By Jennifer Conlin
The New York Times, February 25, 2011
LAST October, on my final day in Cairo after a yearlong stay, I walked across the Kasr el-Nil Bridge toward Tahrir Square, stopping for a moment to take in the view. Though the Nile was, as always, a lovely sight, it was still hard to ignore the broken glass and cigarette butts beneath my feet, and the tired, worn faces of the young Egyptians standing near me.
On Feb. 21, I crossed that bridge again, 10 days after Hosni Mubarak resigned as president. The scene could not have been more different. The bridge was spotless. Small plastic wastebaskets, many with the word “Facebook” taped on them (an homage to the role the social media site played in Egypt’s revolution) were tied to each street lamp. I slid my hand along the shiny hunter-green and silver railings, marveling that even the curbs had received new coats of black-and-white paint to prevent illegal parking — courtesy of the protesters.
A boy sold me a bottle of water from a small stand he had set up, also with coffee and candy bars, while young girls swept the streets. Everyone stopped to talk to one another, whether it was an old friend or a visiting stranger.
“Enjoy Tahrir,” a young man yelled to me before taking a photo of his girlfriend, her white headscarf blowing in the wind. I smiled, then joined the parade of Egyptians heading to the square.
Many tourist sites in and around Cairo are open again — from the pyramids to the Khan el-Khalili souk to the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. But these days the most sought-after photo is not one of Tutankhamen’s mask but of Tahrir (Liberation) Square, a mammoth traffic circle the world had stared at for three weeks on television. Named after Egypt’s 1919 liberation from the British, Tahrir Square is a top destination for many of the Western tourists who have begun trickling into Egypt in recent days.
“It is amazing what has happened here,” said Aart Blijdorp, a 60-year-old civil servant from the Netherlands. He had flown in a few days earlier to attend the seven-day anniversary of Mr. Mubarak’s resignation, a gathering on Tahrir Square that the protesters hope will become a weekly Friday event to remind the current military government of their continuing demands for reform. “The optimism in the air was so apparent on the news, I had to come feel it for myself,” Mr. Blijdorp said, after introducing me to two young protesters he had met in the square. They had become Mr. Blijdorp’s tour guides around Cairo.
“We have been taking him around because he is traveling on his own,” said Omar Ahmed, 23, a civil engineer, adding that they were off to the Citadel, but that Mr. Blijdorp wanted to come back to Tahrir Square first.
“The good news is he is seeing everything fast, because no one is here,” said Hamdy Mohammed, 24, a law student. “But we want tourists to come back because it is a new Egypt now.”
“So far, Tahrir is my favorite place,” said Mr. Blijdorp, who had visited the Pyramids the day before.
Despite the slightly carnival atmosphere in the square — one can find everything from revolutionary souvenirs (including badges with photos of those who had lost their lives in the uprising), face-painting (black, red and white — the colors of the Egyptian flag) and stands selling popcorn — I still felt slightly nervous. After all, I had ignored the United States State Department’s travel warning the moment I bought my airplane ticket here, the day after Mr. Mubarak resigned. Ultimately, I had decided that the State Department’s advice to “defer non-essential travel” to Egypt because of “continuing uncertainties regarding the restructuring of Egyptian government institutions” was not going to change very soon. After living here for a year with my family, I longed to see the changes taking place in Cairo.
With visitors a mainstay of the country’s economy — before the revolution 11 percent of the work force and 6 percent of the country’s gross national product had been directly linked to tourism — Egypt is eager to get tourists back. According to the Egyptian state statistics agency, about 210,000 tourists left the country during the last week of January. Although most international travel companies are deferring tours until later in the year, Mr. Blijdorp and I certainly weren’t the only curious international travelers who were not putting off a visit. The first day the Pyramids reopened, Feb. 9, after being closed for several days, about 50 foreigners visited, according to tourism officials.
“I thought it would be neat to be here during the revolution,” said Julia Griffin, 27, who with her boyfriend, Joel Anthony, 25, had arrived in Cairo the previous day on a flight from Vancouver. “We are being very careful with safety, but we honestly don’t feel afraid,” Mr. Anthony said, adding that they had been practically the only visitors at the museum the day before, as well as at the Pyramids.
The allure of visiting Egypt at this moment hasn’t been lost on some tour operators. For example, Akorn Destination Management (akorndmc.com), which bills itself as an organization that delivers “inspirational travel experiences,” is offering “Tahrir Square — Egypt Is Making History,” a trip that includes a Nile cruise, a walk through Tahrir Square and a stay at the Semiramis InterContinental Hotel, which is near the square.
As Rick Zeolla, the general manager of the Cairo Marriott, where Christiane Amanpour and many other journalists stayed, put it: “Right now Egypt is like having a fast pass at Disney. People should come over.”
Amr Badr, managing director of Abercrombie & Kent in Egypt and the Middle East, believes now is a unique time to visit Egypt and see history in the making. “I think people will immediately feel the energy,” he said, noting that the streets are now cleaner than they have been in recent memory, and that Tahrir Square has become a “living exhibit — a sort of Speaker’s Corner” in Egypt that they plan to promote. Egyptians, he added, are feeling a newly found sense of pride in their country. “If Egypt was good before, it will be better now,” he said.
Michael Koth, general manager of the Semiramis InterContinental, said his clients are no longer asking for a “Nile view” room but a Tahrir view. “The early guests we are seeing are more independent, well seasoned and globally focused travelers,” Mr. Koth said.
Though Egypt never suffered from a tourism boycott like South Africa under apartheid (a record 14 million visitors were expected this year in Egypt), there is a belief that politically and historically minded tourists will be the first to visit the “new Egypt,” as everyone here is now referring to the country. In the first four years after Nelson Mandela was released (between 1990 and 1994), South Africa saw an increase of 400 percent in tourism, according to South African Tourism, the national agency that markets the country. After Mr. Mandela’s release in 1990 the country had a million visitors, and by 1995, the year after their first democratic elections were held, it had nearly 5 million.
And not unlike Berlin, where visitors can see many of the relics surrounding the fall of the wall in the city’s museums, plans are already under way in Cairo to do the same with the revolution’s memorabilia. The Tahrir Archives Project is an exhibition that Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University of Cairo, hopes will be open by the spring in the university’s downtown campus building, right on the square. “We are gathering everything we can from the protests — signs, tear gas canisters, oral histories, rubber bullets — everything, because to me as a historian it is important,” said Professor Ikram, who protested nearly every day in Tahrir with many of her colleagues.
“Were work responsibilities no object, I would return this month,” said Cornelia Wathen, 67, from Stone Ridge, N.Y. Ms. Wathen, along with 16 other American tourists who arrived on Jan. 26 and left on Feb, 13, decided to continue their trip through Egypt despite the unrest. Though they spent most of their time in Luxor and Aswan, far from the protests, they returned to Cairo just in time to celebrate Mr. Mubarak’s resignation in Tahrir Square before flying home. “For anyone who is excited to learn about other cultures and people,” she said, “I believe this is the best and most privileged time to visit Egypt.”
***Such grand memories of our fall 2010 trip, Rocking the Cradle of Civilization: Egypt Then and Now. Little did I know how prescient that trip title was when I dreamt it up. Enjoy a virtual visit with us. Click here to view a slide show.