“Yes, I’m fine. No, I haven’t seen any trouble and I’m not in any danger.” It all got a bit repetitive after a while, these messages of comfort and reassurance that I had to send home to family and friends. For, you see, I was in Egypt in the middle of an uprising.
Actually I left Cairo – a horribly congested place – a few days before the trouble started in Tahrir Square, flying south to Aswan. I wasn’t in Egypt for politics; I was there for history, or history of an ancient kind. Still, I could not avoid politics altogether, keeping an eye on reports from the BBC and CNN, talking to local people, forming my own impression of modern history in the making.
There is so much enthusiasm, hopes for a better future, an almost universal relief that the old corrupt regime of Hosni Mubarak has been consigned to the past. But that’s just the thing: the king is dead; long live the king. Put it another way - long live Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the body that has ruled Egypt since the ousting of the former president in February.
The reason behind the protests in Cairo and elsewhere is simple enough: some people are beginning to realise that the hydra has more than one head, that the so-called Arab Spring, at least so far as Egyptians are concerned, has yet to see any sign of summer.
The frustration is obvious. A few weeks before the troubles Tantawi’s shoes were allegedly stolen from the door of a mosque, it being a requirement that all footwear be removed prior to entry. Soon after a rumour spread, via Twitter and Facebook, that a ransom note had been received, saying “Give us back our government and we’ll give you back your shoes.”
Generals, of course, are not generally noted for having a sense of humour, so SCAF duly issued an official denial. Still, the whole thing, funny as it is, was really an indication of things to come, a measure of latent frustrations, a preamble to the troubles in Cairo and elsewhere.
Incidentally, before I left the country, the army issued an official apology for the death of some forty people in Tahrir Square, many of them killed by a particular potent form of tear gas, only to sidestep the whole tragedy by saying that it was the fault of the security services. Who exactly, one has to ask, is in control, who is issuing the orders, who is taking responsibility?
It’s important to understand, though, that the people you may have seen and heard on your television screens are not necessarily typical of Egyptians as a whole. I went as a tourist, noting the relative absence of tourists. It was good for me, able to visit some of the wonderful monuments in relative peace, aside from the troublesome touts, as much a feature of the Egyptian scene as flies. It’s bad, though, for the Egyptian economy, bad for the many people who depend on visitors for their livelihoods. This, I suspect, is a kind of silent majority. These are the people who support the army as the mainstay of stability, as I discovered in speaking to a number of bored shopkeepers looking over empty shops.
I left Luxor on 28 November, flying back to London on the day that the elections for the Egyptian Parliament began, a complex process based on a complex system of voting, a system that at least some feel is intended to perpetuate the power of the army and the diehards of Mubarak’s old National Democratic Party, many of whom are running as independents.
Will it bring real change; is real change possible in a country with little tradition of civic culture and democratic accountability, a country suffering from some deep-rooted economic problems? I’ve been; I think I understand Egypt a little better than I did before but not enough to venture an answer here. For their sake, for the sake of the decent and kind people I met, I certainly hope that they have a better future, a future better than a wretched past. They should have the freedom they deserve, just as Tantawi should have his shoes.