Return To Egypt

A young girl looks out from an apartment window in a small enclave of buildings about 3 hours drive from Hurghada along the Egyptian Red Sea coastline. Schools are among the public institutions that have seen suspended or limited service since the uprisings in 2011. The government is seeking to restore normal services.

I was back in Egypt recently, on a dive assignment. Travelling to Egypt in the autumn seems to be thing for me now. This is the fifth year in a row I’ve gone here, and my seventh or so trip in total. Which means I’ve been coming here regularly since before the political unrest we westerners have dubbed “The Arab Spring”. I’ve seen the country rise up, I have seen the unrest, and I have seen the aftermath. I have experienced some things first hand, other through the eyes of friends who have been in other places at other times than me. The Arab Spring always felt close to me, partly because of my relations to Egypt and the Middle East, having travelled there and with friends scattered all over the region, but partly also because I barely made it out of Egypt when it all started.

Photo of abandoned oil refinery. © Thomas Gronfeldt
Industry has also been hit hard in southern Egypt.  Here an abandoned oil refinery.

In the west, we talk about how the Arab Spring started in late winter and early spring 2011, but of course, things didn’t go from tranquil to tumultuous in the blink of an eye. There was unrest and demonstrations and fighting going on around the region for months before. And one of these hit a small town that I was supposed to fly out of in November 2010. I was in the deep south, on a dive expedition, and on the day we were supposed to head home, a truck was supposed to pick us up at our camp in the middle of nowhere. Except the truck was late. Very late, more than two hours, which is late even for Egypt. When it finally arrived, we were sped to the airport, and it was obvious that the driver was concerned about something. With my somewhat limited Arabian, I managed to get from him that he had been delayed by a demonstration in one of the towns he had to pass through to get to us. And that it had been violent. As we approached the airport, we ended up in another demonstration. Rioters were on both sides of the street, and were facing off on each other, and we were in the middle. A few stones were thrown and some inadvertently hit our truck. We sped through it as best we could, and made it to the airport just in time to be rushed to our chartered plane.

Empty apartment building. © Thomas Gronfeldt
Empty apartment buildings, waiting for tenants.

That was five years ago, and this time, driving in the same region, I saw how the country has changed. Several years of unrest, and a full two governments have been passed since, and the country now sees some level of stability. Almost too much. The towns we drove through were quiet, almost eerily so, and the marine we used as our base of operations was all but deserted, with cafés sporting a handful of guests at best. The Egyptians we met seemed pleased that things were much more quiet now, in spite of flares of trouble here and there, yet somehow resigned, as if they had to some extent accepted that real change, positive change, was not to come. Compared to a few years ago when I was here, this is a staggering change. Then, there was hope, optimism, even a spark of naïve belief that things would be perfect as soon as they made it through the current hardship. This then turned into a cautious state of hope, as the first elections neared, but now, even that seems gone. Question is if this resignation will turn into despair, and from there, to new demands for change, or if we’ve seen the last of the fighting spirit of the nation, at least for now.

Flags. © Thomas Gronfeldt
A line of tattered flags outside a roadside café, that used to see considerable tourist traffic. These days, few travellers make their way to Egypt, much less this far south, and the flags are left to decay in the strong Egyptian sun.

Ultimately, I can’t blame them. When you taken the bull by the horns and ousted a dictator that has held the country for decades, only to find that almost any alternative out there seems even worse, or at best as bad as what you came from, it is hard to continue to dig deeper and find more spirit to keep fighting for change.

Street scene from southern Egypt. © Thomas Gronfeldt
Street scene in southern Egypt. Most people are inside, seeking  shelter from the midday heat. In the cool of the evening,  they’ll once again crowd the streets.

The tourism industry, so important in particular along the Red Sea coast, as been suffering tremendously. Resort are empty, and new ones under construction show little or no progress from year to year when I travel here. Ironically, because the tourist areas around the Red Sea have been all but spared any unrest, and so have never really been unsafe. I hope that with the current military backed government, Egypt will find stability to make it back on its feet. And I hope the travellers, the investors, and the tourists come back. Because without them, desperation is just down the line. And desperation doesn’t lead to stability.

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