In normal times, if such a thing even exists anymore in Egypt, tour buses creep through choking traffic into Cairo’s Tahrir Square and unload passengers in front of the Egyptian Museum.
The past is the big draw here. Fifteen million tourists visited Egypt in 2010, according to the country’s tourism ministry. They headed for the Pyramids of Giza and the ancient tombs of Luxor and the massive rock temples at Abu Simbel.
By the thousands, they poured into the Egyptian Museum, where soldiers and citizens now work to guard Egypt’s most treasured antiquities from the epic upheaval taking place outside.
The nature of Egypt’s tourism is that visitors go home knowing more about the country’s ancient past than its present. I say this because I traveled there three months ago, and returned with no inkling that Egypt was about to blow.
But then again, I don’t think our Egyptian tour guide, a wise and passionate man named Amr, knew it either. He spoke to us at length about the frustrations building in Egypt, where grinding poverty and lack of opportunity persist even as the citizens watch the rest of the world progress. But he seemed fatalistic that anything could be done.
“In Egypt we cannot change that much,” he said. “We need to change, but we can’t.”
Amr is a professional, and he wasn’t about to badmouth his president to a group of westerners. But, viewed in light of recent events, he seemed to be presaging the voices that now ring throughout the nation. Egypt can’t change unless Hosni Mubarak leaves.
The Obama administration surely didn’t see the tectonic shift coming. As recently as last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the governing regime “stable.”
One team that had it right was the Egypt Working Group, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and foreign policy analysts who have warned for months that Egypt was headed for political instability and urged the Obama administration to take a stronger stand in favor of liberties and human rights.
“The Egyptian government is paralyzed by the aging Mubarak’s refusal to look beyond his own rule,” two of the group’s members, foreign policy experts Michele Dunne and Robert Kagan, wrote in The Washington Post in June. “And the Obama administration, in pursuit of an illusory stability, stands mute and passive as the predictable train wreck draws nearer.”
It’s always difficult to know who to listen to. But this seems like another instance of Americans — both the people and the government — knowing too little about the world, even as the world inevitably focuses on us.
Egyptian citizens are aware that for three decades U.S. leaders have propped up the Mubarak regime, even as he denied freedoms and economic opportunities to his people.
So now we watch helplessly on our television and computer screens as protests that began as thrilling and empowering turn brutal and frightening. Mubarak has emerged as a reprehensible leader, willing to send thugs to brutalize citizens in order to wring a few more drops of power out of his dying regime. And there is no avoiding the fact that U.S. foreign policy has enabled him.
Amr the tour guide was wrong when he said Egypt couldn’t change. Only his fatalism was on target. Change has come to Egypt, but no one knows what change will bring.
At times during our tour, Amr came off as a one-man ambassador, trying hard to separate Egypt from some of its Arab peers.
“We want to show that we are just like you,” he told our group of Americans and Europeans. “We’re not like the other (Arab) countries. We want peace and we want to live in peace.”
And when many of us thanked him profusely for his excellent service, he had but one request: “Go home and tell everybody that Egypt is safe. It is a good place to travel.”
That’s not the case today, but I fervently hope it will be true again very soon. Despite what they think about our foreign policy, most people overseas eagerly welcome Americans to their lands. We should take them up on their hospitality — and take as much interest in their present as in their past.