Joe Biden landed in Egypt for the COP27 conference just as we began our first day of the Egyptian safari. I was about to post this blog (two weeks ago) just as Egyptian police announced that reporters and bloggers be put on notice: Don’t criticize the government.
Regular readers know how unlikely I would criticize anything much less a big African government, basically believing everything in the world is honky-dory, but valor being the better part of splendor I conceded to my valuable clients that their interests were paramount: no blogs about modern Egypt until I was out of the country.
I’m now out of the country.
The world’s leaders gathered to combat climate change in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheik where participants were greeted with a WHO warning that the air quality was four times above the safe level. You would have thought that might have helped but it was the last thing the Egyptians wanted known.
For us in Cairo air quality was three times the safe level, similar to many Chinese cities.
Almost everyone in our group was sick. Now in fairness some serious colds were brought over to Egypt from the outdoor touring in Palestine and Jordan. But I’ve no doubt that everyone’s systems were seriously compromised by Cairo air quality.
Our first day of touring was spectacular. It included the sphinx, the tunnels into the tombs of the sphinx and pyramids, camel rides and the National Museum. The much publicized new Egyptian Museum is now more than two years behind its opening schedule, but Kathleen who has been here multiple times claims the old museum still ranks as one of the best in the world.
Rumor has it that Egyptian president Sisi wants to use the opening of the National Museum as a singular Egyptian achievement that can be celebrated without the pesky distractions of wars or pandemics. And that he won’t open the doors until those unlikely times arrive.
The second day of touring, however, ground everyone down. It featured the religious sites in Old Coptic Cairo. These are primarily holy Christian sites revered as places Mary stopped with Jesus when fleeing Herod.
Our guide was overflowing with facts and figures but she couldn’t have been more different from our guides in Jordan and Palestine. The Palestinian guide was open to the point of endangering his tenure, openly biased and strongly opinionated yet open to discourse. Our Petra guide was justly pretty full of himself and had such an incredible grasp of Jordan’s ancient history that the simplest question evoked a PhD postulate.
The Egyptian guide – like all Egyptian guides who must be regularly retested and certified – touts a party narrative.
The narrative underscores Egypt’s autocracy: secularism. The current military dictatorship overthrew the non-secular, fairly elected democratic government that came to power in June 2012 during the great Arab Spring.
Like Turkey Egypt’s single most important avowed mission is to keep society secular. Turkey’s having trouble doing this under the ecclesiastical Erdoğan, but Egypt’s Sisi is steadfast. You will not hear one word even whispered in Egypt criticizing the government despite Amnesty International’s conclusion that Egypt’s human rights situation is a “deepening crisis.”
Obama celebrated the Arab Spring, lauded the Muslim Brotherhood winners, but then twisted on a dime and sighed relief with new aid to the generals who overthrew it a few years later.
None of us thought that the Muslim brotherhood which swept to power across the Arab world would continue to behave like the Muslim brotherhood that had hidden underground for so long. But they did. Had the Egyptian military not deposed them there would have been a terrible bloodbath at worse, or a Taliban-Afghanistan situation at best.
But sweeping them out and clamping stability on Egypt has muzzled its magnificence. Today’s party line paints Egypt as completely secular and it mostly is since there are so many religious activists, journalists and academics missing or jailed. The line is pressed down into government-required certification of any one who wants to be a guide.
So even history – even Egypt’s very ancient hard-to-corroborate history is distilled. The guide creates an historical narrative that exaggerates the similarities between non-secular religions to the point of implying all religions are pagan, therefore the same.
Yes there are stark similarities between the gods Horus, Zeus and Jehovah. There are good examples of the concept of trinity in the ancient Egyptian ankh. But there’s nothing meaningful in these analogies. Different religions obviously share similar structures as they all derive their existence from the concept of faith.
So it became a bit tiring as our guide described one fresco or sculpture or mosaic after another in terms of its counterpart in a different religion. But you see that was her mission, the mission required of every certified guide:
Non-secularism, like the Muslim Brotherhood, facilitates terror. Peace – no matter how ruthlessly screwed into place – is the genius of a stable secular Egypt. And for the remainder of our time in Egypt we were told that was as true in the time of Tutkahamen as it is for Sisi.
The rigidness of the guiding reminded me long ago of the state-sponsored touring of Soviet Russia. It was a real disappointment to see that exists again today.