Life pulses with uneasy tension in the land of the pharaohs. Ever since last year's Arab Spring forced out Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, daily life in Egypt turned stressful. Unemployment is high. Tourist business is next to nil. Fuel prices are high, supplies are erratic and any station with gas has long lines.
I just spent a month traveling through Egypt, from Cairo through the Sinai and along the Red Sea, then from Luxor to Aswan and Abu Simbel and five days looping through oases in the Western Desert.
For tourists like us, it's an excellent time to see Egypt's splendid sites. There are no lines. No waits in restaurants. Good deals for Nile cruises. And it seems safe. Tourist police are everywhere, and armed guards and police escort vans and buses in desert areas. For our bus caravan to Abu Simbel from Aswan, the Egyptians sent along two empty buses to make sure no one would be stranded if a bus had mechanical problems.
Everywhere we went, we asked people about their lives after the revolution. Clearly Egyptians are treading lightly during these uncertain days leading up to the election later this month. Work for those in the tourist industry has been spotty at best, but there's an air of cautious optimism.
All three of our guides were university graduates who spoke English fluently. Two were married with children. None was over 35. So far, none had decided who would get his vote. All Muslims, our guides talked about their hopes for a non-corrupt secular government. They worry that the large number of candidates will confuse voters and result in electing a weak president who would not be up to the task of undoing the ingrained corruption and patching the country back together. They spoke of the patience Egyptians need as they try to make democracy work.
That patience is most difficult for Egyptians caught in the country's severest problems: poverty and illiteracy. I was stunned by how poor Egypt's people are.
An urgent concern for many Egyptians is the inadequate supply of diesel and gasoline. Our guides consistently mentioned that many Egyptians think this supply problem is an artificial one created by Mubarak's family business in order to create instability just before the election. There were stories of tanker drivers getting paid to dump their loads in the desert.
Our tour driver often had difficulty getting diesel for our van. One day in the desert we were turned away by five stations. Our driver, Gamal, a good-natured father of five, drives a tourist bus in Upper Egypt. He earns about 300 Egyptian pounds a month ($50), plus tips. One night in early April in the Western Desert town of Dakhla, he waited until 3 a.m. for diesel. Another night he had to go to the police because desperate drivers had pushed ahead of him after he had waited six hours in line. They helped him only because his passengers were tourists.
Sometimes in these desert villages, we saw more donkey carts on the move than trucks or motorbikes.
Coping with all this uncertainty hasn't totally frazzled Egyptian civility to visitors. While walking by military guards and a few tanks near embassies in Cairo and passing through numerous checkpoints on the highways, we were often waved on with a smile. The persistent hassle came from desperate souvenir vendors and taxi drivers. Once they realized we were not interested, they relented with a cordial "Welcome." They were grateful that at least a few tourists were in the country to see the magnificent treasures of their ancient world.
And magnificent they are. To gaze up 479 feet at the 4,500-year-old Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) sparks the imagination into wondering at the accomplishment. Other sites are no less stunning. From the grand seated statues of Ramses II at Abu Simbel to the exquisite paintings in the tombs in the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank across the Nile from Luxor, there are enough ancient monuments to fill multiple itineraries.
These signs of Egypt's past splendor contrast with the country's pervasive poverty, which few people outside of Egypt see. But it's obvious to anyone who walks through the streets of Cairo, a city of 17 million. Heaps of garbage and rubble sit on rooftops, pile up in alleys and line putrid canals. Adjacent to downtown, people run food and fruit businesses in the street, tend sheep, use donkey carts for taxis and sleep under freeway overpasses. Some live in the many unfinished brick buildings.
As a visitor in awe over Egypt's golden pharaonic era, I can have only deep sympathy for Egyptians.