The Egyptian revolution should be long over after Hosni Mubarak’s removal from power, yet political and social unrest dominate a country dependant on its tourist industry. Red Sea scuba diving, Nile Cruises, the pyramids and temples at Cairo, Luxor and Karnak all remain mostly empty compared to their normal load of travellers, a stark reminder of the devastation on the Egyptian economy after the Deir el-Bahri massacre of 62 tourists in Luxor by Islamic extremists. On December 28th, 2012 the legendary pyramid at Saqqara did not have its 500 car, 32 bus parking lot filled to the brim as per usual. Instead the five visitors present (including our group of two) were outnumbered by the security guards, peddlers and ‘Tomb Masters’ six to one. The thousands of hotels, restaurants, shops, bus/car/train/boat tours are filled to only 30% capability, yet this does not inspire the local Egyptian residents to support and protect it shrinking tourist population. No, instead it has created a powder keg of built up frustration and resentment bordering on hatred by those Egyptians reliant on outside funds to support themselves and their families. This expanding problem is growing larger by the day and as of 01 January 3013, promises to become much worse.
“Yes, amazing fireworks!” the guide tells us at our hotel. It’s New Years Eve and we trying to ring in 2013 as best we can. “All the Egyptians and tourists go to the Giza Pyramids at midnight.” We’re hesitant because the near empty hotel has told us they no longer offer complimentary rides back to the airport as their website advertises. “We’re losing a lot of money,” the hotel guide tells us, “No tourists.” This has become commonplace, not just among the hotels, but among every financial transaction that takes place in Cairo. Taxi drivers now must make a 300-400% profit from each tourist instead of the common 10-20% because they may only receive 1-2 a day. Bathroom attendants crowd and shove outside filthy WCs requesting tips ranging up to ten USD, shouting and yelling if they don’t receive their due. Every touristy knickknack, every Egyptian carpet, every sandwich or cup of coffee is pushed and pushed and pushed at London prices in order for the proprietor to meet their quota in a shrinking market.
A metaphor for Cairo after the revolution is an inept brother-in-law inheriting the world’s biggest, most spectacular amusement park the world has ever seen...and then completely spoiling the experience for every visitor on his quest to squeeze and cheat every dollar possible from their wallets. He cares nothing for your experience, nothing for expanding cultural awareness or his business. The park itself is of no importance to him, thus he does not understand the needs or desires of those who come to visit. You could be rude or kind, interested or bored, enjoy yourself or hate every minute. This is completely immaterial to him. The brother-in-law may not be smart, but he is very clever, knowing that it is a visitor’s obligation to be courteous and accommodating in an unknown place to unknown people. To him this is your weakness for him to exploit. You are not a priority for him. The only priority is to use this spectacular park that he did not build, does not properly maintain or improve and most importantly, does not respect to make money.
“ComeComeComeComeCome!” shouts a well dressed, but scruffy man outside the wonderful El-Mursi Abul Abbas Mosque in Alexandria. We are the only visitors to the Mosque currently and want to experience the architecture and religion of a people we are not a part of and do not fully understand. “I work here! You must come to me if you want visit Mosque!” We hesitate. Does he work here or is he like so many other ‘employees’ who turn out to be fake tour guides, salesmen or both. We don’t have time to take in the grandeur of the Mosque before two men forcibly shove guidebooks and postcards in our faces, blocking our view. One man in sunglasses has the haunted look of a desperate cornered animal. There is no fat on his body, but taut and wiry muscle fills his shirt. At six foot, he’s nearly my height and very intimidating, especially surrounded by his friends. “This is yours,” he grunts and shoves a dog-eared guidebook in my hand. “Fifty Pounds for you. Hello. You buy. Come on. Okay. Forty Pounds, okay you buy.” The man blocks our path and puts a hand to my chest as I attempt to walk toward the Mosque with my small blond girlfriend. “This yours! Thirty pounds!” he now shouts over the voices of other salesmen and the Mosque employee. We take our chances and go with the Mosque employee, who promptly separates us, my girlfriend going through to the woman’s side, me toward the main entrance of the Mosque. I give my shoes to the attendant at the front. “Ten pounds!” the guide shouts. It’s 20-times the rate. I give him two. The employee gives me a filthy look. At the entrance, the Mosque is truly amazing. Beautiful light bring- “Come inside!” the guide interrupts, dragging me through to a donation box. “Twenty Euro!” he yells in the silent Mosque. He attempt to do this twice more before I separate from him to appreciate the building alone, but he growls and shouts in Arabic beside me for another five minutes before I give up and attempt to leave. “No! 50 Euro!” he holds out a hand filled with money. “No free tour! Come on!” I give him ten pounds for his three minutes of ‘work’ as he curses and whines in Arabic. He’s lied to us and I’ve been fooled again. Yet this is how it is. Every transaction, every conversation, every sight seen is filled with pitfalls and deception. A fifteen pound taxi ride turns into fifty after ‘traffic’ or ‘taxes’. A kind gentleman who comments on the grandeur of a sculpture in the Egyptian Museum is actually a tour guide and will (loudly) demand compensation for his unrequested assistance. Hidden fees double the price of food and everyone from the man who sweeps the floor, to security guards, to store managers, to children will not request, but demand compensation as you stare at a wall painting, a sculpture, a pyramid so wonderfully constructed it defies the test of time.
Recent democratically elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has openly called for an Egyptian return to strict Islamic sharia law. As he is a member of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, this does not come as a surprise to either the local or international population. Already Morsi has attempted to draft legislation which gives him near absolute control over the country as a whole while he’s violently cracked down on protesters, journalists and political opposition. Employees from the Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo openly lamented that December 31st would be the last day ticket prices would be so low. Starting in 2013 the government will be taking over these tourist locations and charging double the rate, all to go to their coffers instead of the general upkeep of the building/ground and security.
“Almost there,” our guide says, leading our horses to the top of a rolling sand dune overlooking the back of the pyramids. It’s 11:30. 2013 is nearly upon us, but already this night has been half ruined by our guide, who quoted us a price, then nearly doubled it once we started on our journey. Only getting off the horses and leaving brought him around back to the agreed price. Of course, now he’s angry, yelling into his cell phone nearly the entire trip. A strap on my saddle has already broken once, spilling me onto the sand. Our guide was not overly concerned. The rolling sand dune has a small structure on top and inside are two Egyptians dressed as roaming Bedouins, but as this is our fifth day in Cairo and third trip to Egypt, we are aware of the scam before it begins. If we let them, they will invite us inside their tent under the guise of friendship, and then offer tobacco out of a water pipe and Pepsi. Maybe if we were lucky they’d give a short talk about Egyptian Bedouin culture, but this is very unlikely. After a few minutes we would be presented with a ‘bill’ written on a piece of torn out notebook paper. The amount would range between 20-250 US dollars depending completely on how much money they thought they could scam from us. Our guide would receive 20%. Instead we keep our distance and watch the pyramids intently, waiting for the promised fireworks. The moon lights up a haze of dust and pollution out over the expanse of desert, making the incredible, ancient Nubian works clearly visible. This is something we’ve waited to see our entire lives.
“So when do the fireworks begin?” I ask the guide. He’s yelling into his phone again and the fake Bedouin’s are arguing with him at the same time. They have made only a reasonable amount of money from us by renting the horses and wanted more. The guide looks over at me like a child guilty of breaking a window. He shrugs and shakes his head. Now I understand. There no fireworks. A Bedouin opens a Pepsi and tries to shove it into my hand. This will be my final trip to Egypt.
Kamal Al Jazeera is a contributing analyst to 361Security.com