Egypt has taken over the news as protests have spread throughout the country. One of Cairo main squares (Midan Tahrir) is the focal point where protesters have been expressing their discontent with current president (and dictator) Hosni Mubarak.
What is Egypt like? Ironically, I just returned from a trip to Egypt less than a month ago. Today, I’ll give you my perspective.
Since I have only been to Cairo, I can only comment on that city. Cairo is large, chaotic, poor and dirty city. The city’s heart is the Nile, although Western hotels tend to dominate much of the riverfront property. There is a metro system, but it is somewhat limited for a city of Cairo’s size (8 million people). The city is actually a good walking city, but you put your life at risk every time you cross the street (there are no crosswalks and I only saw two traffic lights the whole time I was in Cairo). About ninety percent of the people walking around the streets are men so Western women may feel somewhat uncomfortable. Most–but not all–women wear headscarves. I found, however, that the people were very friendly and had a really great sense of humor.
Most Egyptians are Muslim, but about 10% of Egyptians are Coptic Christian. The bombing of a Coptic Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day brought some tensions to the forefront. Many Coptic Christians claimed that they are discriminated against. A Christian tour guide I met said that this is somewhat of a problem. Most of the Muslims I talked to said that Egypt is tolerant of Copts, but how tolerant I am not sure.
To get an idea of the sentiments of the “common man” in Egypt, I recommend reading Taxi by Khaled Al Khamissi. The book is an entertaining, heart-wrenching, and funny account of taxi drivers in Cairo. The drivers must deal with horrendous traffic, government corruption, and limited economic prospects. The most famous Egyptian author, however, is Nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. I read Midaq Alley which was very good, but his masterpiece is the Cairo Trilogy (which I have not read).
Tyler Cowen lists his favorite things about Egypt. Although he didn’t think the food was anything special, I though the food I had was generally very good. Especially the mezze dishes. I do have to agree, however, that “Intellectually and culturally, Cairo has been punching below its weight for a long time.”
This is a time for Egyptians to create their own democracy. Let’s hope they are able to seize this opportunity.