A land of pharaohs, pyramids, ancient tombs, hieroglyphs, deserts and much more – Egypt is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating countries in the world. I first visited back in 2005, doing the full tourist thing and taking in Giza and it’s pyramids, Luxor and it’s temples, Aswan, Abu Simbel and, of course, the mighty River Nile. This time, though, I was a world away from the tourist trail and was roaming the streets of Cairo’s bustling expatriate neighbourhoods.
The last couple of years have seen Egypt in the global spotlight for reasons other than those I’ve mentioned. After the Tunisian uprising at the end of 2010, many other Arab nations followed suit and in January 2011 the people of Egypt began their own protests at the government. By February the president Hosni Mubarak had resigned as the revolution was in full swing. Daily protests and news of deaths and acts of barbarity were common on Western news bulletins for several weeks as Tahrir Square, in the heart of Cairo, became the focal point of the population’s grievances. From the outside it perhaps appeared that Egypt was in complete turmoil and life there had become extremely dangerous.
In the early and uncertain days at the height of the crisis many foreign governments evacuated their staff from Egypt and international corporations did the same, fearing for the welfare of their expatriate staff and families. Not long after, the fears for personal safety receded as it was clear that it was the government who were the targets of protestation and not foreign workers. Over 600 people were killed during the revolution and still to this day there is sporadic dissent and demonstrations, although not on the scale of two years ago.
My experience of Cairo was very much as I expected it to be – a blend of traditional Egyptian culture, chaotic (death defying) driving and the glam of the upmarket neighbourhoods and malls. Cairo is the most populated city in Africa and the Middle East with some 18 million people crammed in to the wider metropolitan area, and the third largest outside Asia. Egypt is also the driest country in the world, the vast majority of it being desert. The fertile plains of the River Nile, though, have supported human settlements for thousands of years.
Today, the River Nile meanders its way through Cairo and it was on the east bank where I headed first to the Maadi district of the city. Maadi, ten kilometres south of the city centre, is considered one of the most desirable areas of Cairo and has become somewhat of an expatriate enclave. Home to many international schools and with a more laid back air, the streets saw little of the protests during the revolution. In fact the current lack of street patrols which were common before the uprising in Maadi’s popular café district along Road no. 9 has led to a more cosmopolitan European feel.
Not all changes resulting from Egypt’s new found democracy have been positive though. Unemployment has risen, as well as Egypt’s budget deficit. More worrying for expats and foreign companies working in the country is that foreign currency reserves have depleted at an alarming rate since the beginning of this year. This has meant that obtaining US dollars or euros to import goods has proved more difficult. The reduction of previous fuel subsidies, the depreciating Egyptian pound, rising inflation and falling tourist revenue all add to a rather negative current outlook. Having highlighted these issues, however, Cairo is still ranked as one of the major economies in the Middle East.
After Maadi I visited another favourite expatriate district of Cairo – Heliopolis. The distances between districts in Cairo can be long and my ten kilometre taxi journey between the two took over an hour and a half. Not only is the traffic in Cairo heavy and congested it also seems that the taxi drivers have a death wish. It’s not unknown to see cars weaving in and out of each other six abreast in a two-lane section of road. Crossing the road as a pedestrian can also be an exciting challenge. The trick is quite simple really; you just walk out in to the street with no hesitation! The local drivers seem to have a knack for timing their driving with the predicted path of your walk across the street. So, what at first appears to be a bunch of crazy drivers are actually fairly clued up. Still it’s a nerve-wracking experience on Cairo’s streets for any visitor.
Close to Heliopolis is the new CityStars Mall, the largest in Egypt and home to many exclusives brands which are found in only a few cities in Africa, mostly South Africa. Inside the mall all sense of traditional Egyptian culture has been swallowed by the glossy marble floors and booming bass sounds coming from the foyer of the latest 3D cinema multiplex. So if you’re visiting Egypt in the near future for the first time I suggest you steer clear of Maadi and Heliopolis and head to the famous tourist spots, but if you’re off to live there then you’ll find both Maadi and Heliopolis have a good mix of all things Egyptian as well as your home comforts.
Next week Rachel will be reporting from the Arab capital of Tourism 2014 – where could that possibly be?