Friday, September 30, 2005

The One from Egypt

The One from Egypt

You think you have been to big cities when you think of New York, London, Paris or even Sydney. But nothing can prepare you for Cairo, try to fathom 25 million people living in one city and compare that to Australia, hell the whole continent has on just over 20 million people living in a very big area to say the least.

But here in Cairo, you can almost count them out on the streets and that is before I even mention the cars and the traffic, more on that later.

The last time I was in Cairo was 1965, 40 years ago as a small boy travelling back to England with the family. From my vague memory bank there was a camel ride to the Pyramids and it was hot, we bought some silly fez hats that lay around for the youthful years, before they were discarded and that is the sum memory of the Land of the Pharaohs circa 1965.

The story we covered here was how the Arab world is reacting to the situation in Iraq and does the Arab world think anything positive has come of the US Invasion and the overthrow of the Saddam Regime. Now before anyone scoffs, there have been some very dramatic movements here in the Middle East/Arab World since Saddam was captured and crawled out of his hole. No modern Arab dictator ever wants to look like that, all of a sudden Libya declares peace and openness, and exposes the Dr Nuclear of Pakistan who was selling Atomic secrets to anyone who would pay. Syria all of a sudden decides it is time to get out of Lebanon after millions take to the streets and Damascus has a spring for the first time in decades. Egypt decides to have a multi party election for President for the first time in the history of the country, and they have a long history. The list goes on across the region.

Sitting back in the Western world, you may consider these events as nothing major. But here democracy is being redefined at an alarming rate that is giving people hope for the first time. Now it is foolish to try and impose our brand and definitions of democracy and think that they will work overnight, but every child’s first steps are small and tentative with lots of stumbles and falls.

Egypt is a police state; to have even dared to question the regime meant time in prison and a beating at the hands of the authorities. The fact that they had elections here a few weeks ago is an incredible opening up, the result was a formality before the first vote was cast, but the fact you have more than one box to tick is something that has never happened before. The result was that Hosni Mubarak was returned with 88% of the vote for a fifth term in office, the other nine parties never had a chance against the machine here. All media is owned and controlled by the Government with no exception, so the day before the vote you can imagine who the newspaper editors suggested deserved your vote.

We did interview the so-called Opposition leader, Ayman Noor; his party received 7% of the vote. The joke is that the authorities have him on trial at the moment for supposedly rigging his own party voting enrolment, and every day newspapers run a picture of him sitting in he is a cell in a courtroom. They have those classic cells with bars in the courtrooms, which you see in movies. He was a pleasant if unexciting character who had no problems of displaying pictures of himself in his office, on one wall there are even duplicates of the same picture framed. Not to mention the same photo also enlarged and framed in the reception area.

But for everyone you meet on location and question, you do meet some very remarkable people who fight for human rights and democracy. Negad El Borai we sat and talked to, on the corniche by the Nile. His only request was that we move down and away from the omni present police, his candid and open opinion about the trickle down effects of the Iraq war amazed us, no one likes what is happening in Baghdad on a day to day basis, but his point was that history is a big picture puzzle and do not lose sight of the positive by dwelling on the negatives.

Life in Cairo is struggle and small corruption if it ever becomes an Olympic sport will see Egyptians take Gold Silver and Bronze. Every aspect of life involves a bribe, and not a subtle bribe but a straight out cash into the hands of the Police. Waiters in restaurants earn almost a hundred dollars more a month than the cop on the beat. As we were checking in to depart at the airport the police on the screening door was quite open in asking for something.

The scary statistic here, is literacy, in a nation of 70 million people 63% cannot read or write, the government likes to quote 36% but as everyone says if the authorities give a figure reverse the numbers and you are closer to the real number. To give it some perspective it is like saying 12.8 million Australians cannot read or write out a population of 20.3 million.

Now 25 million people equates to a lot of cars on the roads of a city that lets face it, is not a model of the super freeway culture. You have never been in traffic till you have been to Cairo, as we were waiting in yet another jam this afternoon, I looked around and duly noted that there were four defined traffic lanes complete with lines that is if you could see the road. However in these four lanes there were 7 lanes of cars, just try to imagine how close they drive next to each other. I will not even mention the second national sport of crossing the road. I did not see one operational set of traffic lights or a single pedestrian crossing in the entire city. The traffic just does it own thing, like a cell culture in a Petri dish it somehow moves multiplies and continues to move. 24 hours a day the constant sound of car horns dominates and permeates all aspects of your senses. With that said you would think it would be the capital of road rage, no not all there seems to exist this sense inevitably so why make life worse. We saw only one minor accident in five days; back in Israel driving to work it is not uncommon to see five car crashes in one hour.

Everyone should visit Cairo at least once in their lifetime, the Pyramids are truly awe inspiring and worthy of all the accolades they receive, the Sphinx is just totally dwarfed by the Pyramids and rather than a lion like figure it looked like a cat sitting proudly on the doorstep. The Cairo Museum houses the most amazing collection of purely ancient stuff for the lack of better words, you walk in and there is literally not a vacant space in the entire building, every nook and cranny has some statue in it. The problem though is that 90% of the artefacts are not marked at all, and those that are marked look like they were typed on a hand typewriter 50 years ago, the paper is so worn and old that the print is barely legible. So for an hour you can immerse yourself in mummies till you are bored, then finally you find the Tutankhamen exhibit halls and you see what an incredible discovery it was to find an intact tomb, these guys took a lot for the afterlife, why you would need three racing chariots is still a question that deserves a better answer.

But then again the traffic could have been bad even back then and you try to get your chariot fixed on a weekend even if you are Pharaoh.

Sept 29 2005