There is troubling news out of Egypt today. A mosque was bombed, then a mass shooting took place as people tried to flee the building. This happened in a crowded Sufi mosque near the Sinai Coast leaving over 200 plus people dead and over 100 injured. The attack happened during Friday prayer and is one of the deadliest attacks on civilians in Egypt’s modern history. No one has officially taken responsibility, although it currently carries all the hallmarks of ISIS.
Having visited Egypt recently, this comes as sad news. The grandeur of the Great Pyramid of Giza, The Sphinx, Valley of the Kings, and Abu Simbel was nothing short of spectacular. Truly it is hard to find words that adequately describe or do justice to the majestic tombs and temples which tell a story of an early advanced civilization with an abundance of knowledge and wealth. However, that is the Egypt of yesterday. Today it is a nation in dire economic distress with inflation rates near 30% and a devalued Egyptian pound of 17.1 to the U.S. dollar, interest rates of 28% with a majority of the population living in abject poverty.
From the moment we arrived in Cairo, it was obvious, for lack of originality that “we were not in Kansas anymore.” The streets were mass chaos, filled with people on foot, donkey-pulled wagons, small taxi buses packed with fifteen to twenty people, motorbikes with three or four family members piled on and a plethora of modern-day passenger vehicles. There were neither designated lanes nor traffic lights, and yet everyone manages to get where they are going.
As our tour bus daily navigated its way to our destination, children and adults were jubilant to see us with friendly waves and comments like: “Welcome to Egypt, we love you!” The outpouring of excitement caught me off guard at first, but over the course of the trip, I realized Egyptian people are warm, caring people who desperately need tourists to inject money into their economy as it was prior to the revolution in 2011.
2011 REVOLUTION KILLED TOURISM
For many years the tourist industry was Egypt’s ticket to economic relief. Shortly after the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979, tourism began to grow into one of the main sources of revenue for the country. It reached a pinnacle in 2010 of 14.7 million visitors and an annual revenue high point of $12.5 billion.
The revolution of 2011 was followed by security threats and civil unrestthroughout2015 and resulted in a drastic decline in the number of people visiting Egypt which negatively impacted the daily lives of millions of Egyptians.
One of the restaurant server staff told us that within the past year the price of gasoline and electricity have tripled while his wages continued to fall. He made it clear he knows he is fortunate to have his job at the five-star resort, but said, “Before all of the trouble, tourism was great, and I made enough money to send my sons to school and also save a little bit.” Today he struggles to make enough to feed his family. It was impossible to ignore the melancholy as he described daily life for most Egyptians. He said, “In many ways, we are worse off than before the revolution, but we do not want trouble, we just want to live our lives and to be able to provide for our families; we want very much for you to come back to Egypt and bring all of your friends.”One of the most elaborate Mosque’s in Cairo
Security is a big issue in Egypt, and over the past couple of years, there has been a widespread campaign to bring tourism back by touting safety for tourists. There is a very high presence of heavily armed police and military everywhere, and we passed through numerous roadblocks with bomb-sniffing dogs.
Our tour guide explained to us that after the events of 2011, the government prefers to keep the people secure under what is a “controlled state.” Citizens are not allowed to own guns and therefore have no way to protect themselves from radical extremists. They are at the mercy of police who are on street corners protecting them with submachine guns. On the other hand, if a law-abiding person questions the actions of the police or government, or tries to stand up for their basic rights, the results can be dire.
An Issue of Governance?
Under the rule of Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, strict new rules are in place and limit what topics are allowed in their Friday khatib mosque prayers. By effectively removing Salafi and other radicals from the pulpit, the government controls messages and keep social issues at bay in hopes to prevent an uprising of the oppressed people. Many of the standardized weekly khatib’s are scripted and concern conserving electricity and fuel.The majesty of Egypt in days gone by
These actions, make one wonder if the people of Egypt regret the uprising in 2011 and 2013.Is the state of the economy better or worse under the current regime and what options do Egyptians have if things continue to go from bad to worse? An excerpt from an article in the New Yorker earlier this year journalist Peter Hessler states.
“The imams told me that none of their close friends or colleagues are in prison, whereas activists all have a long list of jailed comrades. However, it seemed easier for the imams to distance themselves. “The next wave of change will happen because of the economy,” one of them told me. “People will not have food, and they will go out into the streets,” I asked if this meant that the anti-Sisi imams are unlikely to lead any future resistance, and he nodded. “They will not start it,” he said. “But, if it happens, then they will participate.”
Reflections of my time in Egypt left me with some parallel concerns with many matters Americans face today. Here in the United States we may have a stronger economy and live in a democracy, but cries of police brutality, gun control, racism, socialism, feminism have– in many ways — reached a boiling point.
Corruption among federal agencies and obstruction of power are deemed commonplace to us these days. People are fed up and angry. There is a cultural division that becomes deeper and deeper every day. Are we so divided and hell-bent on proving the opposition wrong, that we may be ignoring the fact that this great nation could be imploding? It makes one wonder what our country will look like in five or ten years from now. We can agree it was not that long ago that an attack on innocent people in a place of prayer, or in a public venue would be something that only happens in the Middle East, but as we all know, that is no longer the case.