May 8, 2012

Back to Egypt

by Denise Hearst

On Easter Sunday I saddled up my gelding and rode up into the spring-green hills where California buttercup, blue-eyed grass and the first lupines were starting to bloom, a tranquil Pacific Ocean in the distance. Songbirds trilled for mates and the resident redtails glided into the sycamores carrying nest-building materials. It was one of those charmed early spring days in California. 

Just two weeks before, I had been in Egypt for a short visit. It’s certainly not “springtime” there. As some may remember, I was unlucky enough to be in Cairo when the revolution began last year (story in the March 2011 issue, page 10). Now, a year later, I was eager to see my friends in Cairo and to hear how their lives had changed and see how the country’s Arabian stables had been affected. So after the Dubai show, and a quick stop in Israel to visit Chen Kedar and the beautiful horses of Ariela Arabians, I spent four short days in Cairo.

As I checked into the Mena House, the manager smiled and said he had a surprise for me. He led me up the stairs in the old palace wing of the hotel and threw open the doors to the Om Kolthoum suite, its two balconies open to the pyramids just across the street. There was an alabaster bowl filled with fresh fruit, dark wood-paneled walls, lovely oriental carpets, and a vase of yellow roses on the shiny brass table. “Welcome home,” he said. I was touched by this unexpected kindness, but it’s how I’ve come to know the Egyptian people — hospitable, funny, warm, and welcoming. Today, the Egyptians I know are far more somber, and concerned for their future. 

Hotels in Cairo stand nearly empty. The staff put a brave face on it, and try hard to make their guests feel at ease but their worry is palpable. With the grand Mena House at just fifteen to twenty-five percent occupancy, Hany Aziz, the charming, calm, and soft-spoken rooms division manager, confided that so far the hotel had managed not to lay off staff by reducing hours instead. They are hopeful things will turn around soon, “Next year, inshallah.” 

On the streets there is an edgy vibe, and near the pyramids it turns to desperation. Young men swarm the few taxis, begging the drivers to take their foreign passengers to their shops or horses or camels. Lines of cars sit for blocks around the petrol stations due to fuel shortages. With the former antiquities chief, Zahi Hawass, having been sacked, and a government with other priorities, I saw evidence of rampant looting of antiquities in the desert. Somehow, the Son et Lumière show goes on, playing to mostly empty seats in the empty desert. 

Shortly before I arrived one of my riding buddies, Karen, who lives in Giza, wrote to me: “Business is almost nonexistent in all tourism-related companies. Security is a major issue here now. Gone are the days when you could leave your house or car open. Handbag snatching, carjacking, and worse happen regularly. Life has changed here and we have to change with it. Life at the stables is also really tough — they go for days and days without any business and when it does come, it nowhere near pays for the upkeep of so many horses. It is really heartbreaking to see the stables being cleaned, horses being showered and prepared for nothing. The guys are all very low because they know that they have to keep going somehow as when business does pick up they will need to have decent horses to retain the business and be ready.” 

Several aid groups have stepped in to help feed the horses and donkeys in the village near the pyramids, all suffering from lack of tourists. And of course, politically, the developments are not encouraging. 

We asked some our friends who live in Cairo to share their stories. 

Nasr Marei, Albadeia Stud, Giza, Cairo:

January 25, 2011, will live to be a landmark where the history of 7,000-year-old Egypt has taken an abrupt turn into a new path. It is not the first time in history that Egypt’s future faces turbulence and radical transformation. This time, it is a change that had to come and was overdue to alter our political, economic, and social lifestyles that were desperate for reforms. We all knew that the thirty-year-old regime of the ex-president had to come to an end. These three decades led the country to an explosive situation that was ready to erupt at any point in time. The deterioration of education, health care, housing for middle and low class people, a high rate of unemployment, uneven distribution of wealth, wasting resources, corruption, lack of transparency and democracy were among other factors that led worried people to expect the eruption.

The question was, “who will trigger that eruption and how will it come about?” Is it going to be the mighty armed forces, Security and Police establishments, popular uprising, Islamists and radicals? No one really knew.

On January 25, 2011, a few hundred college students and young patriots driven by their need for reform and worried about their own and the country’s future took to the streets and Tahrir Square to trigger the chain of effects that we know all too well through the media. The three-decade-old stagnant leadership had failed to provide them with their basic needs and essentials and had never fulfilled its promises for a decent life.

These young patriots were not organized or backed by parties nor did they have leadership. Their free spirit and inspiration fueled their spontaneous uprising. Their zeal for a brighter future was their only backing. Millions of Egyptians gave them their unconditional support once the chain of events was sparked.

But soon other better-organized and better-funded parties seized this golden opportunity and took over their revolution. The once outlawed well-funded and better-organized Muslim Brotherhood pushed them aside and hijacked their revolution in no time. The transitional Military Council that was to rule the country and prepare for the election of the new houses of the parliament, establish the new constitution, and prepare grounds for the presidential election, declared that they would not interfere or back or oppose any political power in their struggle. They have chosen to safeguard the country for a few months (ending June 2012). It was left to the civil institutions to decide which path to take.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s political party took over the parliamentary elections with over 50 percent of seats and the Salfay (a radical Muslim group) took another 20 percent. All other parties, mostly liberal, shared the remaining 30 percent. The presidential elections will be held in June and again we are facing the same fate as it appears now. 

The cultured, educated, liberal and progressive minority oppose turning the country into an Iran-like structure where traditional Islamists and more radical offshoots would rule Egypt. 

Our country, through its 7,000-year history, was at the crossroads of all cultures and religions. East and West met here and formed a cultural structure that is unique to Egypt. Most of us, liberals and progressives, want to maintain this structure and not tilt to any religious political rule.

During the turmoil and for at least a year after the revolution, normal people like myself faced uncertainty and experienced fear. Not because of the revolution itself but because of the by-products that resulted from the chaos and anarchy which ensued due to the power struggle between all sides involved. Homes, businesses, and cars were vandalized. People were mugged and murdered in the streets for no reason. All old vendettas (political and personal) were being settled, and a total lack of security reigned. The crime rate skyrocketed, and massive illegal arms (light and heavy) smuggling from west, east, and south borders took place. 

All of that was a by-product that threatened all Egyptians. Many left the country. Others closed their businesses. Companies and factories were closed. Bankruptcy was massive. People revolted in the streets, disrupting highways and trains. No one was spared and all were traumatized. 

In addition to the political fallout, the economic future is in jeopardy. Foreign currency reserves went down from $38 billion (January 25, 2011) to less than $8 billion today. Egyptian and foreign investments ceased. Tourism, a major contributor to the Egyptian economy grossing billions of dollars per year, was down to 10 percent of its level prior to the revolution. Unless some stability is established soon and clear vision and serious planning applied, including very difficult austerity measures taken NOW, it is possible that Egypt will face bankruptcy.

Given the input that I have now, Egypt in the future will go through very difficult times before it gets better. It may take a few years, even decades to recover. The question now is, where will we be going? Which direction will we choose? Radicalism or liberalism?  Maybe a mixture of both? Turkey, for example, has managed that in a successful way. A similar system could work here as well. Unfortunately, I have no clear answer to this. 

A final note to Arabian horse breeders and lovers who are reading this. During the last 20 years, the Egyptian Arabian horse “industry” has flourished; there has been a renaissance. The number of breeders went from 10-20 to over 500 registered programs at present. The number of registered horses grew from a couple of thousand to almost 6,000. More important, the quality of the horses improved significantly.

We all as breeders are worried about the future of our herd and programs. The economy and the prevailing restlessness open different scenarios. Some of these scenarios are quite pessimistic and I know of some breeders who are selling their horses or will do so. Others are slowing down. Fewer are still optimistic and going full steam ahead. I believe that the global economy, the crisis in Egypt and the saturated markets and the show trends are all factors that pose paramount challenges to the breeders in Egypt at present. 

Egypt faced incredible perils in the past and survived. We hope and pray that this will be another test to overcome.

Pat Canfield, Maadi, Cairo: 

More than a year after the revolution in Egypt, it seems clear that there have been no substantive positive changes. What the country has been dealing with is a total disruption of services and familiar modes of living. Security was the major casualty with many examples of outright criminality that were left unchecked. Inflation is spiraling upwards and food is becoming out of reach for many of the people in poverty, which leads to further desperation.

Egypt had always been a safe country. It still is but to a much lesser degree. We all know many people who have been personally affected by crime. I have not personally been threatened but my way of moving about has changed. We cannot feel safe going out at night and indeed often by day. We try to continue life as it was but we can never not be aware of our situation and are always on guard.

The Egyptian people themselves have been greatly thrown into disarray by all of this. Initially, there was great hope and enthusiasm about their future. Now there is only confusion and dismay. None of what they perceived as promises have materialized. The political atmosphere is volatile with no clear vision of where it is going. What I hear from many Egyptians is that they only want to live, work, and build a future for their children.

They are a good and decent people overall. Throughout the revolution, I was greeted with kindness by shop clerks and many people on the streets. They are now the most disappointed of all. Those groups that began the demonstrations have mostly disappeared, and the small groups with an agenda of self-interest are popping up in coffeehouses all over Egypt, but they contribute nothing to the process.

At this point, we are all awaiting the presidential election at the end of May. Hopefully that will give some indication of where we are going and things can start to fall into order of some sort. The country deserves that much.

Bridget McKinney, Zamalek, Cairo:

My husband Rob and I transferred to Cairo in 1995 from Muscat, Oman, where we had been living and working since 1986. From 1995 until our retirement in 2010, Rob worked as a professor of Arabic poetry at the American University in Cairo and I was the managing partner of the Cairo office of an international law firm based in London. Having retired in 2010, we spend quality time with our two horses, Sharbat and Nessim, riding the Pyramids plateau. 

The joyful, inspirational, dramatic, and in many cases, tragic early days of the revolution left us hopeful and so proud of the sons and daughters of our neighbors and friends here in Cairo, never fearful, even when the fighter jets we watched from our balcony passed low over downtown. When the security and police vanished, everyone took it upon themselves to protect the neighborhood as best they could. A new sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ took hold and lasted for some time. Again, we were so proud of Egypt. 

Tahrir Square was like “home,” the core or heart of the event. There was a feeling of wanting to be there and that feeling lasted through Mubarak’s fall and beyond. Then there was a retrenchment; the objective was achieved, what next? Some say that they left Tahrir too soon. During this quiet, an unease developed: Where are we going? Who’s in charge? Who’s pulling the strings? 

We asked ourselves, what is our threshold? When is it too much? When is it time to leave? We watched expat friends leave Egypt throughout the summer and into the fall. We always said that we would only go when we felt ourselves personally threatened and we haven’t so far. Of course, we live in Zamalek which, by virtue of the fact that there are so many foreign embassies here, is well protected, and our horses are somewhat outside the area of concern. But as your readers may know from reports from, the, and Kiwicare (whose missions were incredible) and your own recent visit, as well as the many published photos of the emaciated horses in the Pyramid area, there is a very sad story out there. The owners are struggling to keep their horses, their livelihood, alive, if barely. The price of feed has gone sky high, tourists are nonexistent. 

What’s the future? We have presidential elections coming up and since there is no constitution and therefore no special constitutional role for a president, it is anyone’s guess as to who might be elected and what that person might be in a position to do. It is thought that the elections, as the signal for the military to go back to barracks, might settle certain levels of anxiety. 

We are all living in a miasma of uncertainty right now. But I think we also trust that eventually the interests of individual parties, regions, and people will merge with the best interests of the nation. We do believe that that will happen.