Egypt outside of resorts

Egypt. What do we associate it with? The desert, pyramids, and tourists, all disconnected from reality with its luxurious beaches, hotels and standard tourist attractions. But the conversation we had with Omar took us beyond well-trodden tourist paths and ‘must see’ sights towards the everyday reality of the true Egypt. It was a very important journey for us, and we’d like to invite you to join us in retrospect.
Omar comes from Alexandria, one of the oldest and most important cities including the biggest port, a  majestic university, wealth of monuments and relics and a treasury of world history. Passion and pride fill the whole room as he speaks. Why did he leave then? Why did he come to Germany? Half hungry for the world, adventures and the excitement that comes with exploring other cultures, but also trying to escape, he admits.
We’re looking at some photographs. A nice old bar, good, cheap beer, the beloved place of many students. But it’s no longer there – it’s been taken down for the benefit of new housing. As casual as it sounds, it doesn’t do much good for Alexandria’s rich heritage and development of the culture, as real gems of historical architecture are being irreversibly destroyed to accommodate greedy developers. One of the latest stories reports that the beard fell off the famed mask of Tutankhamen’s and one of the “specialists” of conservation stuck it back on with super glue, leaving visible marks and scratching the antique during the process.

A bit of history...
We’re being introduced to Egyptian reality through recent history. After WW2 Egypt was still governed by a king. That period is still talked about with enthusiasm, despite some social injustice, like the fact that education was only available to the wealthiest of people. The last king is still spoken of with respect though. He was interested in art, and his reign brought many solid and beautiful architectural developments. The city of Alexandria housed varied cultures, including many Greeks, Jews and other nationalities cohabiting alongside the natives. That didn’t last long though. After the lost war with Israel social disapproval led to the end of the monarch’s dominion, and put the power into military’s hands.
As it usually happens, the new power filled all possible posts with peers. But how could specialists of war efficiently oversee the economy, education or culture? The lands of the old proprietors were shared between the workers, but the given plots were nowhere near sustainable for the families to live off.
When it came to education, the new idea of free education sounded incredible, however this wasn’t reasonably organised either. Suddenly everybody wanted to have a prominent job, so the law, medicine and engineering courses soon became overfilled, and the teachers of these professions had to lecture hundreds of students at a time, which led to a dramatic decrease in the quality of education.
And the culture... well, the aforementioned beard gluing is unfortunately not by any means an isolated incident. Being in a hurry due to the prospect of profit rarely inspires a pause for reflection over the cultural and historical worth of national gems.

Revolting revolutions.
Three years ago the acting president was overthrown, with no reasonable alternative in place again. The influential Muslim brotherhood took over, and filled the offices with the brothers at hand, not necessarily caring for the petty formalities of meeting the required levels of qualification. Soon they gained the support of the poor, giving away food and promising a better future. Yet no real democratic advancements were made.
When the people realized that that was not what they wanted, they rose against the government and sought the help amongst their military forces again. The current head of the department, abd-Fattah as-Sisi, promised to rid the Egyptians from the Brotherhood and make sure the next leader would be somebody independent. And so, after last year’s revolution it was Sisi who stepped up to the role of president... after leaving the army and taking off the uniform, of course. Naturally, restricting civil liberties and abolishing protests were the first issues to be dealt with. 
We definitely agree with Omar, who feels that the situation of his country is depressing. Many young people, that actively participated in both revolutions now feel hopeless. Leaving the country seems the only chance of a better life.
Even though we’ve been talking about Egypt, we also mentioned Israel. Omar has nothing against Jews personally, but he perceives Israelites as aggressors. It is mainly so, due to their threatening politics and brutality towards Palestinians. They avenge every killed Israelite with several Palestinian civilians being killed in return. Omar says that it is worst in Gaza, which he labelled the biggest open prison on the planet. Technically, Israeli raids are preceded by a series of warning shots, but the terrain is so densely populated there are no real chances of escaping or hiding. Palestinians should be able to flee to Egypt, which shares the border with Gaza, but some international laws in place prevent it from happening.
What Omar could not stress enough, was the USA’s involvement in protecting Israel from potential repercussions reaching it from surrounding countries. It also has serious impact on the economy of the region. Egypt, being an exporter of natural gas, can stop its exports to friendly Jordan, but HAS TO keep supplying threatening Israel, and that’s all because of the USA.

Who’s allied to Egypt then?
For many years Egyptians see the Russians as their friends. Visible signs of their partnership are all over the streets, as all the taxis in Alexandria are of the same make – they’re Russian Ladas. Unlike in Europe, where Russian cars are a rarity, in Egypt it is hard not to see one during the course of the day.
A few more words on economy
Tourism is the main drive of the Egyptian economy. But the destabilising political events of late filled many people with concerns, changing their desired holiday destination, which has its toll on the  country’s budget as other sectors of the economy are nowhere near as profitable in comparison. Agriculture is not very effective, there isn’t much industry and only 3% of land is suitable for any sort of development. Even power engineering is not working to well, despite Germany having built the biggest wind farm in the whole of Africa within Egypt’s territory.

What is worth visiting in Alexandria?
Library of Alexandria
There are many monuments to be explored that remained untouched for centuries ... only they lay at the bottom of a sea, where they were sunk to by huge earthquakes ages ago. Diving around the port you can witness the ancient world in its purest form. Those well-preserved constructions reveal the unique historical character of the city shaped by the clash of Greek and Egyptian cultures. Unlike many of the world’s treasures, locked behind guarded doors, these wonders are within anyone’s grasp.
The city itself has also retained much of its ancient character in between all the modern additions and alterations. One can still see the places of historical events, almost unchanged.

Touring Egypt
As you can probably guess, choosing guided tours and package holidays will not let you discover Egyptian reality. All the hotels, restaurants and beaches are purpose-built for such arrangements, and the only inhabitants of these complex structures are their employees. To have a genuine experience of this country avoid all these arrangements at all costs.
The natives are very friendly and open towards the visitors, and can feel a lot safer than the inhabitants, also in dealings with the local police.

To Egyptians, European food may seem tasteless. When Omar arrived in Germany most of his luggage was herbs, spices, tea and such. Spicy food with a side of dates is a common combo. The tea drunk in Egypt is also entirely different, and has a very strong, distinct flavour. Proper preparation demands skill, but the effects are astonishing. Egyptians also divide their coffee into four categories, depending on amount of sugar added!

And with this sweet remark we would like to end our reflection on Egypt. Even though we usually don’t entertain political subjects, the conversation with Omar was incredibly fascinating.

Translated by Karola:) Thanks!

A fine collection of photos from Alexandria is available here:

Picture source:

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