Since the 1997 massacre of fifty-eight tourists at Luxor's Temple of Hatshepsut (an act of terrorism euphemistically referred to in Egypt as "the accident") and several other slightly less devastating terrorist attacks perpetrated by the extremist Islamic group Gama'at Islamiyah, the Egyptian government has at times elevated its tourist protection operations to levels worthy of visiting heads of state. A country of sixty-two million people whose chief source of income is tourism cannot afford another "accident." Groups of foreign visitors who want to venture off the beaten tourist paths must now, in theory at least, be accompanied by a police convoy. Sightseers are often trailed by soldiers toting semiautomatic rifles, their sagging pockets stuffed with bullet cartridges bulky as bricks. More often than not, the soldiers are skinny, vaguely staring pubescents who carry their guns slung over their shoulders like cumbersome schoolbags, wear flip-flops for shoes, and spend a lot of time napping on the job. Security points have cropped up at important tourist sites - a show of outdated metal detectors and young guards rummaging halfheartedly through visitors' handbags. At other times the security effort seems a mere rumor. "If you go to Fayoum, you'll have to have soldier in your car with you once you get there." I went to Fayoum. There was no soldier. At the Temple of Hatshepsut, where tourists had not long before been shot and hacked to death with machetes, I found the primary guard fast asleep in his guard house, slumped heavily in his chair, mouth hanging open, arms dangling at his sides - so unconscious was he that even when I put my camera eight inches from his face and snapped his picture he never awoke.
The Egyptian efforts at security are designed as much to make tourists feel safe as to actually frighten or deter militant Islamic terrorists intent on damaging the secular, West-tending Egyptian government. Fanatical terrorists could probably not be deterred, but vacationing tourists could be soothed and assured by the sight of Mubarak's soldiers. As for the river police, I had seen a few police boats at Aswan and Luxor manned by large groups of young men, but nowhere else. If I asked the Egyptian police for permission to row a boat down the Nile, I would undoubtedly have to take them with me and perhaps endure at their hands the very intrusions and harassments they were supposedly there to protect me from. If I didn't ask, I was on my own. The latter seemed preferable.
As for random crime unrelated to terrorism, the rate of personal crimes against foreigners in Egypt was low because the consequences for perpetrators were dire. But for the violent period of Gamal Abdel Nasser's nationalist revolution during the 1950s, when anti-European feeling was high, since the days of Napoleon's invasion and the subsequent rule of Muhammad Ali, the average foreigner in Egypt has generally been accorded civil rights and a moral status superior to that of the native Egyptian. In the early nineteenth century, if a foreign visitor was murdered, every Egyptian within walking distance of the event would, without trial or investigation, be put to death as punishment. If a foreigner complained of having had his money stolen by one Egyptian, some thirty Egyptians would be jailed for a month. In 1849 Florence Nightingale observed, "The police which Mehemet Ali instituted . . . have effectually cleared the country and secured the safety of Europeans. No pains are taken to investigate who is the offender; when an offence occurs, the whole village suffers to save the trouble of inquiring who's who . . . If you miss a pin now, the whole village is made responsible for it, and the whole village bastinadoed." And as late as 1872 Amelia Edwards, a British writer who traveled up the Nile, recorded an incident in which a member of her boat party, while hunting for fowl, accidentally grazed the shoulder of a child with his buckshot. Properly incensed, the local villagers grabbed the man's gun from him, struck him on the back with a stone, and chased him back to his boat. Edwards's party filed a complaint against the village. In response the governor of Aswan promised that "justice would be done," arrested fifteen of the villagers, chained them together by their necks, and asked the hunter in what manner he would like the scoundrels punished. The hunter confessed that, not being familiar with Egyptian law, he had no idea what would be fit. The governor replied, "What ever you want is Egyptian law." The hunter stated that his aim was simply to "frighten [the villagers] into a due respect for travelers in general." In turn, the governor assured the hunter that his only wish was to be agreeable to the English and averred that the entire village should have been beaten "had his Excellency [the reckless and obviously not too bright hunter] desired it."
Copyright © 2007 by Rosemary Mahoney
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