Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Adventures in Egypt or "How I Almost Found Myself in an International Incident"

While a majority of my adventures in the Mediterranean last summer revolved around Israel, I was fortunate enough to travel to Greece, Turkey, and Egypt. While in Egypt, I inadvertently found myself thrown into an international incident that resulted in a military escort out of the Sinai.

I knew that Egypt had its share of problems when I booked my ticket to Cairo, but seeing the revolution that overthrew Mubarak was all the encouragement needed to make the visit.

The first thing I realized about Egypt is that driving is a very different game than it is in California. I was holding on for dear life as my cab slipped in and out of traffic and in breakneck speed. Clearly sensing my discomfort with the pace, my cabbie tried to ease my apprehension by explaining that “revolution or not, traffic in Egypt is still the same.” The man was no amateur at this profession, and he may have missed his true calling as a NASCAR aficionado.

My hotel was just a few blocks from Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests that eventually overthrew one of North Africa’s longest standing dictators. Revolutionary graffiti was everywhere, some of the Islamist variety, but a great deal from the anarchist, liberal, and socialist camps. As it was Ramadan during my visit, the square was generally disserted other than a few occupiers who have tried to keep the revolution’s fire burning. A young man I spoke to in a café nearby claimed that once Ramadan was over, there would be “a new revolution.” Perhaps it was wishful thinking on his part, but the sense of uncertainty that permeates Egyptian society was potent. Everyone I spoke to tried to put a good face on the situation facing their country, but they rarely sugarcoated the circumstances they found themselves. My guide to the pyramids at Giza said that I had come to Egypt too late. “It is over now,” he said. He wasn’t the only person to share that sentiment. Now, I don’t speak Arabic, and most of folks I spoke with were connected in one way or another to the tourist industry, so it may simply be that this segment of Egyptian society has been hit hard by the revolution and is thus not feeling positive about the country’s future. However, it seemed like the revolutionary promises were slowly being abandoned as the Muslim Brotherhood took control of the nation’s politics and society.  

Egypt has seen its share of revolution prior to its current upheaval. One of the destinations that was high on my itinerary was Café Riche. Founded in 1908, the café has played a role in nearly every political change that has occurred since then. The Economist writes:

"Black-and-white pictures in wooden frames commemorate a past that has often revolved around the café's guests. On December 15th 1919 a medical student, Iryan Yusuf Iryan, seated himself near the door and awaited the prime minister, a regular. When he arrived, so Iryan recalled later, “I exited the café and threw the first bomb at the car.”

The prime minister survived, yet Egypt slid into a nationalist revolt against de facto British rule. Battles raged outside the café's doors and revolutionaries sought refuge among coffee-quaffing bohemians. The Riche's basement became their lair. It had several little-known exits that connected to tunnels, built a century earlier when the surrounding land housed a palace, some said to lead all the way to Tahrir Square. 
Today one can still descend to the vaulted cellar and inspect two wooden panels—one holding glasses behind a well-stocked bar—that may be unlocked with a small key and pivoted from floor to ceiling to permit a discreet exit. Police raids on the Riche have always been remarkably unsuccessful, though frequent in the 1920s. The revolutionaries operated a printing press on the premises, spewing out pamphlets that excoriated British occupiers and their puppets. The press is still there.”

The whole piece is worth a read to see just how this small restaurant remained a force in Egyptian society for so many years. My romantic feelings for the place are propped up by the fact that it was the only place in the country I was able to buy a drink as well.

In an attempt to see more of the country on my way back to Israel, I opted for a rare journey through the Egyptian Sinai to one of the few open Israeli border crossings at the town of Taba, and perhaps a dip into the Red Sea. I bordered an overnight bus, and expected a painless journey through the dessert.

I knew something was up when our bus encountered a roadblock not far from Cairo. Three heavily armed men in plain clothes stopped us and bordered the bus. Initially, I feared for the worse and assumed this was a kidnapping in progress. The armed men asked all the men off the bus to be searched, and then requested my passport. Thankfully, I learned that they were part of the Egyptian military, and that for the rest of our journey, we would need to travel with them through the desert for an undisclosed reason. Our bus would be flanked by two armed vehicles equipped with machine guns. I didn’t know much about travel in Egypt, but I knew that this was not customary. The Egyptian towns near Taba made up the Red Sea Rivera, and were popular tourist destinations. Few resorts exist in places that require an armed procession to arrive.  

The journey was slow going. Every 30 minutes or so, we stopped at another checkpoint and had to wait until we were given clearance to move forward. The Egyptian passengers on the bus were clearly agitated by this, and one mentioned to me that the reason for the extra precaution on the part of the military was due to my presence as a foreigner.  What was to be a 5-6 hour trip turned into one lasting more than 10, much to the frustration of those traveling aboard the our caravan.  

 (Somewhere in the Egyptian Sinai)
When I finally arrived in Taba, I checked into my hotel, only to realize I was the only guest they had. Mind you, this was the middle of the summer when the town would customarily be full of vacationers enjoying the beach. While at dinner with the hotel owner’s family, they informed me of the reason for the Egyptian military’s involvement in my journey. The very night I was traveling through the Sinai, a group of Bedouin terrorists had attacked an Egyptian border crossing, killing 16 soldiers. These events caused a number of problems for the newly elected Mohamed Morsi, with its opponents arguing that his government was too close to the radical Islamist groups active in the nation. At this time, Morsi was trying to appoint allies to key positions in the Egyptian military, the last bastion for dedicated Mubarak supporters. Now that 16 of its men had died at the hand of radicals, Morsi needed to conscientiously position himself as a leader for the nation against those who wanted to destroy it.

The next morning, I walked into Israel. Israel has its share of security concerns, but it felt serene when compared to the ghostly emptiness of Taba and the troubles in Cairo and the desert of the Sinai. Every Egyptian I spoke with was kind and warm, and freely expressed their desires and expectations for their country. Yet, revolutions are untried times. The potential for chaos and violence hung like a curtain across every space I traveled. I hope, for the sake of our comrades in Egypt that have risked it all for a freer nation and a better future.