Discontent on the Nile

minyamansionOn the back of my recent visit to Egypt, BBC radio’s From Our Own Correspondent programme recently ran a piece I wrote from Minya, a town in Middle Egypt newly opening up to foreign tourism.

Click here to listen to the audio from BBC Radio 4, or click here to download the podcast (MP3 file: 13MB), which also includes great stories by journalists from Lebanon, Romania and elsewhere. A slightly shorter version went out on BBC World Service radio; this edition includes a fine report by Shaimaa Khalil from Upper Egypt. I have pasted the transcript of my Minya piece below:

A voice called out behind me.

“Mister! Hey, mister!”

He was a captain of the Egyptian police, a handgun holstered on his hip, and he had a serious look on his face. I explained I was just crossing the road to meet a friend. He waggled a finger at me. “No, no.”

There followed fifteen minutes of discussion before I was allowed to proceed – after he’d noted my passport and my friend’s name, address and phone number.

The police in Minya can be jumpy around foreigners. This Nile-side city of a quarter of a million people saw devastating violence in the 1990s, during an insurgency led by the Gamaa Islamiya.

Attacks had already been on the rise when, in 1992, militants announced they would begin targeting tourists. A bloody campaign of bombings and shootings culminated in a horrific attack at the 3,500-year-old temple of Queen Hatshepsut in Luxor in 1997, when 62 people died.

Egyptian public opinion was outraged. Even hardline Islamist groups denounced the massacre. The subsequent government crackdown killed thousands of militants in and around Minya and put thousands more in jail.

By then, tourism to the whole central section of Egypt was at or near zero. Cruise ships were withdrawn from the long stretch of the Nile between Cairo and Luxor. Cities at the heart of the insurgency, such as Minya and its neighbour Asyut, disappeared from tourist itineraries.

Almost twenty years on, with the insurgency defeated, Egyptian tourism is back in the doldrums. This time post-revolutionary instability and a deteriorating international image are to blame. Both are compounded by a faltering Muslim Brotherhood government, for whom it’s hard to find much enthusiasm among Egyptian travel industry bigwigs.

“They don’t know how to run a country,” fumed one tourism executive to me.

But they do know how to spread their influence. In Minya, as elsewhere around the country, the new governor is a Muslim Brotherhood placeman.

I drove to see his clifftop residence, its high walls bedecked with fairy lights, on the edge of New Minya, a Mubarak-era boondoggle of mean little concrete houses packed around barren roundabouts. Despite generous housing subsidies, sand-blown New Minya is a ghost town. People prefer to live where they’ve always lived – down by the Nile.

As street-lights came on in Minya’s old quarter, highlighting Rococo curlicues on the abandoned villas of 20th-century cotton magnates, many told me of a deepening atmosphere of political repression.

“We need a new revolution,” said Maged Nabil, who works for an Egyptian microcredit NGO. “If the president doesn’t make a break with the Muslim Brotherhood, there will be all-out street war.”

This summer, tourism is returning to Minya. The ban on cruising has been lifted, and passenger vessels are once again plying the full length of the Nile, bringing tourists to previously hard-to-reach ancient sites – the startlingly colourful 4,000-year-old tombs at Beni Hassan, and Tell El Amarna, royal capital of Tutankhamun’s father, Akhenaten. Minya’s giant pyramidal antiquities museum, built but idle, is finally due to open.

But armed plain-clothes police are posted aboard every ship, and police launches bob about in the wake. Tourists who wish to explore Minya or Asyut independently may do so only with police escort.

If it’s safe, why all the police? And if it’s not safe, why are tourists being allowed back?

“We’re treading on eggshells,” one boat manager told me. “We do what the police tell us.”

Egypt’s tourism industry relies on mass movements of people – in aircraft direct to beachfront resorts or in tour buses between archaeological sites. Personal encounters are kept to a bare minimum. That concentrates power in the hands of big business: tourism brings in billions, yet most Egyptians scrape by on less than two dollars a day. Abject poverty prompts desperate souvenir-hawking at tourist sites – which, in turn, discourages tourists from seeking personal interaction.

Something’s clearly wrong. Yet faced with current instability, many now hanker for the bad old days, when at least the arriving planes were full. These days, nine out of ten hotel rooms in Luxor stand empty.

In Minya, still reliant on cotton, sugarcane and cement production, it’s hard to see tourism making a difference. On a lane behind the brightly lit souk, Yehya Senoussi cracked a tired smile. He works a full day in Minya’s tax office, then is out each evening until midnight, selling vegetables off a barrow to make ends meet.

“Everything is worse after the revolution,” he told me. “Safety is down, prices are up. People need bread and fuel, and we have neither.”

Then he looked hard at me, to make sure I got the message.

“Egypt’s resources are being mismanaged,” he said.