Sitting on a double bed under a shade tent within view of the Giza pyramids, listening to the laughter of my three children in the hotel pool and reading AL Tibawi's now old but informative history of modern Syria, it is easy to forget that just a few kilometres away in Tahrir Square the history of modern Egypt is being made right now. The youth of Egypt are again defying the odds and facing an aged but determined military who seem more intent on preserving position and authority than hastening to a democratic Egypt.
We "fucked them good", a perfumery business owner says when speaking of the January revolution that led to Mubarak standing down. "Now we just want them to go. We want freedom. We want schools for our children and hospitals for the sick. If I have money and my child is sick, she lives; if I don't, she dies. This shouldn't be. If my child goes to school because I have money and I can send her to a private school, she will learn. The Government school's here are fucked." Teachers in Government schools can be paid as little as $100US per month while an official tour guide may expect tips of that much in a day.
Mousa goes on, "If you know someone here, the back hand works, but I decided years ago not to go that way. They are like mafia here, you know what this means. I'll give you an example. One day I had a car accident. There was an old man crossing the road and he's a bit slow, so I stop, and wham, I get hit. The guy gets out of his car and I tell him I will pay for it and we'll fix it up. But he says 'Do you know who I am , do you know who I am , I'm General ….. and I can lock you up!!!' I was going to pay for it and fix it but now I told him to forget it, I get in the car and I drive away and he'll get nothing. I've got family you know and it's not long before I get a phone call and I'm told it's taken care of. "
Obviously angry about the corruption in the Egyptian system and feeling sullied by his own part in it Mousa spent two hours breaking down every piece of Egyptian society and comes up with the conclusion, "These bastards have been here for thirty, forty years, but there are 65 million of us and we've been here for 7000 years. We will win!"
It is encouraging to meet such confidence, even if driven by anger. Others are less confident. Ibrahim used to be a guide at the Pyramids. Not only is he out of a job because tourist numbers are appallingly low but he tells stories of crime around the pyramids and advises not to go in the morning because some bad elements have been using drugs and causing trouble for tourists. More dangerously, in a military style heist a gold store in Giza was recently cleaned out completely by a team of thieves bearing heavy weapons. Ibrahim no longer lets his two girls walk to school. He drives them. I turn out to be his only business for the day, his first customer in the morning, transferring between hotels, and his last of the night as he takes me to the tailors to pick up two beautiful new suits. What's worse, he tells me, his wife thinks he is off with another woman instead of driving me around. She rings three times on the way to the tailors and twice on the way back.
Perhaps the most unexpected refrain I have heard this time in Egypt has been guilt. A tour guide speaks shamefully of her generation leaving the dying to the current generation. Her generation just kept quiet. Now they feel the guilt of their inaction as they see their own children and their friend's children paying the price of freedom.
The day of the recent elections, Monday 28th Nov. , saw my family and I drive by Tahrir square on the way to catch a flight to Luxor. It was 6 am and all was quiet in the square. A few hours later Television sets were showing early exit poll results for some booths. Our guide was so committed to voting for the first time in his life that he left us to our own devices and caught a later flight. He turned up in Luxor proudly displaying the indigo dye on his forefinger as evidence of his first ever vote.
There is hope here but what is not perhaps understood in the West is that these elections are being staged over many months, district by district, region by region. 2012 will be many months old before any meaningful government can be formed. The cynic in me and the majority of Egyptians suspect this may be the military regime's way of managing the results. If so, Tahrir square will continue to be a focus for protest and instability will continue.
The big question remains, will Egypt survive intact through this period? Already there is a noticeable deterioration in the cleanliness of the streets since the revolution, there is more fear of crime, the streets are even more chaotic (sounds impossible but true) and even the locals in Cairo are hoarding money rather than spending it in fear of what the future may hold. Tourist numbers are so low that the multi-storey200plus bed Sheraton Hotel on Tahrir street has only three room lights on, two hours after sunset. Other hotels are running at around 10-20% capacity. Even in Southern Egypt – 800 kilometres away from Cairo, cruise operators are running cruises at less than 20% capacity. Yet another tour guide tells us we are his first job in two weeks and nothing more is expected.
Barack Obama, in a speech quoted on billboards at the new Airport Terminal 3 in Cairo purportedly said "We need to educate our children to be like Egyptian young people …" by which I am sure he meant – courageous, polite and firmly dedicated to the values of freedom and respect for all. There is good reason for hope. Against all the naysayers I brought my family to Egypt, where they have been treated like royalty, with love and kindness. Ibrahim, my driver, has learned of my daughter's love of horses and is already arranging horse-riding for his and my children in the desert, after which we will share a meal and Egyptian hospitality in his home. Perhaps only then will his wife believe all those hours away from home were actually spent with me!
Rev. John Warham – from Cairo and Luxor. 6th December 2011
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Reverend John Warham BA(Psych) BTh has been an ordained minister of the Uniting Church in Australia for more than 20 years. He is currently minister to the Merewether congregation in New South Wales.