Girls are walking in groups up and down Aswan’s Corniche in the early evening light, sporting colourful headscarves and daring knitwear jackets that cover only the back part of the hips. Even those accompanied by stern older women in textile-intensive black garb and who are wearing black as well, manage to accentuate their waists or let some strains of hair come through the headscarves. The fashion-conscious young women talk to us freely, asking us a lot of curious questions, and they also interact with men quite normally.
Conservative Upper Egypt
The surprising thing about this is that Aswan, far in the South of Upper Egypt, is one of the more conservative places in Egypt. At our last visit in 2012/13, at the height of the Mursi administration and the rule of the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, Upper Egypt had been dominated by black cloth, scraggy beards, and those dark marks on the forehead that supposedly result from fervent prayers (we had always wondered how much of it was make-up). People had been timid and depressed because of the blank outlook for the future of the tourist business. Tourism hasn’t really picked up (it may this winter, many believe), but nevertheless people are more upbeat.
It seems to us that by far most Egyptians appreciate the newest change of government. The popular revolution in spring 2011, the “Arab Spring”, had led to the fall of Egypt’s longstanding dictator, Hosni Mubarak, and to free elections. Those, however were not won by the liberal movement that had sustained much of the initial revolution, but by the better organised and financially equipped Muslim Brotherhood. A year later, that government was toppled by a military coup, and 5 years after the Arab Spring, Egypt seems politically not much better off than before it. And yet, it seems, much better than in between.
A sense of empowerment
One legacy of the revolution, at least, seems to be a growing sense of empowerment, and not only among the urban elites. In Ras Gharib, where we were caught in a natural disaster during our trip, and where probably far more than a dozen people died, inhabitants later protested against the incompetent crisis management, demanding compensation and the dismissal of the local governor. They complained quite rightly that no emergency services were to be seen in the hardest-hit areas on the day after the flood and that the administration took days even to take notice of the crisis. At least the townspeople, like the other victims of the flooding we met ourselves, felt that they had certain rights and could demand relief measures, instead of taking government action or inaction as unchangeable.
Five years after the revolution, Egypt is also a great destination for tourists – the Egyptian pound has during our stay been officially devalued by half to correspond with the black market price. While this means inflation and hardships for many Egyptians, for tourists travel has become even cheaper. In spite of the low cost, there are still no crowds and most of the historical sights are quite empty. Although there have been no violent or terrorist incidents for a long time (contrary to some European countries), security is quite tight, which can even seem intimidating to travellers and sometimes annoying, because some roads and means of transport (like minibuses in Upper Egypt) are off-limits to western foreigners.
We didn’t have much time on this trip to go sightseeing, but every place we did visit – for the first time or anew – was great, as always. We were alone in some of the Royal Tombs in Luxor, and with Ramses II and his guardsmen at Abu Simbel. And we could walk hassle-free through the streets of Rosetta (Rashid) and seek out historical Ottoman houses. Cairo was friendly and relaxed, and Hurghada at the Red Sea coast sufficiently lively.
If you haven’t visited Egypt yet or would like to travel there for a second time you should go now! The friendly people, the rich culture and history and the weak Egyptian pound are all good reasons.