Letter from Egypt

«No to the last pharaoh!» was chanted last Wednesday, election day, by some hundreds of demonstrators in the streets of downtown Cairo. The predominantly young demonstrators in Tahrir Square belonged to the movement Kefaya («Enough»), Egypt’s Labor party and the Youth for Change Movement. What may sound like a usual everyday practice to Greek ears is an unheard-of breach of taboos to Egyptian ears. Few were the cases where the media dared to openly discuss such sensitive issues as torture, corruption and the succession ambitions of the president’s son, Gamal. Demonstrations have been strictly prohibited. Obviously public attitudes have changed since those vigorous days. Back to Wednesday, when other smaller groups, holding photographs of Mubarak, gathered on the opposite side of the square chanting pathetically, «We sacrifice our souls and blood for you, Mubarak.» Needless to say, on Friday it was officially announced that President Mubarak, 77, who has led Egypt for 24 years, won the first ever contested presidential election with 88.6 percent of the votes – in an election marked by low turnout: a meager 23 percent. Groups monitoring the vote said there were widespread abuses, mainly by President Mubarak’s own National Democratic Party (NDP) and electoral officials. Anyway, everybody agreed that nothing could have really affected the overall results. Although there were 10 candidates running for president, in previous elections Mubarak, who, no doubt, has two of the Middle East’s steadiest hands, had been selected in single-candidate referendums. Chroniclers have their work cut out for them: Mubarak and his allies will continue to call the shots. The Muslim Brotherhood – a group that advocates an Islamic state via peaceful means and the only opposition organization that has broad public support under the slogan «Islam is the solution» – is outlawed and consequently could not field a candidate. Best known today for its pyramids and ancient civilizations, Egypt has played a central role in the political situation in the region in modern times. It has gone from a monarchy to socialism to an open-market economy in less than 50 years. After the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 by Islamic extremists, Hosni Mubarak took a more moderate line, yet militant Islamic groups have continued their attacks, often targeting tourists and resort areas. Egypt, a country with a population of 75 million, may be banning political parties with religious agendas, yet, all the same, faith is constantly drawn into the fray of politics. Future historians will look to Mubarak as the first president widely admired by most voters due to his great experience and for keeping Egypt out of war. Simultaneously, his critics accuse him of failing to allow Egyptian democracy to grow. «There is no change! No new blood,» they insist. On the other hand, his followers see the «new blood» in the emergence of Mubarak’s son, Gamal, 42. He could surely be one of the strategists to put new blood into politics. He also has his own slogan: «Change, change, change.» Sure enough one can see the big change in Egypt – it lies in its tourism. President Mubarak has always referred to tourism as Egypt’s future industry. Well, it seems that future is right now. Once again I was invited to attend the Mediterranean Travel Fair (MTF) in Cairo, already in its sixth year. The Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO) had an impressive pavilion there. With an incontestable appeal, Egypt, where tourism is a key foreign currency earner, seeks to make the MTF its bourse. «Our country has it all!» boasted a local official, speaking not only of the priceless monuments left behind by five civilizations – Pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Christian and Islamic – but also of some more modern «antiquities.» That is, staggering old and new hotels. Some time ago, the Supreme Council of Antiquities registered Cairo’s Mena House Oberoi by the Pyramids and Marriott Palace Hotels in the center of the city as historic buildings. Commissioned by the Khedive Ismael, both royal residences welcomed the Empress Eugenie during the opening ceremonies for the Suez Canal in 1869. In Luxor, the Winter Palace opened in 1886 for the use of Egypt’s royal court. The country’s hotel industry is growing fast. Extremely beautiful hotels are under world-class international management. On our last night, we stayed at the Porto-Marina, a breathtaking hotel complex near El Alamein on the Mediterranean coast which opened two weeks ago. And, sadly for us, prices are just fractions of what one would pay in Greece. Throughout the ages, Greek, Roman, Arab, Ottoman, French and British influences have all contributed to the country’s multilayered mystique. Yet, for Greeks, Alexandria, created by Alexander the Great’s decree, now Egypt’s second city and eclipsed by Cairo’s reputation as the regional hub for business and diplomacy, is the eternal port of mystique. «The mystery of modern Alexandria seems to be not in what it actually is or was at any given moment but its power to stimulate – as perhaps no other city in this century – the creation of poetic cities cast in its image, cities that imitate it as it can be, or even ought to be, in its essence,» wrote Edmund Keeley in his book «Cavafy’s Alexandria» (Princeton University Press). Today, the «bride of the Mediterranean,» the birthplace of C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933), is making a comeback. Lawrence Durrell, the British author of the modern classic «The Alexandria Quartet,» added «the capital of memory» to the city’s honorifics. Urban renewal and, chiefly, the recreation of an ancient jewel, the fabled Library of Alexandria (300 BC) which 2,000 years ago housed works by the greatest thinkers and writers of the ancient world, prove that the city’s influence is not confined to the distant past. Nor solely to its Greek heritage, as many here in Greece so arrogantly maintain. Take the case of the great Alexandrian himself: Cavafy was «bored by racial purity and political idealism… the civilization he respected was a bastardy in which the Greek strain prevailed, and which, age after age, outsiders would push, to modify and be modified,» is how E.M. Forster estimated the poet’s attitude toward Greece. Food for thought. Today’s xenophobic Greeks, who live in terror of the barbarians (Albanians, Africans, Asians, etc.) whose coming would destroy them, could certainly take a lesson here. For in Cavafy’s poem, the barbarians never came, possibly because the citizens themselves were the barbarians and, in their waiting, they destroyed themselves within their own high gates.