Australians in Egypt should avoid all demonstrations, protests and large crowds as they may turn violent.
That is why when Kara and I found ourselves in the middle of a large street parade in Luxor on the anniversary of the revolution, we were a little concerned. Okay, more than a little.
Our whole experience of Egypt has been, at least partially, affected by the media coverage of Egypt in Australia.
We almost didn’t come to Egypt. When we realised we would be here on the 3rd anniversary of the revolution, falling shortly after the constitutional referendum and not particularly long after the Muslim Brotherhood were banned in Egypt, we had a few serious conversations about not coming at all.
For the most part our stay in Egypt, predominantly in Cairo so far, had been peaceful and easy and comfortable. The hawkers had been the biggest problem by far. When we visited the Egyptian Museum, which is at Tahrir Square, we saw the clearest sign of the underlying tensions in Egypt.
Dozens of armoured personnel carriers, which are essentially small tanks, lined the side streets. They weren’t empty, either. All had troops on board, including someone manning the big gun on the top. The troops themselves were in good spirits and we were free to walk in amongst the vehicles, but that’s not something you see in Aus.
There are scenes like this everywhere, troops (and heavily armed police) manning check points and stationed outside government buildings. They stand around casually, not particularly alert. When we asked one soldier for directions he inadvertently pointed his assault rifle at both Kara and I repeatedly as he spoke.
However, when Kara was woken up by the sound of a car bomb going off it did hit home that there was a real threat, even if it was minimal and not directed at us. The bomb killed 4 people and injured 51.
That was on the 24th of January. The 25th is the anniversary.
We left Cairo later that day, as we had always planned to do, and travelled to Luxor, about an hour south of Egypt by plane, also on the Nile.
Arriving in Luxor came with it’s own stresses – people trying to rip us off – which is confusing and unsettling. But it was okay.
Luxor is beautiful, and we loved spending time there. Outside the incredible Karnak Temple there is a large open square. When we left the temple, just on sunset, we joined a sizeable Egyptian crowd enjoying dance performances and music. There were colourful costumes, big smiles and very friendly people.
When the dancing finished up the crowd started to disperse and we slowly headed off too. It was starting to get dark by now.
We walked along the East Bank of the Nile. Between about 5pm and 10pm there are always heaps of people strolling along the riverbank, it can be quite an energetic, exciting atmosphere.
And then, well, we quite suddenly got concerned.
We heard a lot of cars beeping, which for Egypt, is quite normal. But then we realised that the cars were moving quite slowly, and behind the traffic, Kara spotted a wall of people moving up the 4-lane wide road towards us.
We quickly weighed up our options. We could either head the other direction, not knowing where that would take us, or try and get through the crowd quickly and smoothly, minimising the time we spent in the parade. Option B won.
Most of the parade was on the road, not the 5 metre wide sidewalk, but it was for us both unnerving and intimidating, especially since we were botha bit shaken from the bomb the previous day. We were now surrounded by signs supporting General Sisi, the man who banned the Muslim Brotherhood, and Egyptian flags. It seemed to us that if there were to be an attack in Luxor, this would be both the time and place.
The first cars to pass us were police. One or two motorcycles, then a ute with the back filled with police officers, then a riot van. After that we saw no more police.
There were great big trucks overflowing with young men chanting and yelling, cars with people hanging out of the windows, and loud music and people yelling on megaphones.
To be honest I think three things made us scared:
1: The context (the bomb the previous day, media reports of possible terrorism etc.)
2: The lighting (street lighting in this area was dim and yellow/orange, making it hard to see individual faces)
3: The fact that there were no women present.
Large groups of men are almost always intimidating. But several hundred men, in trucks and cars and on motorbikes, coming down the street towards you making all kinds of noise? It doesn’t matter what they’re doing, that’s intimidating!
Add a sense of isolation, we were the only obviously foreign people around, and an inability to see the huge smiles on the faces of these people, and it was hard not to be frightened.
The context, of course, is important, but on the other hand all of these people celebrating the revolution were not scared. Or at least were prepared to take the risk. Millions of people in Cairo went to work after that bomb went off. There is a huge difference between the way we perceive violence and terror in Australia and the way people deal with it here.
The bomb in Cairo was loud and scary, but we were in no danger. It is like living in Belconnen, Canberra, and a bomb going off at Parliament House. It’s a huge concern and obviously terrible, but not necessarily much of a threat to you personally. That’s how it feels to us, here.
To finish the story: we got through the parade fine. Kara was edgy and trying to pull me along when I tried to film parts of it, and when they started shooting fireworks we both jumped.
It’s hard to tell whether we were nervous because of the context or the other two points I raised, but in retrospect, it was a pretty awesome experience. Nonetheless, it was exhausting being on edge for so long, so our feast of felafel, shish taouk, kofta, bread, baba ghanoush and more baba ganoush was well-deserved and well-enjoyed.
Since then, we have practiced our emergency exit strategy: Sam picks Kara up and runs around in circles yelling loudly.