that’s Egypt today: a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces refuse to fit.
St Valentine’s is a recent importation in Egypt, where it is known as the Festival of Love, but the younger generation of urbanites has taken to it with gusto. Now there are gloomy predictions of: “This will be the last St Valentine’s to be celebrated in Egypt; once the Muslim Brotherhood take control, they will abolish all such Western ‘decadent’ festivities.” Whether or not this proves to be the case, it is shocking to compare the mores of Egypt in 1963 with those of 2012, half a century later. A 1963 newspaper advertisement for a new resort at Gamsa features two women in tiny bikinis; it is a measure of how far Egypt has regressed from modernity that today, such an ad would be unthinkable. Although women in bikinis do still stroll the beaches of most of the private resorts on the Mediterranean coast and all the tourist beaches of the Red Sea, it is becoming increasingly common to see women bathing in ‘Islamic’ dress.
The Muslim Brotherhood claim they will double tourism, without resorting to bikinis or alcohol, but this wishful thinking is met with skepticism and derision by their many critics.
And that is perhaps the most hopeful sign left in today’s Egypt: the critics of the Brotherhood and of the Military are many and fearless. The genie let out of the bottle on January 25th refuses to be stuffed back into the black hole that was the police state.