Archive | March, 2011

Revolutionary zeal in Egypt

13 Mar

Can it help to make change easy and fast?

One month after President Mubarak stepped down, Tahrir Square continues to be a venue for passionate demonstrations

One thing is immediately clear in Egypt: People are extremely enthusiastic about their 25 January revolution. This is especially evident in Cairo, although it’s true throughout the country.

Just after I had arrived in the capital and went out to get my first kushary, a traditional Egyptian dish, a number of young people shouted at me: “Welcome to the NEW Egypt!” – eyes sparkling, wide smiles on their faces.

And then, whoever I’ve spoken to, has inevitably asked: “So what do you think about the revolution?”

I’ve congratulated them and expressed my hope that everything will change for the better. And they have invariably replied: “It surely will!”

“Things have been already changing,” Mostafa told me. “In Nasr City, where I live, people have started to clean the streets. This didn’t happen during Mubarak’s time.”

Young Egyptians ascribe everything positive to the revolution. When I said Egyptians were very friendly, the answer was: “Yes, but this has been since the revolution.”

The enthusiasm for the uprising and the NEW Egypt doesn’t seem to have waned in one month since President Mubarak resigned. Young volunteers in Tahrir Square substitute for the police. They direct traffic and check that nobody coming to join a demonstration carries a gun, and everybody respects them. Passionate public gatherings continue on Tahrir Square on Fridays, street vendors make good business selling Egyptian flags and cards with photos of those killed during the first days of the protests.

It’s easy to get carried away by this zest. What worries me is perhaps the fact that Egyptians expect everything will go easily and very fast.

When an old woman selling tissues approached us, Mostafa told me: “We are not helping these people anymore, because the government said it would.” I might lack the true belief, but a doubt passed through my mind about whether an efficient system to deal with this could have been set up in just a month.

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Time to visit Egypt is NOW

6 Mar

With just few visitors, sightseeing is real pleasure

“A tourist!” yelled a middle-aged vendor at an Aswan market as  he ran to greet me. Walking through the market, I felt like Noah’s dove coming back to the Ark with an olive branch. I was a good news messenger, a sign that tourists are starting to return to Egypt.

“I haven’t had a tourist in my shop for a month,” he told me. ”And I have five people to feed.”

Egyptians tent to have big families. Seven, eight children is a normal.  This vendor had four daughters. Happy as he was with his girls, he hoped that he would add four boys to his family.

Tourism accounts for 13 per cent of Egypt’s GDP and employs over ten percent of the country’s population, according to World Travel and Tourism Council figures.

Many of Egyptians have second jobs in this sector. Sa’id works for a perfume company and at the same time as a licensed tourist guide. Ahmed is currently doing his military service, but having holidays he is selling Nubian handicrafts in his shop in Aswan.

“A salary of 500 Egyptian Pounds a month that you can earn in a company is not enough even to buy bread,” the vendor told me. “So people come from their work and have another job involving tourists. This allows them a decent living,” he said.

Tourist-less Egypt

Most of the foreign visitors left the country after the massive protests, leading to the resignation of President Husni Mubarak, had started in January. The British Foreign Office advised against “all but essential travel” to Egypt and some travel agencies took Egypt off offer.

In many hotels, I’ve been staying in, I was the only foreigner. The least affected seems to have been the Red Sea coast. Still, my friend Hamada left his shop in Sharm el-Sheikh and took indefinite holidays because there was nobody to sell to.  The hotel occupancy rate in this resort town dropped to eight per cent from 70 percent in mid-January, The New York Times on 23 February quoted head of the Egyptian Tourism Chamber of Commerce Ahmed al-Nahas as saying.

Luxor, in the Upper Egypt, is usually crammed with tourists hungry for ancient history sight-seeing. However, this time, I was completely alone in some of the tombs of pharaohs.

A ride on a horse-pulled carriage from the centre of Luxor to the Karnak temple costs 20-25 Egyptian pounds, after a bit of bargaining, the Rough Guide to Egypt says. I was offered the ride for five pounds. “There are no tourists here,” said Ahmed, the owner of the carriage. Despite the negative impact on his business, he seemed to be happy that the revolution took place. He showed me where houses were demolished to clear the way for excavation of the Avenue of Sphinx that once linked Luxor temple with Karnak. The money that the owners got as compensation was insufficient to buy a new property. As the revolution came, the people started to lay bricks where their houses used to be, until the local government paid them more. This wouldn’t have been possible during the time before the revolution. Mubarak’s police would have severely punished any such disobedience. “We were being humiliated before. Now we have our dignity back,” concluded Ahmed.

Tourists, come back!

Almost two weeks after the Foreign Office lifted its warning against the travel to Egypt, tourists are still wary. A friend wrote me in an email when she learnt I’m in the country: “Are you crazy?! Aren’t you watching the news?! Come home right now!”

Egyptians I’ve spoken to asked me to go back to Europe and tell people that Egypt is a safe place to visit. “Look, we have been without the police for more than a month and nothing has happened. No Christians have been killed as many predicted,” the already mentioned vendor said.

Health and safety in Egypt

2 Mar

It's very easy to get lost in Cairo streets without a good map

It seems like the British Foreign Office wants to scare tourists away from Egypt. Even without its advice “against all but essential travel” during the recent unrest that was lifted several days ago, the FCO’s website features lists of horrors waiting there for visitors:

  • There is a high threat from terrorism in Egypt. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in public places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers.
  • Sexual assaults against tourists have occurred even in what were considered to be safe environments, such as hotels.
  • Road accidents are very common. Roads are poor, driving dangerous and traffic laws not enforced. Police estimate that accidents kill twice as many people in Egypt each year than in the UK.
  • Buses are dangerous.
  • Trains are dangerous.
  • Overcrowding and poor safety standards have led to several accidents on Red Sea ferries and Nile cruisers.
  • Cheap diving operators may not provide adequate safety standards.
  • A number of shark attacks have recently taken place in the Red Sea.
  • There were three serious hot air balloon accidents in Luxor in 2009.

True, Egyptian standards would hardly please British health and safety inspectors. On a bumpy railway from Luxor to Alexandria, waiters carry boiling tea in open glass cups above the heads of crowds. Shall I mention the open doors on moving trains? Or doors completely missing in some lifts?

Apart of series of nightmares before my travel to Egypt, I’ve got very little from the FCO website. Useful advice on how to minimize the risk is quite limited. Good one is to exercise extra caution during local holiday weekends and in general, near churches around the time of religious services.