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National Geographic: Egypt in the Moment

Author: Jeffrey Bartholet
May 2012


In the wake of the Arab Spring, Egypt is full of unprecedented hope--and gnawing fear, writes Jeffrey Bartholet for National Geographic.

"Thieves and thugs" is our taxi driver's description of the people we will meet on the third-class train from Aswan to Luxor. This seems to be a common view in the Egyptian countryside after the revolution: Watch out for your safety and avoid the riffraff. At the train station a scowling police officer manning the gate won't let me pass. "No foreigners are allowed on third class," he barks. "Forbidden!"

I'm traveling in the fall of 2011 with an Egyptian colleague, Khaled Nagy, who has spent more than 200 days and nights chronicling the rebellion in Cairo. We're on our way from Abu Simbel in the distant south of Egypt to the Mediterranean city of Alexandria in the north, with many stops along the way. The idea is to travel far from the epicenter of the revolution, Tahrir Square, to see how the changes are playing out in the rest of Egypt.

After much argument and a four-hour delay, we eventually make our way aboard a train. We quickly pay the ticket collector 21 Egyptian pounds, or about three and a half dollars, for two fares to Luxor, more than three hours away.

In our car several of the windows are cracked or broken; many are jammed open to let outside air whip through. This is necessary because there is no air-conditioning in the still-hot days of autumn and also because an acrid smell from the toilets permeates the cars when the air inside is stagnant. A flap to an electrical panel swings open and shut against the wall, and the glass case to the fire extinguisher is smashed in. The extinguisher seems intact.

Some passengers sit motionless, their weary eyes fixed on some invisible point outside the train. A few chat on cell phones. A gap-toothed woman, clad in a black dress common to peasants, carries a cardboard box with three chickens in it. Occasionally one of the birds escapes, flapping its wings and clucking madly.

Men and boys walk up and down the aisles selling tissues, watches, wallets, sewing kits, polyester blankets, cold water in reused plastic bottles, pumpkin seeds, nuts, bread, boiled beans, religious pamphlets, and tea that is poured from giant tin kettles. I get my dusty shoes shined for 50 cents, including a generous tip. A handicapped man slides along the floor on his buttocks, holding up a hand for donations. Across the aisle, a man in a turban points to the view of the palm-fringed Nile from the window and asks, "Do you have a river as beautiful as this?"

As the train rattles along, our fellow travelers gradually warm to us. The passengers we meet, including a muezzin who makes the calls to prayer at a mosque near Luxor and a young man doing his military service in Aswan, seem apprehensive about the revolution. The events of Tahrir are far from their lives. "In the end isn't life simply about being safe?" says the muezzin, who is traveling with his wife and two young children. He complains about the lack of financial security people feel and about a declining economy. He gets a government salary every month, but others live job to job, some earning as little as ten pounds a day, or less than two dollars. The muezzin may be better off than many, but his wife looks miserable. She spends most of the trip staring blankly out the window, holding a tissue over her nose.

"There is no trust, no security," says Momen Hassan, the 22-year-old conscript. When I ask his opinion of the revolutionaries in Tahrir, he says, "I'm not against them, but I'm definitely not for them." He's not surprised by the misdeeds of the former regime, but he likens corruption to a tree with deep roots: Cut it down, and over time it will grow back. "Democracy is good," he says, "but we can't rush it. If you let the leash go completely loose, people will do whatever they want. We need a firm hand."

This view is not uncommon in the countryside. Nearly everywhere we go, Egyptians express anxiety about al amn—security. Many seem almost paranoid about growing thievery, which was nearly unheard of in Egypt before the revolution, and a potential breakdown in order. A taxi driver in Luxor has bought a Beretta pistol to keep under his seat. Some Egyptians speak darkly of smugglers bringing guns across the border from Libya.

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