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Friday, May 31, 2013

Don’t Go Near The Pyramids

“Emergencies' have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded.” — Friedrich August von Hayek

In the summer of 1995 I had some business meetings Cairo, a city I will never return to. After the meetings were over I had a free day prior to my flight home so I hired a driver at the hotel and ventured out to Giza Plateau to see the Great Pyramids.

It was a hot muggy day at the plateau. I trudged up to the Great Pyramid with its cadre of independent guides standing about and trying to negotiate a commission from you. I selected a guide who I could understand and he led me into the pyramid. You cannot go in without a guide, or so I was told and I didn’t have the time to argue about it. To enter the narrow passage way and descend on a steep angle until you meet another passageway where you climb a bit and then enter a small room called the Queen’s chamber. After Seeing the Queen’s Chamber I decided I had enough and left the pyramid for fresh air. I you suffer any form of claustrophobia I would recommend that you not go into the pyramid, it’s a very tight fit

After exiting the Pyramid the guide suggested we take a camel over the view the Sphinx. This sounded like a good idea until I mounted the camel. If you have never ridden a camel you should be forewarned that they spit and bite. Camels come in two types, Dromedary and Bactrian. The Dromedary, or Arabian, has one hump and the Bactrian has two. Most of the world’s camels are Dromedary, Believe it or not camels are2005.0012 known for their healthy low fat milk. I sure would not like to milk a camel. This camel was muzzled and the guide walked along side leading the camel as we bounced around crossing the dessert plateau. As we rode along, little kids were chasing us trying to sell us drinks of Coca Cola out of plastic liter bottles for one US Dollar. Had the kids been selling sealed bottles of water I would have probably bought one for five dollars. They really should review their sales and marketing schemes. All during the ride I was trying to take some photos. I was about 10 feet in the air at my shoulders and I had a great view over the plateau when I wasn’t bouncing up and down like cork in a bottle. I managed to take one or two shots when the camel reached the zenith of his upward bounce, timing was critical.

When we reached the Sphinx, the ride was over and I paid the guide his one hundred Egyptian Pounds, which at the time was slightly under twenty US Dollars. Believe me the experience was well worth it. As in all tourist locations, you cannot leave without passing through the “museum”, which in reality is a gift shop. This museum, specializing in ancient papyruses, was about one hundred yards from the car park where my driver was waiting. The driver strongly recommended this shop as the best with the fairest prices; they always do for it is where they get a commission from the sales they generate. This bothers some people, but not me. I look upon it as free market entrepreneurship. Unless they put a gun to your head or threaten your family you do not have to enter the shop. The driver will try to convince you to go in and browse and will no doubt sulk if you say no, but it’s the way they make a living.

I browsed the store and was fascinated by some of the papyrus art. There were two in particular depicting the Ancient Egyptian’s understanding of the final judgment where man is judged for his acts before being allowed to enter the afterlife. It was about four feet wide by one and a half feet tall and great colors. The other was about eleven by fourteen inches and depicted the Egyptian Hieroglyphic alphabet. On a crazy whim I bought both of them for two hundred and fifty Egyptian Pounds or fifty US Dollars. They rolled them into a tube-like configuration and all I had to do now was pack them carefully in my suitcase. I did get them home undamaged and to my surprise Kathy really liked them. We had them professionally framed for seven times the cost of each papyrus and today they hang in our living room as a constant reminder of my adventure in Egypt. I have never returned to Cairo or Egypt and after September 11, 2001 I would never do so. It was a nice short visit to see something I always wanted to see. (Excerpt from my book: Footsteps on the Land.)

Today the American embassy in Cairo had bad news for anyone traveling to Egypt: For now, the pyramids in Giza should be considered off limits — at least if you're visiting without a trusted guide.

Describing a pattern of increasing lawlessness at the iconic tourist destination outside Cairo, the embassy is warning that some visitors have found their cars surrounded by angry individuals, and that in some cases those individuals have tried to open the doors. Here's the embassy's warning about the pyramids in full, according to Graham Harman the associate provost for research administration at the American University in Cairo:

“In recent weeks, the U.S. Embassy has become aware of an increasing number of incidents at or near the Giza Pyramids. The majority of these incidents are attributed to over-aggressive vendors, though the degree of aggressiveness in some cases is closer to criminal conduct. Other more serious incidents have been reported involving vehicles nearing the Pyramids, with angry groups of individuals surrounding and pounding on the vehicles - and in some cases attempting to open the vehicle's doors. While the motive is less clear (possibly related to carriage operators wanting fares), it has severely frightened several visitors. A common theme from many of these reports is the lack of visible security or police in the vicinity of the Pyramids. U.S. citizens should elevate their situational awareness when traveling to the Pyramids, avoid any late evening or night travel, utilize a recommended or trusted guide, and closely guard valuables. Though other tourist locations have not been brought to Embassy attention, these measures are also recommended at all crowded or popular tourist sites.”

Writing on his blog, Harman echoes the embassy's warning. Don't "even think of going to the Pyramids unless you’re on a large organized bus tour," he says.

Turbulence at the pyramids is terrible news for Egypt, whose economy is in a tailspin at the moment. Tourism has been a source of strength for the country's economy in the past, but it has also struggled enormously in the aftermath of the revolution, whose accompanying chaos has understandably scared off many tourists from visiting.

The 2011 revolution that toppled Morsi’s predecessor, former dictator Hosni Mubarak, was inspired by—in addition to police abuse and suffocating repression — the dire financial straits most Egyptians faced. Alongside Tahrir Square’s famous anti-Mubarak chants, protesters also rallied around a more basic slogan, in which the first demand went to the needs of the dinner table: “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice.”

Under Morsi, however, who became Egypt’s first democratically elected president in June, the economy is now faring even worse. And with Morsi’s government reluctant to tackle serious reform, and the country’s politics gridlocked, analysts say, it only looks likely to keep fading. “Things are going steadily worse in the economy, and the politics is becoming more polarized,” says Mohsin Khan, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former director of the International Monetary Fund’s Middle East and Central Asia department. “I really don’t see a way out in the near future.”

The economic malaise is once again helping to bring protesters to the streets, calling for Morsi’s overthrow—as they once did Mubarak’s. At the ongoing demonstrations, alongside grievances over Morsi’s politics, young Egyptians regularly complain that they just can’t find work. “People don’t feel that the economic policy of Morsi is different from the economic policy of Mubarak,” says Hassan Aly, a professor at Ohio State University who specializes in Middle Eastern economies.

Mike Giglio writes in the Daily Beast:

“Mubarak led Egypt for 30 years, and during his tenure, the Arab world’s most powerful and populous country saw its resources squandered regularly on mismanagement and corruption. But Mubarak’s final decade brought steady economic growth as the regime pursued liberalizing reforms. The problem for most Egyptians was what economists called “growth without development.” While a small segment of the population grew wealthier—mainly regime loyalists—almost everyone else continued to struggle, with millions forced to get by on less than $2 a day.

Now, economists say, Egypt’s growth has slowed to a crawl. The economy is expected to expand slightly this year, but far less than it should, meaning that unemployment will continue to rise. The unrest that has defined Egypt since the revolution, meanwhile, has seen capital flee the country while political instability keeps investors at bay. Foreign reserves have dwindled, and the Egyptian pound has dipped. The constant chaos has also drained Egypt’s tourism industry, leaving the economy with two main lifelines: aid from allies and remittances from Egyptians working abroad.

Rachel Ziemba, the director of emerging markets at Roubini Global Economics, notes that the seeds for Egypt’s economic troubles were planted by Mubarak. In addition to saddling the country with corruption and unemployment, Mubarak’s government borrowed heavily to finance stimulus packages during the worldwide economic downturn, leaving Morsi to pick up the tab. “You had that whole period where people weren’t sharing the wealth. And then you had the global financial crisis, [with] the government draining its resources trying to keep the show on the road,” she says. “Morsi and his government didn’t really have a very strong hand to play.”

But Morsi “came to power with a lot of global willingness to help and invest,” Ziemba adds, only to let the opportunity go to waste as it fought bitterly with political opponents and failed to produce a serious economic game plan—“kicking the can down the road,” as Ziemba puts it. “Many of the economic triggers for the revolution are not only still present, but the economic conditions are arguably even worse,” she says.

Morsi’s government, says Khan, the former IMF official, “has done nothing on the economic indicators. But more importantly, it has done really nothing on some of the economic reasons for the uprising: rising inequality, rising unemployment, badly skewed wealth distribution. None of those things have been addressed.”

Already beset by crisis and eroding political support, the new government has seemed unwilling to push the potentially unpopular measures that analysts say are needed to repair the economy, such as increasing sales tax and cutting back on subsidies. “[Morsi] has made the political calculation that it’s just too costly,” Khan says.

Egypt’s political stalemate, Khan adds, has intensified the problems, with many observers blaming it for the delay of a critical IMF loan. (Egypt’s point man in the tumultuous negotiations resigned this week.) “Everyone is looking to the IMF to help out,” Khan says. “But the IMF’s position is [that they] want broad political consensus and broad political support for any program. There’s no way they’re going to get it.”

Aly, of Ohio State, criticizes Morsi for installing an inexperienced economic team that seemed to “give priority to the people you trust over the people who have experience.” But while Egypt’s economic woes have caused some analysts to warn of another upheaval—the term “revolution of the hungry” has gained currency lately—there are signs that Morsi will be able to muddle through, in the near-term at least, possibly buying time until parliamentary elections can help to stabilize the country politically.

Egypt has a bumper crop of wheat, Aly notes, which should keep down food costs. And Morsi’s greatest economic success has come in keeping the aid money flowing from wealthy allies who are likely wary of the fallout should Egypt slide into chaos. Qatar has made headlines with increasing billions in support, while countries such as Turkey and Libya are also helping to keep Egypt afloat. “Regional powers are not going to just let go,” Aly says. “They have this concern that Egypt is too big to fail. They cannot have a ‘failing state’ with Egypt’s size and influence on their doorsteps.”

Now with Egypt’s economy in the tank and Morsi’s crackdown on dissidents and Christians, and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood the country is for more problems as the tourist industry will begin to dry up. This latest warning from the State Department shows just how successful the so-called Arab Spring really was.

In short, if you visit Egypt in the near future, don’t even think of going to the Pyramids unless you’re on a large organized bus tour. Anything else is a big risk, for now.

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