Saturday, October 28, 2006
By Chris Hedges
Editor’s note: In this article, the former New York Times Middle East bureau chief spends 10 days living with a lower-middle-class Egyptian family to expose the side of Egypt off-limits to most tourists—one made desperate by poverty and kept fearful by the omnipresent threat of state security officials.
"There are two Egypts. One is crushed by poverty and groaning under the weight of an autocratic regime that has been in place for nearly three decades. This Egypt is increasingly desperate, as the country’s population growth soars, and its economy, burdened by corruption and a stifling state bureaucracy, stagnates. Out of the bowels of this Egypt have come mounting anti-government street demonstrations, anger, frustration and renewed acts of terrorist violence by Islamic militants. The second Egypt, the one on view to foreign visitors, bears little in common with the first Egypt. It is a manicured and heavily guarded Egypt of air-conditioned hotels, Nile cruises, majestic archeological sites, afternoons by swimming pools, evenings in disco clubs, posh restaurants and shops crammed with copies of statues of Horus and Nefertiti and glass jewelry cases filled with silver and gold hieroglyphic pendants.
But the clash between these two Egypts is mounting. It has left tourists, confined to these islands of privilege, caught in the middle, seen as symbols of all that is denied to most Egyptians. And once again, as they were a decade ago, foreigners are being targeted and killed by armed militants as the government of President Hosni Mubarak promises reforms, including presidential and parliamentary election reform that Mubarak’s critics dismiss as cosmetic.
My van, after about 20 minutes, pulls off the road at a police checkpoint. An arrow on the sign in front of us points left to the city of Qus. The police, who check the passports, match the names to the list they hold in front of them. The convoy, speeding along the road, disappears ahead of us. All foreigners are required by Egyptian authorities to travel on the roads in the south with armed escorts. They are banned from wandering into the impoverished villages outside of Luxor or Aswan. I am permitted to depart from the city only with the convoy and have been required to pick up a policeman to travel to Qus.
“This gentleman is from the general police,” Ahmed says, turning to the uniformed officer. “This gentleman is from state security,” he says, turning to the man with the shirt. “And this gentleman ...” and here Ahmed stumbles, not sure what to say, until he hastily adds “...is also from the police.”
So my first foray into this Egypt is to buy phone cards so my host can report on my movements, my conversations and my plans for the day. He has been told to relay this information to a variety of state security officials from Qus to Cairo. His confrontation with the layers of state security that we, and probably he as well, did not know existed in President Mubarak’s Egypt is leaving him nervous and jumpy.
The third-class train is how most of the country’s 2.8 million train passengers travel, moving from city to city and village to village along the 4,900 kilometers of track that run like a ribbon along the Nile. President Mubarak, when he boards a train, takes the opulent carriages that once made up the personal train of the deposed King Farouk. Tourists are required to travel in special tourist trains that have no third-class carriages attached. Reza and I, although we entered Qus in a van with an armed escort, have asked to depart on the third-class train to Cairo, although the safety record of the third-class trains is dismal. Dozens of Egyptians over the past decade have died on the rails in head-on collisions, as well as in accidents with vehicles at railroad crossings. But for most Egyptians, who do not own cars, this is the only way to travel. And it is most Egyptians who interest us.
The dearth of jobs thrusts young Egyptians back onto their families, who will at least make sure they remain housed and fed. Those that head to the teaming slums that have made Cairo one of the most densely populated and impoverished cities in the world leave behind this safety net. It is the disintegration of these kinship ties—a disintegration directly related to the faltering economy—which has proved to be the powerful wedge used by militant Islam to reach young, dislocated Egyptians. No longer able to depend on family for support, they find in militant Islam a kind of traditional, cultural and emotional reassurance that holds out the promise of something better and a replacement community. Traditional Islam, a powerful force in village life, mutates in the slums into something deadly.
“I searched for a job,” he says, “but there are no jobs. I am angry. A job is very important.” He tells me he has never been to Cairo, but he may have to go there to seek work. He began to attend the mosque and do his five daily prayers about six years ago. And then he lays out a new vision for Egypt, one that lurks not far beneath the surface of the secular Mubarak regime. “When there are Islamic laws governing our lives, things will be better,” he says. “There will be more work. Everyone will fear Allah. This will make a change. If you fear Allah there is no corruption. This will make it better for us.” He watches as I write down his words. “Please omit my name,” he says softly, glancing at Ahmed, who stands a few feet away with his back to us. I cross his name out in my notebook. He looks at the black lines through his name and asks me to continue to blot out his name.
On the way home we are told that our request to visit the elementary school where Ahmed’s small daughter is a student has been denied. We decide to visit the offices of the Ministry of Education in Qus to get them to reconsider the request. When we arrive we find the director, Rushdi Abu el-Safa’, behind a large desk. He is smoking, flicking the ash on the floor. He oversees the 180 schools in the district, which has 87,000 students. He promises to pass on our request. Ahmed, who receives a call later that day, is told we will not be allowed in any schools, nor can we visit the local factories. When we get home we find Ahmed’s wife nervous and silent. The constant phone calls, the long reports Ahmed has to fax each day on our activities, have cast a pall over the house. The strains of our visit show in the darting looks, whispers and uncomfortable gaps in conversation where we had once laughed and joked.
A young man had let us into his home during the previous visit and his father begins to yell and curse him and us. “Why did you let them into the house?” he shouts at his son. “They will report about the whole temple to the government and all the houses will be destroyed.” Curse words begin to fly. We back away. Three uniformed police swiftly arrive and hustle us to the van, shouting at the small mob to get back.
It is only at midnight on our last day that we are told we will not be allowed on the third-class train. We will be put, we are told, into a first-class car to Cairo. We will not be allowed to speak to anyone on the train. We enter the train with escorts, including uniformed police with assault rifles. When we attempt to walk into the second-class car we are abruptly pushed back by a policeman between the two cars. “No foreigners,” we are told. When the train pulls into the Shohaj station security men enter our car. They check the documents of the few Egyptians seated in our car and frisk them. The Egyptians are asked to leave our compartment. We become, in a matter of minutes, as hermetically sealed off from the Egypt we sought to reach as the tourists in the lumbering buses whose convoy we had joined a few days before. We sit on the long ride to Cairo and watch the other Egypt glide past us."
A long and revealing report that peers into the police state of Husni Mubarak who is strongly supported by Washington.