Wednesday, February 9, 2011



My first visit to Egypt wasn't the smartest thing I've ever done.  I showed up with my wife several  months after Anwar Sadat had been assassinated and there were soldiers with machine guns in sandbag bunkers on most corners.
Mary and I had a wonderful time despite my dumb timing. But we were fools in a time capsule where  any turn in the road might reveal a challenging cop or a statute carved an eternity ago.
I returned to 1982 North American civilization filled with dire predictions that the wonders of the Egyptian past may have survived centuries but they may well be ruined in the next one. And it also seemed obvious that the brutal dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak wouldn't last either.
A second visit five years ago showed that the Egyptians were taking better care of their archaeological  treasures than they were three decades ago, and even though his overthrow was inevitable, Mubarak still ruled with an iron fist and very cheap bread. In fact, the media sifted the warning signs and concluded he was secure.      
 My naive first visit was prompted by a wonderful whim of the Toronto Sun's founding publisher, Doug Creighton, who believed in working hard but newspapers were also supposed to be fun and life often looked better through the bottom of a martini glass.
 When news was slow and the city's mood was down, Creighton believed that the Sun should be entertaining as well as informative. I remember him during a depressed time sending Allan Fotheringham  to sample the best hotels in the world. The Sun staff hated Foth's assignment hut the readers loved to hear about the Lord Nelson Hotel in Cape Town where they ironed your newspaper before a  lovely  breakfast.
 Creighton said things were slow around Ontario politics so I should pick several world cities and go see how they were run. And take Mary, he added. So off I went to Rome and Jerusalem. Then I added Cairo since life seemed to be quiet there.
Rome's mayoral office was hospitable and Teddy Kolleck, the legendary mayor of Jersulem, folded Mary and me into a week-long seminar for a committee of world leaders and eminent professors on how he was running the cradle of religions. It was Kolleck's clever manoeuvre against the move at the UN to make Jerusalem an international city not ruled by the Israelis.
We flew directly from Tel Aviv to Cairo on a bootleg flight that didn't exist officially. The plane had no markings, the barf bags were from EgyptAir, and the flight crew were ex American fighter pilots working for El Al.  They flew the battered anonymous jet as if we were in the Six Day war.
Just getting downtown to the Nile Hilton was an adventure since the cab companies and limousine operators were having their own war. I didn't ask to see Sadat's assassination site but we were taken there anyway, and then we were abandoned on a railway crossing in the middle of nowhere because I don't think the driver liked me.
The idea that some Canadian columnist wanted to visit Cairo's administrative headquarters was so farfetched, to the Egyptian bureaucrats that is, that I never did get a reply.
So Mary and I wandered around, wading through the begging kids, ignoring the exorbitant tip demands for any service, getting mixed reactions at all the military checkpoints. At one mosque, they almost hugged us, saying we were the only visitors they had had for a week and what could the soldiers show us.
The fabulous collection of treasures in the  Egyptian Museum were dusty and painters were not even using drop clothes to protect splatters raining down on King Tut's wonders. No one seemed to care.
On my last visit, the improvement in basic housework in the museum was astounding.
The museum, as the world now knows from all the coverage of the uprising, is on Tahrir Square. We spent a lot of time there because it was just outside the back door of the Hilton and it is a crossroads for the city. That is where I went to find the illegal money dealers who gave you deals on Egyptian pounds that were 50% better than in the Hilton lobby. (Nervous transactions because the dealers feared the secret police. And the buyer had to be careful that no phoney notes were shoved into the middle of the wad.)
So why am I detailing a visit 30 years ago? Because in the early months of the new leader, Mubarak, there was no sign, no illusion, no hint, that there was any freedom of any kind for any Egyptian. And no one said it was about to change. Any person holding a sign demanding just one taste of democracy would not have lasted in Tahrir Square. Even though it has been a traditional centre for careful protests, its second name of Liberation Square was cruel irony...until now.
 By noon, the diesel fumes in the square would give you a headache if you didn't retreat from the sun to air conditioning and the excellent Stella beer.  I'm sure for many Egyptians, fear also made that air heavy.
There was no suggestion then that Tahrir Square would really be known more as Liberation Square, not with the suffocating security that blanketed it because of surrounding government offices.
There was one overwhelming fact that any tourist should have noticed on my last visit. When tourists moved between the wonders of the ages like Luxor or the Valley of the Kings, the buses moved in convoy as if it was a military operation in enemy territory. No bus driver or tour company rebelled. If your bus was headed to the Red Sea, it waited at the side of the road in the dusty heat until the main convoy arrived and then you all headed through the hot desert past the watch towers of  soldiers. Safety in numbers, or so the tour companies and dictator hoped.
Any healthy government doesn't live in daily fear of terrorism in every part of the country. And Mubarak's did for its entire life. Surely a government is rotten to its core when it rules by brutal cops and a military that lines the major roads and insists that tourists be protected in ways that are unique in the world.
About 12% of Egyptians are involved in the tourist business. Tourist dollars are essential to the country's economy.  It's not just Egyptians who have died in Liberation Square. Nine German tourists were blown up just outside the museum in 1995. In 1997, more than fifty tourists and Egyptians were killed at the Valley of the Queens.  There was a major bombing at a Red Sea resort where Mary and I had wondered at the tropical fish just months before.
All you had to do was skim the Internet and the deadly deeds of extremists, and the government's warnings about terrorism were mentioned often in items about Egypt. For example, take the overnight train from Cairo to Luxor but it would be better if you didn't get off at certain stations.
The wonder isn't that Mubarek was toppled from his throne made from the skulls of murdered dissidents in 18 days, but that it didn't happen sooner.

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