Few places illustrate Egypts hard times more clearly than the pyramids.
The Giza pyramids, the best known of the ancient tombs, are just outside Cairo. Driving there from the center of the city, you dont pass through any empty spaces. At one point you see that youre in the suburb of Giza. Then you turn left onto a circular road – and there they are.
It used to take two hours sometimes to get from here to the gate, said Habib, my driver, as we entered. That was before the revolution. This time we sped right around the large, mostly empty parking area. Habib dropped me off and I bought my ticket. There was no one in line.
First, though, he warned me sternly not to talk to anyone and not to give my ticket to anyone once inside. Theyre desperate, he said.
Even before we got to the site, young men ran alongside Habibs car, asking to be hired as guides. They can smell tourists, said the soft-spoken driver with a smile, without stopping.
Theres a vast plaza in front of the largest pyramid, the tomb of Khufu, also known as Cheops, towering over the desert for more than 4,500 years. If it could tell stories, it would relate the tales of the dynasties of ancient Egypt, its glory and its degradation, its occupation and liberation, right down to the present – the aftermath of the popular revolt that unseated longtime President Hosni Mubarak almost two years ago.
If the huge, imposing pyramid were sensitive to noise, it would be feeling pretty good right now. There are few people to break the silence. The last survivor of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World is practically abandoned by the modern world.
A dozen or so tourists climbed a little way up the pyramid to an artificial entrance. Some went in, others just climbed back down. A group of Japanese tourists, a single busload, walked by, following their guide.
That was it.
So no wonder the men hawking souvenirs and men with nothing to sell except themselves (Here, give me your camera, Ill take your picture) were overeager. There were more of them than tourists. As the bus carrying the Japanese pulled up, the dozens of hawkers converged on the visitors like bees on a hive.
The picture of Habib and me cost 50 cents.
Later I talked to Mohammed, one of the young men, as he pressed a headdress into my hand. He told me what was obvious – There are no tourists here, I cant make enough money to feed my family – and I gave him three dollars. He kept asking for more.
All over Egypt, there are scenes of desperation like this in different configurations. There are no accurate unemployment statistics, but the majority of people here are poor, with little hope for improvement.
The macro figures almost speak for themselves.
After pouring billions into the market to prop up the Egyptian pound, Egypts central bank had to give up when the level of its foreign currency reserves dropped to what it called a critical level, enough for just three months of imports, like food. It devised a scheme to control devaluation of the currency, and it lost only 7 percent of its value in two weeks. That is likely just the start.
Foreign investment has dried up along with tourism, for the same reason. Foreigners are frightened about the political instability.
Egypt elected an Islamist president. Courts dissolved the elected Islamist-dominated parliament. Riots accompanied the process of drafting and approving a constitution. Parliamentary elections loom in the next two months or so, and that probably means more street confrontations.
Eventually the political turmoil will subside. Then the government will have to deal seriously with the economy.
The International Monetary Fund is negotiating with Egypt for a $4.8 billion loan, but it has conditions. Among them: collecting more taxes and cutting subsidies, which eat up a third of the budget but prevent starvation.
The president announced some relatively minor tax hikes, then rescinded them as unrest over the constitution escalated. At some point he will have to make these measures stick. As a politician, he will probably try to put that off until after the election. Then the real trouble might start, as austerity measures begin to bite.
Whatever the internal reasons, the picture of Egypt presented to the world is unchanged since the uprising – instability, conflict, turmoil – the image that has driven foreign investors and tourists away for the last two years.
In fact, the violence is localized around a few government buildings, a palace and a downtown square. There is more street crime than before, but before it was almost nonexistent. Though there can be no guarantees anywhere, people who take the obvious precautions are pretty safe.
Even the hawkers and the camel drivers are relatively polite. If you ask them to leave you alone, eventually they do.
So now is the time to visit Egypt. Youll have the pyramids all to yourself.