Would you visit Egypt now?

Adrere Amellal ecolodge, Siwa.

Two weeks ago, I started writing a post about the idea of visiting Egypt once again. It was time: tour prices have halved, even from the most prestigious travel companies. The Lower Nile has finally been reopened so that a visitor can sail the entire length of the Egyptian Nile, from Cairo to Abu Simbel. And the crowds that plagued the Pyramids, Luxor and all Egypt’s treasures, have stayed away in droves.

The blog was driven by a recent letter to the editor in the Sydney Morning Herald, in which the writer, recently returned from Egypt said, “I had a great and safe time. I have been there before and this time stayed mainly in Cairo, at the Sara Inn, and was saddened by the empty markets and other tourist areas. The Egyptians are, mostly, very friendly and welcoming and need the tourists to survive.”

Bab al-Futuh, Cairo

A few minutes later, my inbox was hit with a recent survey by the Hilton group, which found that 43% of Australians in the survey said they wanted to visit the Pyramids.

So it’s heartbreaking to see, in the space of a week or two, how the climate has changed, with the anger fuelled by the second anniversary of the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, to the riots in Suez over the death of 73 fans at a football match, which saw a judge sentence 21 people to death over their role in the catastrophe.

Fashion comes and goes: why, Syria was tipped the Lonely Planet’s hottest country just six months before it descended into its current, horrific civil war. And now Sri Lanka, still scarred with its own civil war, is 2013’s poster child for world tourism.

I know it is hard for Egyptians to live through these times: it’s hard to watch from the outside. But such a beautiful country, in such a politically strategic location with possibly the world’s greatest tourism riches, will rise again. We just have to hope, for the people’s sake, that it’s soon. 

The prince and I

It’s not quite The King and I – but here’s me and the Duke of York, Prince Andrew, at Alamein’s Commonwealth War Cemetery on Saturday, which was the day the UK remembered its war dead in the World War II battles that took place here.

Ok, I wouldn’t say he’s standing BESIDE me, but you get the picture. I was there with a Californian press photographer, who sidled up to me, muttering “Which one is he?” The answer: the one in the bright red hat. Dead giveaway.

Most non-Commonwealth people thought the rather dashing silver-haired gent beside him was the prince (we think that was one of the ambassadors who attended).

I’m unnaturally proud of the pic, for a Republican, that is;)

The grand old Duke of York/had 7,000 men…

Today, I trotted around shamelessly trying to get in a photo op with the Duke of York, Prince Andrew. Well, what else would you do on a Saturday afternoon. I even had my own papp, ok, so I begged him to get the snap and hopefully he’ll send through. In the meantime, here’s my official blurb on today:

The Duke of York, HRH Prince Andrew, today signaled the UK’s resolve to continue its involvement in Afghanistan.

Speaking today at the 67th commemoration of the defining WWII battle of El Alamein on Egypt’s Mediterranean, HRH the Duke of York said the youth of the soldiers whose names are engraved on the cemetery’s tombstones is a reminder of those British troops currently serving in Afghanistan.

“However, I do not expect war can be eliminated from the human race,” he added. “If nothing else, history teaches us that … appeasement can be as dangerous as warmongering. We must accept that one day, we might have to go to war.”

The speech was held at the Commonwealth War Cemetery at El Alamein, which has more than 7000 tombstones commemorating the lives of British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers as well as other Allied nationalities. There are also German, Italian and Libyan war memorials in the area, where more than 80,000 soldiers died on the Western Desert front, including the 13-day attack from 23 October 1942, which saw one in six Allied and one in three Axis troops killed in action.

In a separate event 20km along the coast, organisers of an Egyptian group aimed at removing landmines from Egypt’s north coast say the region still has around 16.7 million unexploded devices dating from WWII, including shells and mortars, aircraft-dropped bombs, rounds of machine guns and small weapons, as well as anti-vehicle and anti-tank mines.

The UN-sponsored de-mining group says the civilian casualties and deaths as a result of these mines numbers ‘in the thousands,’ and estimates it will cost US$250 million to clear the remaining unexploded devices from the region. It is currently lobbying for assistance from the countries who laid the bombs to clean up the region.

War and Peace (the short, Austral-Egyptian version)

The blog is quiet: I’m stuck inside working all week. Really, I could be anywhere, not in the raucous hype that is Cairo. The only difference is the phone is Skype and sending photo disks takes a week longer than if I was in Aus (Egypt Post fluctuates between unbelievably speedy and slower than a recalcitrant donkey).

Yesterday was a day the entire city caught up on its sleep thanks to a public holiday. It was 6 October, and the 36th anniversary the day Egypt took back the Sinai peninsula from the Israelis.

The TV was full of interviews with veterans, some even in tears as they recounted the horrors and glories (but mostly glories) of war.

Then the TV commentators gave a blow-by-blow description of Egypt’s glorious day in 1973: from 2pm – the time the Egyptians started to attack the Barlif Line, a massive sand wall the Israelis had constructed on their side of the Suez Canal – until 8pm, when the Egyptians had taken the 8km by 20m high wall through a range of cunning engineering tactics and strafe bombing.

Egypt is good at creating and then celebrating heroes (you only have to look at football to know that). And war is no different: the heroes of the war include the younger brother of the then president, Sadat, who was the first casualty, the man who raised the first Egyptian flag on Sinai soil, and the head of the communications department that coordinated the successful attacks by 222 planes and its foot soldiers on the Israelis. The old documentary reels shows Egyptian soldiers in bunkers with lots of black Bakelite telephones and a sophisticated tracking system, though the one thing missing is the inevitable cloud of cigarette smoke (this being the 60s, a stressful time and…Egypt).

If they hadn’t crossed the Suez Canal and won the war, Egypt wouldn’t control the Suez Canal (its largest single source of foreign income), the Sinai would be Israeli and that contentious Egypt-Israel border would be just 130km from Cairo.

When we have war remembrance days in Australia these days, it’s all talk about loss of lives and learning from our mistakes – ironically, our war anniversaries are a time for peace. But of course, apart from the mess of the Vietnam War, which our government is still confused about how it should feel about it, our last big war (and remember, we were on the winning side) was World War II in the 1940s – time has mostly healed this wound.

For Egypt, the anniversary of this great military victory is a time for patriotism and retasting the victory after years of humiliation at the hands of its neighbours. The taste of revenge is still sweet.

In comparison, we now quite like sushi and going to Japan (which bombed Australia in WWII), for the shopping and skiing…

bombing in khan al-khalili market

Yesterday’s bombing in the world’s greatest tat market is such a shock – what possible motives could the bombers have? I was up at Khan al-Khalili a couple of days ago, visiting a jeweller friend, and had left a watch up there to be fixed. I meant to go up to collect it yesterday, but was too lazy, and the shops close earlier on Sundays, the quietest day of the week at the market, though that’s little consolation.

I rang Sharban and he was ok, it was his day off (hamdo allah, he said a hundred times), but he had said the other night, when we were in a cafe drinking cold mango juice, that business is down due to the problems with Gaza. Poor thing, I feel so sorry for him as I can imagine his livelihood disappearing down the drain.

Perhaps I had my head in a bucket, but I didn’t know about it for a few hours, as my main news source, CNN, was FAR more concerned with the Oscars.