…I sat on the deck of a cruise-boat and saw that incomparable Nile landscape with all the intrusions of adult understanding and experience. I saw how beautiful it is. Brilliantly coloured – emerald-green, ochre, feathered all over with the silver-blue of palms, splashed with the jewelled dots of figures in galabiyas of vermilion, salmon-pink, midnight-blue, eau-de-Nil.
– Penelope Lively – Going Back, 1994
It is over a month since I returned from Egypt.
Egypt and the Nile are one. Egypt may look like a large country on the map, but in reality she is shaped like a papyrus reed; a slender green stem with its roots in Africa fanning out as it reaches the Arab world of the southern Mediterranean. For five millennia Egypt has tried to halt the influence of Africa. The great statues of Ramses II at Abu Simbel stare down into Nubia commanding the south to turn back. Sixty years ago a modern pharaoh, Abdel Gamel Nasser renounced all territorial claims to the Sudan and subsequently sought a brief but ill fated merger with Syria as a proud statement of Arab nationalism. The towns and cities may be undeniably Arab, but the river has an African quality to it. Africa is there in the mile after mile of banana and sugar cane plantations, the water buffalo cooling off in the river, the languid atmosphere and the Nile light.
To the Romans Egypt had a reputation for luxury, decadence, torpor; Mark Antony succumbing to the charms of Cleopatra and the once martial Greeks weakened by the twin influences of Persia and Africa. Ramses II is frequently depicted smiting his Hittite and Nubian enemies, but their influence won through until defeated by a newer Arab culture. Islam is all pervading; the calls to prayer break the Nile stillness, workers can be seen praying in the fields and in the cities the Friday noontime sermons echo out from hundreds of loud speakers. The Greeks and Romans adopted and adapted the ancient religion of Egypt, either embracing the Gods and religious practices, or recognising them as incarnations of their own deities. The Jews adopted male circumcision, the ark of the covenant, based on the ceremonial boats that transported the Egyptian gods, and the inner sanctum the holy of holies. Islam shows no trace of any Egyptian antecedents.
The marriage of two cultures is best seen in the later temples that hug the Nile between Luxor and Aswan, notably Kom Ombo and Philae, combining Egyptian pylons, with Greek colonnades. But the columns are built from an inferior material, sandstone, and so are heavier, closer together and generally more oppressive than their native Greek cousins. The decoration is larger and more primitive, friezes follow the simple flat two dimensional Egyptian pattern and there is no remaining evidence of classical Hellenistic sculpture, if it ever existed.
Along the Nile the simple farming practices have a timeless quality; fodder crops are cut by hand, small flocks of sheep and goats are shepherded along the river bank and solitary cows graze in low lying pastures. Only sugar cane and bananas are farmed on an industrial scale,although even they are harvested largely by hand. However, the loss of the annual inundation has led to a far greater reliance on agrochemicals. As they become more expensive, will this lifestyle remain economically viable for much longer?
The birdlife of the Nile is one of the great pleasures. At Kom Ombo, a lanner falcon is nesting in one of the pylons. Nothing could be more appropriate, since the temple is dedicated to Haroeris, the adult incarnation of Horus. Kestrels, merlins and kites can regularly be seen, whilst in the river are black and white tailed ducks, just like those painted on tomb walls, solitary heron, egrets and cormorants. But my two favourite birds are the industrious hoopoe, constantly foraging in the undergrowth and the pied kingfisher. Unlike his electric blue cousin, the pied variety is neither shy nor solitary. He is a noisy gregarious fellow and with his constant cry of “baksheesh, baksheesh!” a true Egyptian.
I visited Cairo and Luxor two years ago towards the end of the revolution, leaving Cairo on the day that Hosni Mubarak was arrested. Two weeks ago I paid a return visit, this time to Aswan and Luxor. On my last visit, there was tension but optimism. Tanks remained on the streets, and the burnt-out parliament building was a reminder of the astonishing scenes covered by Al Jazeera six weeks previously. Some dissenting voices, mainly young and Coptic, expressed the need for Egypt to be led by a strong man, but the over-riding feeling was one of hope that after nearly sixty years Egypt could be transformed into a modern democracy, free from corruption.
Two years on the feeling is very different and in the south optimism has been replaced by resignation. The IMF has rejected the country’s application for a loan; tourists are staying away following reports of political instability, even though this is mainly centred in the canal zone; Saudi Arabia piqued by the treatment of Mubarak is restricting the flow of petrol, leading to lengthening queues at service stations; the government, voted in on extravagant promises and unrealistic expectations, has failed to deliver; the secular opposition parties are boycotting the elections and there is widespread fear at the growing influence of the Salafists. ” Where is Mubarak when we need him?” has become the standard cry of most taxi drivers faced with yet another traffic jam. It is said jokingly, but every joke has a grain of truth. Meanwhile respect for the law is falling. This manifests itself inconstant minor transgressions. Cars are parked anywhere in the knowledge that penalties will not be enforced, fly-tipping is commonplace and rubbish is not collected, whilst in the countryside there is a building boom, the one positive sign, in areas that are meant to be protected from development.
It is hard to see how things will develop. At a domestic level, the fall-out from the 2012 riot between supporters of the country’s two largest football teams, Cairo’s Al Ahly and Port Said’s Al Masry, will continue to dominate the headlines. It is a complex tale with accusations of police collusion in a battle that left seventy dead and Al Masry ultras sentenced to death. Meanwhile internationally the whole Middle East region is dominated by the shadow boxing of three powers: Iran which sees herself as the protector of the much discriminated against Shia minority in the region; her historic enemy a newly resurgent Turkey; and Saudi Arabia and her gulf allies, who view Iran as heretics and Turkey as demonstrating dangerously democratic tendencies, whilst adhering to an impure form of Sunni Islam. If Bahrain was the first attempt at a proxy war between Iran and Saudi, Syria has the potential to be the real thing. So far Turkey which boasts the largest standing army in NATO has stood aside, but how long will that last. For Egypt however, matters are likely to remain unresolved until the Syrian conflict has played itself out.
Where should Egypt turn? The obvious choice is Turkey, a pluralist democracy with an elected Islamist government, doctrinally similar to Egypt. But that is to ignore Egyptian pride. Egypt is the largest Arab nation in terms of population, the home of popular Arab culture, has the largest army in the region whilst the Al Azhar mosque and university is the centre of Sunni jurisprudence. Libya and Tunisia are within her sphere of influence, and she will not give it up to the neo-Ottomans.
If most of the pain is being felt in the Northern cities, or by those who depend on tourism, in the countryside life continues as it always has, albeit stimulated by a building boom. And it is likely to be the rural population who are least affected by all of the turmoil around them. The increase in agrochemical prices will feed through into commodity price inflation, but sugar cane, wheat and other staple crops will continue to command strong prices on domestic and international markets. In a neat reversal of trends it is likely that the country will benefit at the city’s expense.
Will the military step in to impose a traditional strongman? I think not. Once you let the democratic genie out of the bottle, it is nigh impossible to force him back in. For the time being, Egypt must live with uncertainty but learn from the process.