Out of court

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Trip to a Police State

I just returned from four weeks of travel in Egypt. It was fantastic--the temples, pyramids and other sites were magnificent. The people were warm and welcoming--the mere mention of President Obama would bring high fives and fist pumps. They seem to love Americans. I say "seem" because Egypt is run by an all powerful, modern "pharoah." His family and cronies literally own the country and you have to wonder if everyone has been indoctrinated. After all, the U.S. government is a huge contributer to their military budget, not to mention nonmilitary aid.

It is also a police state. The 'Tourist and Antiquaties' (T & A) police are everywhere. Outside all but one of our hotels, the white uniformed and armed cops were stationed. All monuments had varying levels of security. Some had airport style security; others had X-ray machines; and others just had the T & A police eyeballing all of those who entered. At virtually all junctions on roads outside the cities, there were checkpoints with gates, guards and guns--big ones! Egypt has had 3 major terrorist actions since 1997: one at Luxor, one at Sharm el Sheikh and one at Taba--the latter two are on the Sinai peninsula. These were all directed at tourists. Since Egypt is dependent on tourism, their security is essential. In fact, when we travelled overland from Mt. Sinai to Sharm el Sheikh we had a plainclothes bodyguard in our van--at no expense to us. He wore a dark wool suit and carried a submachine gun on his hip. He was muscular and resembled actor, Eric Estrada. When we flattered him with his resemblence, he began smiling. Turned out to be a likable fellow.

Other T & A police would attempt to direct you to the 'good' parts of monuments. Then they would hold their palms out for some 'baksheesh.' (That's a tip or a bribe, depending on circumstances.) While we were at the Citadel--Saladin's famous walled compound on a hill overlooking central Cairo--one white uniformed fellow offered to take us on a personal tour of the old British prison where Anwar Sadat was once held. Since it was not open to the public, we paid him the 5 pound baksheesh. All too often, they wanted baksheesh just for pointing at a picture spot. We were free to decline. Locals, however, such as taxicab drivers, complained to me about police who demanded baksheesh just to let them pull over and pick up tourists.

The obvious downside is that civil liberties are not protected here. I imagine the local newspapers don't criticize the government much. To be sure, the English language ones did not. Our guides were always very defensive about their government much less their heritage. To such a degree that when I asked a guide about the possibility of human sacrifice at the Abydos monument (as reported in National Geographic) some 4,000 years ago, she denied it and replied that all sorts of misinformation is out there.

I shudder to think what political dissidents must go through. Given the fragile balance of freedom v. terrorism, it would too easy for the government to label critics as terrorists and then treat them accordingly. The U.S. government has enough trouble with that equation. In private moments with educated people such as guides, now and then they would bemoan the current regime. But it was hard to imagine a truly free, contested election in the near future there.

One advantage of a police state is that the crime rate is very low. According to the State Department site, violent crime is rare in Egypt. This is consistent with my experience there. Early in our trip I met an Egyptian who lived (ironically) in Alexandria, VA, but was visiting his mother in Cairo. He told me tourists are gold. The government protects them and people do not want to fall into disfavor with tourists. Thus he said it was safe to walk virtually anywhere--as long as you could resist the incessant attempts to sell you something.

Selling and touting can be irritants, but they are not threatening. Although every price is negotiable, except restaurant prices, once you reach an agreement on price it is respected. Of course tourists are vulnerable to overpaying, as I did in my first taxi ride. The lesson was to learn the right price for the trip and tell the driver BEFORE GETTING IN THE CAB that is what you'll pay. Even then, one time I said the 4 of us would pay 15 Egyptian pounds (~3$). The driver nodded. At the end of the ride the cabbie tried to claim 15 pounds per person. I shook my head no, gave him the agreed price and walked away. Nice try, but I felt safe in standing up for myself.

Egypt has a history that goes back about 5000 years. After about 30 centuries of rule by local Egyptians or Nubians, it was conquered or occupied by a who's who list of nations: Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Mamlukes, Turks, French and British, to name some. All of these people literally left their mark. Despite being a police state, it is a fascinating place to visit. Go see Egypt for yourself.

1 comment:

  1. hope to see you soon again
    shimaa bakr
    Egyptian journalist :)