global politics, relationally

Touring Political and Historical Cairo

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Old Cairo, Modern Cairo, and Revolutionary Cairo all clash in devastating and fascinating ways. This blog will serve a bit as a travelogue and observations about political events, but I have nothing really profound to say.  I am not an Egyptologist and have not spent much time studying revolutions. DSC_0021

Egypt is not in chaos, but it certainly is not stable.  The recent decision to condemn the post-Revolution leader Morsi seems problematic, to put things mildly.  What is even more confusing is that basic information, like what time it is in Egypt, is open to interpretation. Sisi decided to forgo Daylight Savings Time, an interesting choice in that every clock, cell phone signal, and internet resource gives conflicting advice on what time it is.   Egypt is basically an island in time, different from its neighbors.

Tourist Cairo and Operational Security

The primary reason to visit Cairo remains the pyramids, sites incredible to see to this day and the last of the ancient wonders to still stand. Everyone should see them at some point, the size and scale is impressive. What is even more impressive overall is the statement made by them and their enduring nature. Some are as old as 5,000 years and they still stand massive testaments to human ingenuity and creativity.

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The guides make it a point to reinforce the idea that the pyramids were built by paid volunteers, and this is likely given the hieroglyphs, but we can never be certain that all the builders were voluntary.  This generally fits into the idea that the Egyptian is not to be dominated or controled, they allow their rulers to rule with consent, even to this day and the narrative holds.  But who is really in control?

The most troubling part of the pyramids is the lack of any real security.  The tourist police are there, but they seem sleepy and inactive. They point their weapons every which way, including my friend’s head while they searched his bag.  I was assured that their weapons are not loaded, but that begs a deeper question, what if something does happen as it did in Tunisia and they are needed.  Make no mistake Cairo is safe and the Egyptian army feared, but so was New York City in 2001.


Ramses II in Memphis


The Arab Winter

The Arab Spring and the revolution are spoke of in almost spiteful ways. We heard the term Arab Winter more often than Arab Spring. For the Egyptians, the revolution in 2011 was an important and hopeful event.  An event that only got them something worse and they reverted right back to the stability of the military, the dominating institution in the state.  Yet I do not see stability. Traffic laws are not obeyed, civil law seems to have no force. Prices depend on the whim of the vendor and the American dollar is almighty.  The casino at the Hilton takes no Egyptian Pounds.

Studies over and over suggest that to complete a revolution or transition, there needs to be some hope and I see no hope in Egypt.  They are happy with some form of stability, but this stability is precarious and seems to be a bit of a powder keg.  Flirting with Russia will not help matters given the likely negative consequences for the Egyptian-American relationship. Their relationship with Israel is complex (to put things mildly) and the continued closed border prevents Palestine from getting aid.  All these issues will come to a head at some point.  The tension of Islam, the American support, the Russian support, and the duplicity of supporting Israel over Palestine.  Each issue festers.


large gates installed to stop protesters in the future


new barrier

The stains of the revolution remain and I apparently went to great lengths to take these pictures.  At one point I was stopped by an undercover operative for taking pictures.  I played dumb and walked away, lucky to not get three hours in an intelligence center where Googling my background would not likely have helped matters.DSC00124

Political Cairo stands tall in the walls and alleys, but it also seems to cover up the horrors of the revolution.  It’s not really clear what is behind the graffiti.  Would that be new facades covering up the bullet marked walls of old? Or newly painted walls covering up the traumas of the events in 2011.


All these are from a spot where tanks supposedly mowed down protestors


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Barbered wires and barriers remain, just about everywhere.  The city is ready to be locked down at a moment’s notice.  There seems to be a whole regiment of tanks hidden behind the Egyptian Museum and in Tahir square.  There are machine guns and blast guards everywhere, the Egyptian military is prepared, even if the tourist police is not.  This is concerning since it suggests there is more care given to internal threats than external ones.


Line of tanks next to the Egyptian Museum just by Tahir Square, amazed I even got this shot – had to zoom in from a pic far away


Outside Coptic Cairo

close up behind mues

View tanks after they moved from the Hilton


The Nature of Identity

It was often said to me that all Egyptians want to leave as soon as possible, but they are unable to.  Most skilled works seem to be exploring options away from the country, but their options are limited given their status.  Expats are in an envious position of being in town by choice and able to leave at any time.  Others are no so lucky.

What was striking to me was the fluid nature of identity.  Everyone through I was Egyptian, to the point that they would violently yell at me if I did not answer back in Arabic.  Their assured nature in addressing me was confusing, given my clothes and general appearance I would think they might give pause if I failed to answer in Arabic, but they seemed more determined despite apparent obstacles.

I do recommend that everyone goes to Egypt at least once in their lifetime.  It is safe for now and likely will be continue to be safe.  But take precautions.  Bring American Dollars (even if you come from Europe).  Hire solid and young tour guides that will protect you in case of danger or from the salesmen trying to pass off shoddy trinkets.  Be aware at all times, not so much of thieves and violence, but any flares in violence in that the police and military are around at all times and they generally do not seem that well trained.DSC00112

My trip to Cairo was incredible, and thankfully short.  Giza, Memphis and Saqqara can be done in one day.  The Egyptian museum and Old Cairo in another, heading out the next for Luxor (which we did not visit) before returning by plane to Cairo on the way out.

Author: Brandon Valeriano

Brandon Valeriano is the Donald Bren Chair of Armed Politics at the Marine Corps University.

  • John

    I am sympathetic to people unacquainted with the Middle East making certain assumptions but I must, really, take exception to much of the contents of this post. Even more so since it was written by a Political Science professor.

    Let’s take each point in turn.

    1. The pyramids are in Giza, part of greater Cairo, but not Cairo.

    2. The lack of security at the pyramids is certainly true, but your interpretation is interesting. This ‘lack of security’ is worrying only to westerners who have become accustomed to hyper-security of any public site. While there is certainly a risk of terrorism in Egypt, it is notable that the lack of security around these sites is testament to the safety of the Arab world in general: rates of theft and robbery are much lower than in the U.S. or Europe, for example, and walking in the streets is- simply- ‘safer.’ Your worry is vis-a-vis terrorism, which is justifiable, but don’t simply assume this is about incompetence. it is also about a mindset that does not prioritise security above all else for everyday affairs (this says nothing about ‘internal security’). Your comparison to 9/11 makes clear the linkage in your mind; it is- perhaps- a good thing that others do not make such immediate leaps.

    3. Who is speaking about the Arab ‘Spring’ (n.b. it is never called this in Arabic) in ‘spiteful’ ways? You show a clear lack of knowledge about the people who are ‘spiteful’ about not the Arab Spring but the ousting of Morsi. The MB is still very well supported in Egypt, even if you see Sisi more.

    4. Do not equate people not following traffic laws with a lack of stability; dear god. Read some ethnomethodology. Better yet, read Said, and consider the Orientalist nature of such assumptions.

    5. ‘Flirting’ with Russia is not a-priori bad, since the Americans have done no good.

    6. What exactly is the ‘tension OF Islam’? Being charitable I presume you mean ongoing debates about its status in society. In that case, be much more careful with your phrasing. The great majority o Egyptians are Muslim, if there was an innate ‘tension OF Islam’ then the country has no hope. Luckily, there is not.

    7. Stop taking pictures of military installations. Would you be surprised if people were upset about you taking pictures of U.S. military installations? Seriously.

    8. The graffiti is wonderful, despite discussing traumas. Discuss the positive too: the flourishing of the cultural scene post-2011.

    9. “The cit is ready to be locked down at a moment’s notice.” Much like London or New York, then.

    10. Stop taking pictures of tanks…..

    11. If some Egyptians want to leave the country (not all, please) then it is for economic reasons, principally. Yes, the socio-political situation is a driver in some cases but in most cases it is about economic survival. Go to other cities in the Middle East and note the Egyptian restaurant workers, etc. Be more nuanced in your analyses.

    12. The Arabic issue was likely because you were speaking to people who did not speak a foreign language. The fact that you protested not speaking Arabic/not being an Egyptian might well have been interpreted (if you look even vaguely what might pass as ‘Arab’) as meaning you were an Arabic speaker from elsewhere in the region speaking a distinct dialect. Egyptian Arabic is not the same as Moroccan, or Iraqi. They are quite often mutually incomprehensible. If they become “more determined” my guess was they were switching the Fusha (classical arabic) or Levantine Arabic, as best they good, to try and communicate with you. This was a courtsey, probably.

    13. OK, bring American dollars? Even if you come from Europe? Really? Never once have I been in Egypt had a problem changing any form of currency. This ‘American dollars’ advice seems like something out of a 1960s travel guide. Those ATMs also work, by the way. No need for cash.

    14. Tour guides? They really don’t need to protect you from danger. Hire them if you wish, but it’s not necessary. Just tip well…

    15. The military no that well trained? Says much about the U.S. military training.

    Anyway, apologies for the length and if this seemed necessarily antagonistic. But much of my complaints could have been avoided with a bit of basic advanced-reading and general sensibilities, which Political Scientists should possess, to the world outside Euro-America.