Two years ago, protestors brought down the Mubarak regime in what, across the Middle East, is called the Arab Spring. In Egypt they simply call it The Revolution. For the first time in memory, Egypt’s people are not governed by foreigners, the rich, or as one man put it, “the people with the guns.” The Egyptians have a say in their own government and I don’t think they’ll give it up again. Not without a fight.
Egypt is rich in natural resources. In this land of deserts, Egypt stands alone with the most valuable of commodities…water. The Nile and the abundant shores of the unpolluted Lake Nasser could supply Egypt with water for ten years. The Nile Valley and delta are rich in agriculture, sugar cane, grapes, citrus fruits, bananas and cotton.
Universities abound in Cairo and Alexandria. Even if they don’t possess a degree, the average Egyptian speaks two or three languages. You can stand on any corner and hear English, French, Italian, Polish or Chinese. We were on a small boat in the cataracts of the Nile and a boy, probably not more than 10 years old, paddled out to us on a piece of Styrofoam with cardboard hand-paddles and grabbed hold of our boat. He said “English?” When I nodded, he launched into a hearty rendition of “Row, Row Your Boat” and quickly transitioned into “Frere Jacques” in French. After we tipped him, he dropped off our boat and caught the one behind us where I heard him singing in Japanese.
Tourists are the main industry in Egypt and you see people of all nations everywhere. I told one of our guides that I could tell where travelers came from just by their clothes. Germans are always tucked in and buttoned down. Scandinavian men wear bright, bold colors. French and Italians are always stylish, no matter what they’re doing and Americans are slobs. We don’t care how we look we just want to be comfortable.
He told me that the most friendly, easy-going people were the Australians and that Americans get angry too easily. I agreed. I remembered how hard it was to adjust when I first came to the Middle East. After my fast-paced, get-more-done-in-a-day lifestyle, I was often frustrated with the laid back, take-it-easy attitude in this part of the world. Americans just visiting for a limited time with much to see and do would have an even more difficult time.
But the more I thought about it the more I realized there were bigger cultural differences. If an American says no thank you, they mean no thank you. If you ask them again, you are pushing and if you ask a third time, your insulting their integrity. If they said no, they mean no and you should respect that. To an Egyptian, the third no means wait a while before you ask again.
If you tell an American the train will be there at 10 am, it means it will arrive at 10 am. If you tell an Egyptian, he knows 10am means, Insha’Allah….God willing. And with Egyptian trains, God doesn’t seem to be willing very often.
If you tell an American, “Don’t worry, everything is taken care of. Enjoy your vacation.” It means the problem is resolved. Relax and enjoy. To an Egyptian it means, “it’s in God’s hands. Enjoy today for we don’t know what tomorrow will bring but we will do the best we can.”
Yes, the vendors at the monuments hound you and won’t take no for an answer. Yes, they are everywhere, especially now that the tourist trade is running at 15%, not even a quarter of its normal levels. The Egyptians need to feed their families in these post Revolution days.
There is a gas shortage with lines at every station. The garbage collectors have not been paid so they stopped collecting. Garbage is piling up on the sides of the roads and spilling over into the canals. Cairo, an already overcrowded, dirty city is even dirtier. It’s the second most populated city in the world, just below Mexico City.
As a rule, the Egyptian people are friendly, outgoing and accepting. We were hardly off the plane when one man told us that the Muslims and the Christians in Egypt have lived side by side and worked together for centuries without problems. I knew it was true because I saw the small tattoo cross on the hand of our driver, his partner.
To survive waves of invaders, the Egyptians have learned to adapt and they are amazingly tolerant. They were willing to give the new government time to get on its feet but even their tolerance and patience is wearing thin.
Egypt is an oil producer. So why are there gas lines? Qatar is the richest oil-producing nation in the world. So why is the government selling its oil to Qatar? Land along Lake Nasser was earmarked for young and upcoming Egyptians but was sold to a rich Saudi prince for someone’s profit. The new government forced the prince to give back 170,000 acres of rich farmland. So who owns it now and why isn’t it up for sale? Young unveiled university women are being approached by men who suggest they cover up. A popular tourist attraction was closed and not reopened because it sits in a location that can easily be secured. Against what?
As an outsider looking in, I can see a heavy hand and an agenda that once again, seems to have nothing to do with the needs of the people. As the shortages continue and the questions remain unanswered, some Egyptians even dare to wonder if they have traded one dictator for another. Still, some people are optimistic. One man said, “I have to believe in the positive. I have to have hope.”
All I could say was “Insha’Alla.” God willing.