In early 2012 Anya and I went on a river cruise on the Nile.
We went as a part of an organised group.
Normally we much preferred to travel on our own, as individuals, determining where we went and where we stayed. But there was little choice in the matter.
Egypt was embroiled in a political crisis.
Two years before, not long after our first visit to Egypt, a wave of popular protest in the Middle East known as the ‘Arab Spring’ arrived in Egypt and led to weeks of protests and the fall of the dictatorial Mubarak government. Free and fair elections were organised, but this led to the resounding victory of the Islamic fundamentalists – the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Party – whose agenda was to turn Eygpt into a Sunni version of Iran. They wanted to base the constitution on the Sharia and furthermore, were equivocal towards Egypt’s ancient past which they regarded as heretical.
In the euphoria of the Arab Spring, western journalists had failed to see that in Egypt there was a huge discrepancy between the people living in the cities and those living in the rural areas. In the case of the former, there were high levels of education along with the widespread use of social media and the internet; in the case of the latter, who constitued the big majority of the population, matters were very different. The women, most of them clad in the burka, gave birth to lots of children; widespread illiteracy, mass unemployment and poverty were widespread – and fundamentalist imams were very powerful. These basic demographic factors, not unique to Egypt incidentally, provided the back drop to the spectacular success of the fundamentalists at the elections.
As a result, the army became restive and the very urban dwellers who had brought down the dictator Mubarak and called for an ‘Arab Spring’, suddenly changed their minds when presented with the prospect of government by religious zealots. The country slid into anarchy as its irreconcilable contradictions rose to the surface. There were strikes, attacks, and violent episodes.
Meanwhile tourism, the life blood of the economy, plummeted.
It was only on the Nile that the safety of foreign tourists could be guaranteed by the army. It was a far cry from the Egypt we were familiar with, where one could travel almost anywhere.
Nevertheless, we went, drawn by the lure of the greatest outdoor musuem in the world, a country with a history like no other….