Sunday, 1 May 2011

Letter from Cairo 28th April 2011

Basata Ecolodge, Sinai

As I sit on a beach on the Sinai coast in the shade of my bamboo hut, with the water gently lapping onto the sand some 10 metres away from me, it is so very easy to forget that I am in Egypt and that the country is still in turmoil.  As I lift my pen and raise my eyes from my notebook, I can see the mountains of Saudi Arabia in front of me and a little further to my left those same mountains become Jordan.  If I walk north, to the end of the beach, I can just see part of Israel.  Everything appears superbly tranquil.  The water is as still as a lake and it's pale turquoise hue is interrupted in places by the darker blue shadows which indicate the presence of coral and, in the near distance, an even darker stretch of blue where the end of the coral reef drops into the deep blue.  Behind me the mountains shimmer in the heat of the afternoon.

A group of olive skinned Egyptians are chattering and laughing with their usual bonhomie whilst a Swiss family babble in their particular brand of German, I can hear the soft sonority of tongues from the South of France and my favourite language, Italian, being somewhat ruined by a small bevy from Calabria.  A group of children are splashing and laughing in the sea and twittering in a variety of languages. 

The Egyptians' olive skins are turning nut brown while some of the Europeans are beginning to turn a painful shade of pink.  Some resemble patchwork quilts with blobs of white interspersed with pink, where the factor 50 sun block missed its mark.

My musings came to a halt some five weeks ago due to the sheer pressure of my work, from which I will retire in June.  However, as I take a break in this paradisiacal ecolodge called ‘Basata’, meaning ‘simplicity’, I have a yen to write again and, for the first time in decades, am doing so with pen and paper.  Upon my return to ‘civilisation’, I will transfer my scribbles to my computer.  I have put the word civilisation in quotes as I am no longer sure of its meaning and because it is, in any case, a controversial term.  I cannot think of a more civilized place than that in which I find myself at the moment, yet I sleep in a bamboo hut with no electricity, toilets and showers are communal and an evening meal is served and eaten in the main hut where one sits on cushions at low tables which each accommodate twelve people. 

The seating arrangements are random and one meets people from all over the world many of whom, like us, speak two if not several languages.  Amicable conversation ranges from art to literature to religion to politics amongst multi-cultural groups and one cannot help but wish that the rest of the world were listening in and learning.

This is, for want of a better word, a unique place and not to everyone’s taste.  I recall a family who stopped here to visit mutual friends on their way back to Cairo from a hotel in Tabaa near the Israeli border whose son remarked “But there is nothing to do here!”  “There is plenty to do.” said I.  “Like what?” said he.  “Like swim, snorkel, walk, read, write and meditate.” said I.  When the same question was asked by another member of the family it dawned on me that a place such as Basata was totally foreign to them.  Their idea of civilisation was a five star chain hotel with endless badly lit corridors coupled with the usual dull shade of mottled carpets, a bedroom painted, decorated and furnished in exactly the same manner as any other five start hotel anywhere else in the world, alongside the usual management team who are, as the French say, incolore, inodore et sans saveur – much like the guests themselves.

Meanwhile, my readers may wish to know a little of what has been going on in Egypt.  Nearly five weeks after the fall of Mubarak, March 19th was the dawn of the much awaited referendum.  But, what was the referendum all about?  This was a question that many of the illiterate or uneducated were asking and to which there were a variety of answers, some of which did not reflect reality.  Many, many people would be voting for the first time in their lives and would be voting for the sheer novelty of being able to do so.

The referendum was formulated by the Egyptian Armed Forces after suspending the 1971 Constitution.  It had been hoped that a completely new constitution would be drafted but the military decided that this would take too long and in order to placate the youth movement and the protestors in general they appointed a constitutional committee to whom they gave a free hand to redraft any of the constitution’s 211 articles and to select a date for the referendum to take place.  Amongst others, some of the main priorities demanded by the protestors were the abolishment of the emergency law, the revision of all articles concerning presidential elections, a re-drafting of Article 2 regarding state and religion and other articles concerning the rights of citizens.

However, the intelligentsia felt that the amendments did not go far enough.  They did include, nevertheless, some restrictions on the ability of the government to maintain the emergency law and heightened judicial supervision of elections. The most significant of the amendments would limit presidents to two four-year terms and allow independent candidates to campaign.  One rather bizarre amendment barred from office anyone holding a foreign passport or being married to a foreigner.  It should be pointed out here that both Sadat and Mubarak had spouses with ‘foreign’ blood and one of the possible future candidates whose name was being bandied around at that time, namely Mohamed ElBaradei, was also married to a non-Egyptian.

As mentioned before, however, it was felt that the amendments were not enough and the impression was that the armed forces were rushing the process of transition for the benefit of the already existing and well-organised but somewhat conservative parties.

The 19th of March was a Saturday and is usually a working day.  But on that particular morning I could neither see nor hear the usual hustle and bustle of people and there was an absence of the usual noise of heavy traffic.  Yet there was a palpable tension in the air somehow fused with an atmosphere of excitement.

There was only one polling station in Zamalek and my husband and I made our way there, somewhat tardily, at around midday – he to vote and me to keep him company and soak in the ambience.  The Egyptian citizens only needed to present their Identification Cards in order to vote and mine was not to be ready until a week later.

The queue was by this time over a mile long and there was an atmosphere of hope and optimism and even if the ‘no’ vote that many of us wished for were not to gain a majority, there was great optimism for the future. With the lack of economic security, instability and increasing violence in the country, it was fairly obvious that the ‘yes’ vote would overrule the ‘no’ vote as the Egyptian people wanted to return to a feeling of normalcy as soon as possible.  Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of 75% for the amendments to the constitution did come as something of a shock.  Few of the ‘no’ voters had expected to win but had at least hoped to lose with a smaller margin.

In the intervening time, rumours began, which were later confirmed, that the Muslim Brothers had, for days before the referendum, been distributing leaflets pushing for the ‘yes’ vote and were also handing out a large quantity of staple foodstuffs in order to win supporters.  In addition to this, it was also rumoured that on the day of the referendum they were actually preventing the ‘no’ voters from entering into some of the polling stations.  Hearsay began to spread in the days following the referendum that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood had hijacked the revolution and, however unlikely this would appear to be, it has to be said that the armed forces did nothing to stop the Brotherhood in their campaigning and at the same time appeared to have arrested several of the youth activists who were pushing for a vote against the referendum.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was founded in 1928 but has been suppressed by successive governments and many of its members have been punished and imprisoned.  Despite this, Brotherhood candidates have made showings in several parliamentary elections and have called and continue to call for a more democratic political system in Egypt.  As I mentioned in a previous Letter from Cairo, there is a division within the Brotherhood and there is no unified position yet on their future and how it should engage with Egyptian society. The old leaders hold very strict views whilst the younger members appear to be much more open minded.  But let us not forget they are a powerful, well-organised opposition party.  On the other hand, the youth movement and the many other activists of the revolution were not coordinated. There was a lack of true organisation and it is my belief that not much thought had gone into what might occur after the fall of Mubarak and his regime.  They had one unified voice and that was “The people want the fall of the regime” but one felt that they believed that whatever came next was in God’s hands. 
The fall of the regime was in fact to cause some disturbing developments and the Egyptian struggle continues to surge.  Many deem that the revolution has failed and only time will tell. But the sheer will of the Egyptians, their vibrant exchange of ideas about how their country can be reshaped and their faith that this can be done should give cause for optimism for all of us.
The world is no longer watching Egypt in the same way as it did during the questionably exciting days at the height of the revolution.  The earthquake and ensuing tsunami in Japan, the many other uprisings in the Middle East and the chaotic revolution which is fast turning into a civil war in our neighbouring country, Libya, have all become front page news.  Egypt receives a subtle mentioned from time to time but much of the press is either unaware or gives little importance to what is and will continue to be a long ongoing struggle.  However, it is a struggle which is alive and well.  Just as Rome was not built in a day so the ‘New Egypt’ will not be created instantaneously. Indeed, the battle consuming Egypt about the direction of its revolution is still being fought.
There is still little sign of the police force and, on our journey to and from the Sinai, the roadblocks were manned by the army whose attitude was much gentler than that of the police and they were almost apologetic when asking to see our papers, unlike the police who were always brusque to the point of rudeness. However, due to the absence of the police force, crime has continued to rise and there have been a number of kidnappings.  We were warned that, were we to drive back to Cairo at night, we should travel in a convoy because the Sinai Bedouins had been taking advantage of the absence of the police and holding travelers at gunpoint, relieving them of all their possessions and their cars and abandoning them to the cruelty of the desert at night. 
We had intended to leave Basata at around 3 p.m. in order to cover most of the desert terrain during daylight but it was such a beautiful day and we were so reluctant to leave our haven that we finally departed at 6 p.m., half an hour before sunset.
Our convoy consisted of two cars, my husband and I in one and our son and his family in  the other.  As luck would have it my son’s car overheated bang in the middle of nowhere and while he was filling the radiator with water he discovered a hole in one of the tubes leading from the radiator to the engine.  He proceeded to repair it in the best way possible by binding it with a plastic bag, a t-shirt and whatever debris was available in the sand in the immediate vicinity.  This was all sealed by the type of plastic handcuffs used in Afghanistan which, for some unknown reason, our driver had left in his car.  Twenty minutes or so into the operation, three shadowy figures suddenly appeared from the desert, shouldering rifles.  I froze and for seconds and my life flashed before me as I imagined my untimely end, but it took only a few moments for me to realise that the men were young soldiers asking if they could help us.  We pointed out that we had managed to patch up the car as best we could.  They wished us luck but advised us, very seriously, that at no cost should we stop in the desert again.
We moved off slowly, our hearts in our mouths, and prayed that we would manage the hundred or so kilometres to the Suez tunnel without having to stop again.  We eventually arrived safely in Cairo and vowed, at least for the near future, never to travel at night again.


  1. Il hamdu liLLah bi salama, Rosemary. Hugs.

  2. Hi Rosemary!
    I'd like to use 2 of your photos of Basata while, of course, giving credit to you. Would that be possible? It would be great if you could let me know by email
    Thanks so much.
    Best regards,
    Amy Sarkiss