Egypt Since the Uprising: 2011-2019

Mary and I had been home two weeks before we began seeing television accounts of the Egyptian Uprising that began on January 25, 2011. In hindsight the fact of political and social unrest in Egypt should not have come as a great surprise to us. When I asked our tour guide why we had to take a plane ride from Luxor International Airport to Cairo, she frankly admitted that violent extremists made it dangerous for the group to travel any other way. When I asked if a cab was a safe way to get to old Cairo, the site of Coptic churches founded according to tradition by the apostle Saint Mark, she told me not to go there at all because of recent attacks on Coptic Christians by Islamic extremists–attacks that have a long history and continue to this day.

The Egyptian Uprising (also called the Arab Spring) began in Tunisia a few weeks before we arrived in Cairo. A humiliated street vendor whose goods were casually confiscated immolated himself. Similar acts of self-immolation then spread to Egypt and other Arab countries. It is reasonable to assume from the strong impact of these events that the main sources of Arab unrest, aside from government corruption and police brutality under the likes of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, were as follows: hopelessly high unemployment, hopelessly low wages for those who were employed, and the near impossibility of well educated young people (already ingenious enough to use social media to spread their frustration) to find meaningful work. It was remarkable that this justly discontented group was able to unseat Egypt’s Mubarak in 2011, leading to the failed presidency of Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012, and the coming to power of the current Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, in 2014. But it was incredibly naive for Westerners to hope for abrupt change from this slow-moving “revolution,” which could produce no president whose roots were not in the military.

Nearly 50 % of Egyptians live in poverty. They lack the interest in, and means to, effect significant government change. Historically what has helped them most has been the technology that, through the building of the Aswan Dam and Lake Nasser, has irrigated the desert to make consistent farming possible, moved water traffic via the Lock at Edfu (see my earlier posts on these subjects) and currently, with El-Sisi’s major expansion of the Suez Canal, promised to double the number of ships passing through that waterway and so vastly increase international trade with India, China and Southeast Asia for all participating countries.

Whether the economic advantages of this expansion will seep down to the ordinary Egyptian remains to be seen given the brutality of the early stages of El-Sisi’s hold on power. (At the recent G7 Summit President Trump reportedly referred to El-Sisi as his “favorite dictator.”)

I am ending this series on Egypt from 2011 to 2019 with photos we took of 5 Egyptians whom we hope, no doubt naively, will benefit from El-Sisi’s initiatives.

Egypt 2011: Alexandria

Alexandria existed in my imagination long before I ever got to see the place. It rained miserably the whole day when I finally did get there, but the sogginess didn’t matter to me as much, perhaps, as it should have. When Mary and I got off the bus from Cairo, there sat Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt looking pretty much like my imagined Alexandria, which was way too distant from the facts of history to be what the city undoubtedly was, namely Egyptian. My Alexandria was Greek. Its air was that of my youthful reading–of the Homeric epics, The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and Euripides’ Medea along with the wisdom of Socrates who, in a line that makes little sense in today’s White House, is credited with saying that the unexamined life is not worth living.

A mere 9 years before my 2011 arrival in Alexandria, a new library was built there, replacing, but my no means equaling, the one probably built by Ptolemy II, Pharaoh of Egypt from about 283 to 246 BCE. That library was rich in the scrolls of Greek culture, but it was also a gathering place for scholars worldwide. It may have been partially burnt, but most likely it just declined over time as a result of the wholesale scorn often visited on impractical “intellectuals” whose so-called expertise it has recently become so fashionable to scorn. (Alexandria, it should be noted, helped give rise to the highly significant 3rd century AD philosophical school of Neoplatonism, which included the likes of Plotinus, Porphyry, Proclus and eventually such early fathers of the Christian Church as Origen and Saint Augustine.)

The New Library of Alexandria, impressive for its developing system of Supercomputing

The question Alexandria made me finally face up to was how my college training in the literature and philosophy of Greece and Rome stood up against the nearly universal educational emphasis these days on preparation for the technological demands of society in the world of today and tomorrow. The obvious answer for most is that Huawei, the Chinese company with an apparent solution for every technological problem you could ever have simply must, fortunately or unfortunately, replace Plato and Aristotle, to say nothing of Plotinus and Proclus, on the typical college syllabus.

You may think I will now proceed to a stout defense of the liberal arts over mere trade school advancement, however sophisticated. It certainly looks like I will from my choice of a classical amphitheater for two of my last Alexandrian photos.

But I remain fixated on the photo below of the child laborer, who must be almost 20 by now, looking back at me as I snapped my camera at him. As long as there are youngsters like him growing up all over Africa, the Middle East, and the world for that matter, how can we say that as a country we are becoming “great again” and not be found laughable. A slogan is one thing but surely “greatness,” for a country as rich in resources as ours, is another. And if skill in locating algorithms is what it takes to help this young man or his sister along, so be it.

Where is he now?

Egypt 2011: Ramses II

Ramses II (1304-1213 BCE) was pharaoh during a comparatively peaceful period in Egyptian history. His was a time of construction, though Ramses also lead major military expeditions, not all of them entirely successful. Ramses had many wives and many children, the tomb of his wife Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens near Luxor being especially famous for its elegant art work. Ramses II’s mummified remains may be seen in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, though images of him are visible (as below) all over Egypt. Ramses II is the pharaoh that the 19th-century poet Percy Shelley’s refers to in the short poem Ozymandias for those of you remember reading that poem in college. Below you may see how readily the name of Ramases is used to advertise even the least impressive Egyptian tourist bazaar.

Ramses looking pleased with himself
Note the little girl’s apparent fascination with the big fellow
Mary braving the big guy’s formidable arm

Egypt 2011: The Valley of the Kings and the Approach to the Pyramids of Giza

The Valley of the Kings is an archaeologist’s dream but was something of a disappointment to us in 2011. It is a collection of tombs that a number of Pharaohs had constructed for themselves in the hope of guaranteeing their survival into the afterlife. The god Osiris had a lot to do with this because Osiris, according to Egyptian myth, was resurrected from the dead and the Pharaohs thought this divinity was the source of their own enormous power. So they devised various means of having themselves buried, including leaving their treasures and artifacts in their tombs. thereby carrying them from this world to the next (they could take it with them, or so they thought). Inevitably these tombs were robbed even by some of those who built them, a tradition that apparently continues to this day.

All this happened during the so-called New Kingdom, a period roughly from 1500-1300 BCE when Egypt, whose power then extended all the way to the Euphrates River in present-day Iraq, was for the most part at peace. A good many of the artifacts to be seen in these tombs were not available to us because they were closed or the archaeologists were working in them.

We left the Valley of the Kings for the international airport at Luxor for a return flight to Cairo, where our first tourist stop was Giza and the Pyramids. What impresses most about the Pyramids is their age. As far as we are from the time of Jesus, that’s how far in time Jesus was from the Pyramids.

Our first sight of the Pyramids
Closer Up
Even Closer Up

The first photo of the next post will be the gathering of the camels, followed by photos of guess-who riding one. If you think it was me, you’re wrong. I was too scared..

Egypt 2011: The Lock at Edfu

Egypt is surrounded by desert–Sinai and the Eastern Desert on one side, for example, and the Libyan desert on the other. Furthermore the Nile is hedged around by desert within Egypt itself so that its irrigating waters have always been critical to a sufficient growth of food. That growth was by no means guaranteed when the Nile, dropping its precious silt, flooded the land only once a year. But the twentieth-century construction of the Aswan Dam and Lake Nasser has made water available at regular intervals, making farming more successful along the Nile and distributing hydro electric power to the population. That technology becomes even more crucial when you consider that the Egyptian population has grown by sixteen-and-a-half million since Mary and I visited in 2011.

Another example of the benefits of modern technology to the Egyptians, citizens and tourists alike, is the lock at Edfu, which allows travel along the Nile to proceed at a fairly normal pace. I took the photos below because the lock seemed to me, as I went through it on our tour boat, not to foul up the environment of the Nile, which is none too lovely as you travel the river further toward Cairo, but rather to beautify it. Engineering and the environment are thus not always at odds. See if you don’t agree.

The Lock at Edfu

Egypt 2011: An American Tourist Speaks to the Leader of our Tour

The leader of our tour was an Egyptian woman, perhaps in her thirties, well educated at the University of Cairo, and obviously capable of more financially rewarding work than leading visitors’ tours (though she certainly put her whole heart and soul into ours). An American woman on our bus mentioned to her that she must not have taken the Islamic faith too seriously since she did not wear a head scarf. The reply was decisive and revealing. “I am a devout follower of the Islamic faith,” the leader said, but I prefer not to wear a head scarf and in fact don’t have to. I am free to follow my own inclinations in this matter.”

There was a tone in the American woman’s stated assumption that the head scarf was a requirement all Islamic women serious about their faith had to follow, and that tone implied her own superiority in being “free” of such old fashioned restrictions. There was also, quite possibly, some irritation at being so expertly schooled by a woman she had trouble regarding as her social equal.

I could not help wonder what the American woman made of our leader’s explanation of the ancient Egyptian myth of Horus, the sky-god of the Nile Valley pictured as a rather stern falcon, and his wife Hathor, pictured with a cow’s ears, who was also the goddess of music and revelry. Hathor visited Horus once a year at his temple in a town called Edfu, from which Horus sailed out on the Nile to meet her. The couple were at length left alone to re-consummate their union while the people, presumably themselves left alone by the attending priests, enjoyed a Festival of Drunkenness. Later on the Greeks identified Hathor with their own goddess of Love and Joy, Aphrodite.

Mary and Ron with Hathor and an interested bystander

I hesitate to think what our American friend on the bus thought of the Horus/Hathor myth, but given her air of superiority I imagine she regarded it as, like the head scarf, more old fashioned nonsense which we Westerners have thankfully discarded.

As for me, the Festival of Drunkenness reminds me of New Orleans on Shrove Tuesday, which she probably also dismisses as some pointless relic of the past. I like what the Latin poet Terrence wrote: “nothing human is alien to me.”