In Egypt, journey down a Nile of discontent
Voices from the 'other Egypt' show why the country is so riven – and what its next leaders face.
(Page 3 of 8)
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In Pictures Trouble Along the Nile
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As night falls, a dozen men gather at a cafe on the banks of the river in Luxor, opposite the prominent hotels. The cafe is on a rooftop, but there is no breeze, and the oppressive heat weighs down in the dark. The power goes out, a common occurrence here, and the men playing backgammon shine a cellphone light on the board. The others drink tea and smoke water pipes. These days, they have plenty of time to kill.
"Before the revolution we were working five times a week," says El Tiab Ahmed, an English-language tour guide. "Now, if we're lucky, we work once every few months."
Nowhere in Upper Egypt – and much of the rest of the country – has the decline in tourism been more pronounced since the 2011 uprising and subsequent political chaos than in Luxor, often called the world's largest open air museum.
Even before you get here, on the stretch of river between Aswan and Luxor, the hundreds of cruise ships that used to carry tourists, stopping at ancient temples along the way, have dwindled to a few dozen. Once in the city, they are docked neatly in a row, empty and silent. Behind them, in the center of the city, stands the imposing Luxor Temple, built around 1400 BC. It is lit up at night. Flashing neon lights hang from the minaret of a mosque that was built long ago atop the ruins of the temple.
Luxor's monuments are proof that the now-marginalized Upper Egypt used to be the capital of an impressive kingdom for centuries, and the city's economy has long been built on welcoming foreign visitors to the stunning array of Pharaonic temples, tombs, and other sites. Yet the road along Luxor's riverfront is now lined with empty horse carriages, waiting to transport visitors, and restaurants and hotels bereft of patrons. Many of the visitors who do come to Egypt today head to the beaches instead of the country's cultural sites.
Tourism makes up more than 11 percent of Egypt's overall economy and is an important source of foreign currency. In 2010, the year before the uprising, it brought in more than $12 billion. The drop in foreign money is important because Egypt is the world's largest wheat importer, using the grain for subsidized bread, and also imports fuel for energy.
But the decline in outside visitors hits particularly hard here because tourism is one of the only major sources of employment in the area. Unlike the delta, Upper Egypt has few factories. For decades, young men have been leaving the region to search for work in Red Sea resorts, in Cairo, or the Gulf. The exodus may accelerate if job opportunities continue to decline here.
Amid the hardship, Mr. Ahmed and other tour guides say they help each other out and depend on their families or their farms to support them. But they describe the frustrations that abound with the lack of work, noting that crime, among other things, is getting worse as they say more people turn to nefarious activities to survive. Even divorce rates are rising.
"People working in tourism used to spend more money," says Yasser Amin, another tour guide. "It's not only us who are suffering, but so many people."
Majdi Riadh is one of those who is struggling. He lives with his wife, young son, and his parents in one apartment. They used to live in the village of Hijaza, outside Luxor, where Mr. Riadh worked in a shop that produced wooden figurines sold to tourists. But when the foreigners stopped coming after the uprising, his work evaporated.
He moved to Luxor to take a job at a cheese factory. He earns less, and they live in a much smaller apartment now. As his parents sit in the simple living room, scolding his toddler son, Riadh holds up an example of his previous work – a carved wooden elephant.