Cairo – 10,472 miles
The taste of freedom was fresh on our palates as we approached Cairo, and our excitement offset any apprehension we should have felt on approaching this hotbed of political strife. The world’s media was honed in on this city as the crowds expressed their discontent with the current government. The Egyptian people famously ousted their leader Mubarak in 2011, leaving the military to organise the country’s first ever democratic elections. President Morsi led the Islamic Brotherhood to a narrow victory in June 2012, and since then has been at the helm steering, rather clumsily towards what some fear and some hope may become an Islamist state. On the 22nd of November he issued a declaration which stated that his decisions were “final and unchallengeable by any individual or body until a new constitution has been ratified and a new parliament has been elected”. To many, this harked of a second Mubarak, and a step back towards the temporary state of emergency in 1967 which lasted for over 40 years. Morsi put forwards a new draft of the constitution on the 29th November which many Liberals and Coptic Christians felt encroached upon freedom of speech, women’s rights, and the recent democratic gains made by the country. Tempers boiled over in a spate of violent clashed between the Brotherhood’s supporters and anti Morsi groups, culminating in 5 alleged deaths outside the Presidential Palace on 5th December. Morsi eventually caved to public pressure and retracted his 22nd of November declaration. He has insisted however that the new constitution be taken to referendum, despite objections by the majority of opposition parties. Violent protests continued centered around the now famous Tahrir Square, even as the media drew comparisons with Syria’s downward spiral into civil war.
It was in the week leading up to the referendum that we approached Cairo. We were not afforded the luxury of time to worry, as we were fully occupied with navigation and personal safety. The drive into Cairo had us harking back to our childhood Mario Cart days, desperately trying to avoid the next banana skin. We were on a Gothen City-esque motorway flyover which elevated us from the cramped and grimy streets below. Our route had us dodging past incomplete and occasionally non-existent sets of car lights in a navigational no-man’s-land somewhere between the Michelin’s ‘Map of Arabia and North East Africa’ and Lonely Planet’s tiny map of ‘Central Cairo’.
We swung our way through the serpentine streets past shisha stands, chai stalls, and army tanks. We eventually found a cheap hostel populated by a rather perplexed receptionist, whose ample eyebrows shot up at the sight of three road worn Brits stumbling through the door into an otherwise empty building. We rather anxiously left our beloved Land Rover parked on the street overnight. Lying on our beds, exhausted from the drive, we contemplated our location. Barely four hundred yards from Tarhir Square, we could hear the sound of a huge crowd in the distance. The roars were occasionally punctuated with more organised chanting, and the distinctive sound of rubber bullets being fired.
Other than blatant tourism, the purpose of our visit to Cairo was to try and persuade the great nation of Sudan to furnish us with visas. Studying the map the next morning we discovered that although a short walk away, the embassy was inevitably the other side of Tahrir Square.
Being fully subscribed to the concept of ‘as the crow flies’, and afflicted as we were with a triple dose of young man’s curiosity, we set off with our wits in close proximity towards the square. We passed some respectable barriers comprised of a veritable smorgasbord of barbed wire, razor wire and other sharp objects. Massive concrete cubes effectively blocked access to the square from most streets. Fifteen feet high and two score wide, they provided a blank canvas that was quickly utilised by political street artists. Tie-wearing workers and would-be revolutionaries queued together, waiting to squeeze through tiny gaps between the roadblocks and street wall. Suited businessmen scurried to and fro, picking their way between burnt out cars and tut-tutting at the dust on their shoes from hundreds of trampled sand bags. Self appointed guards overlooked the proceedings sporting bandannas emblazoned with anti government slogans. One of them enthusiastically showed us a flail he had made from razor wire and a length of metal piping, the handle of which doubled up as a sort of lethal potato gun. Despite looking not a day older than eleven, he was a serious young man.
When we eventually made the square we found to our surprise that it hadn’t been consumed in some post apocalyptic battle that our imaginations and the media reports had constructed. There were hundreds of people gathered, their numbers occasionally swollen by marches arriving in the square. They were loudly and passionately protesting, but they were peaceful. In between the crescendos, an atmosphere quite unexpected revealed its self. Street vendors had sprung up everywhere. Whiffs of sweet potato, roasted chestnuts, and falafel mingled with the more acrid smell of street bangers and burning rubbish. Chai stands squeezed in between the crowds. Hawkers flogged masks, whistles, flags and balaclavas in a rather dubious display of free market economy. Men perched outside graffiti covered tents smoking shisha and putting the world to rights. These were touching glimpses of everyday life.
We felt exposed but not unsafe. We were the only non-Egyptians evident, other than a few film crews perched high in buildings overlooking the square, or scurrying to and fro from the ample comfort of the nearby Hilton. As such we were frequently approached, and spent an interesting morning sharing tea and exploring differing opinions. Although these people were in the Anti Morsi camp, their common enemy had very much united them, and they expressed a broad range of political preference. Away from the square we encounter fiery youths convinced that the occupants of Tahrir square are all remnants of the Murbarak era, intent on keeping their positions.
A growing proportion of people seem now more concerned with the freefalling economy than in political rivalries. Overwhelmingly, the response to us has been one of sincere and enthusiastic welcome and a concern about the Egyptian image abroad. We were continually hailed with cries of ‘Welcome to Egypt’. We have been made to promise that despite the political turmoil, we must go home and spread the word that Egypt remains safe and welcoming to the outside world. For a country so dependent on tourism this is of little surprise. However, Egyptians are ubiquitously proud of their ancient nation and are appalled to hear that they are seen as dangerous to outsiders. This is one thing a nation, increasingly divided and uncompromising, still has in common.
To the Egyptian people, democracy was for many years an elusive bastion of hope that would solve all problems. The reality has sadly proved much more tumultuous. Although the days of overt corruption and fearful secret police are gone, the country is still a long way off representative political stability. Referendum queues several thousand long and ongoing protests prove that dissatisfaction is still rife.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum, we hope that the Egyptians can maintain a stable democratic state from here on in. Political consistency will reassure foreign investors as well as the international community and the IMF. Peace will flood their ancient monuments – currently deserted – with tourists once more, perhaps breathing life back into their floundering economy. We will watch the referendum results tomorrow with interest as we prepare to depart for the Sudan.