EGYPT, MAY 2013
Egypt is today a land at once both very old and very new. It is hard to imagine how a country that overflows with millennia-old temples and obelisks and sphinxes can be suffering birthing pains, but it has been only two short years since the day everyone refers to as simply “January 25.” There are few countries where people speak regularly of a time “before the revolution” with such poignancy, a time that is still fresh in many Egyptians’ minds, a time that many now recall with a mix of nostalgia and relief as they stumble forward, hoping to reach a new democratic equilibrium that appears tantalizingly close yet remains troublingly distant.
Egypt is today a land at once both teeming and deserted. Tahrir Square still fills with regularity for Friday-afternoon protests, while famed destinations like the temples at Abu Simbel and Karnak lie largely empty of the tourists that used to swarm across the scorching sand, marveling at the hieroglyphics and reliefs that look as if they were painted yesterday. Most professionals will tell you that tourism has been down nearly eighty percent since the beginning of the Arab Spring, as news coverage of the societal turmoil has frightened many away, and the quiet, while unfortunate, affords its own special privileges. An early-morning excursion to visit the Great Pyramids—landmarks that are no less powerful for their ubiquity as simple symbols of ancient history—yields the opportunity to commune face-to-face with the Sphinx in solitude. The Valley of the Kings echoes with resounding silence. Hatshepsut’s vast, imposing mortuary temple lies deserted, save the handful of guards who wander about in their pristine, flowing jalabiyas.
There are constant reminders of this clash between eras throughout the country. Cairo’s Egyptian Antiquities Museum—an overstuffed warehouse with innumerable delicate treasures crammed tenderly into fragile glass display cases—lies just across the street from the burned-out husk of the former headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. Unrest aside, Europeans still flock to the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, where talk of the upcoming elections takes place against the backdrop of the shimmering Red Sea.
There is a strange and confusing blend of resignation and desperate optimism among many of the people, who maintain high hopes for the upcoming elections while working all the while to unseat President Morsi. The Tamarod campaign—which aims to collect fifteen million signatures of protest against Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood by the end of June—was in its incipient stages when we visited in early May. Since then, a counter-movement has sprung up, and the only clear future for Egypt is one of continued social and political unrest for years or even decades to come. As a political activist explained during a panel discussion on our last day in Egypt, “Each one of us has had our own internal revolution.” Egyptians know very well where they have been, but where they are going is still undecided.