A tandem bike does not travel well down six flights of stairs, we discovered, bleary eyed, at four in the morning. Outside, the cool air was pierced with the flashing of our bike lights as we wove our way, unnoticed, through the silent sleeping streets. The expanse of Tahirir Square lay empty, seemingly at peace under the all seeing eye of the huge Egyptian flag – we trundled past in the darkness. The square has been the crucible of five revolutions. Most recently, 2011 saw the overthrowing of Mubarak’s thirty year regime and the birth of the Arab spring; and in 2013 it was the site of a coup d’état to oust the Muslim Brotherhood from government. We crossed the Nile to Cairo tower, the start point of our journey.
We were joined on our early morning ride by an amazing group of cyclists who led us through the busying city. Once on the isolated desert highway, we travelled parallel with the wall of New Cairo for several kilometres: an empty, fortified city “built to protect Egypt’s elite from another uprising”.
By the afternoon we had reached the Red Sea coast. Here, ships lay in waiting for the Suez Canal.
Alleviating their weight for the shallow channel, they deposit petroleum in the SUMED pipe system, which links the Suez with the Mediterranean. Along with European funded wind farms, tourist resorts clutter the plastic strewn coastline, and we sped south with the wind strong at our back. It’s not hard to imagine how this area, blighted by western influence, could cradle contempt for the west.
Following a decline in tourism after the Arab Spring, the Egyptian government closely monitor all tourist activities. This is designed to keep tourists safe and maintain a good image for tourism. Cyclists are not with a tour company, don’t stick to an itinerary, or stay safely locked up in resort compounds, and this is understandably a problem for the authorities. Around mid-morning of the second day we were stopped at a checkpoint and joined by our first police escort. This was an expected hassle, even on empty desert roads, but the police were friendly, and when we arrived in Ras Sheikh that evening they permitted us to camp outside their station. We ate with the policemen that evening: plastic bags of soup and spaghetti. Rifle slung across his shoulder with the muzzle pointing directly at Merlin’s face, a police officer whom the others described as “psychology”, hurled questions in Arabic in Merlin’s direction. He calmed a little when Alex gave him a lesson on how to use a fork to eat spaghetti. On possibly the only occasion in our lives, we lay in our tent that night with an armed officer guarding us just metres away.
At midnight our protector, along with a small entourage of other officers, woke us. They needed to see our visas. Morning. Ready to leave, we were stopped. Someone important was on their way. By the time the sun had risen, an officer with falcons on his shoulders and some aura of importance arrived. General Afifi informed us that we were not permitted to cycle to Hurgada, our destination that day. We would have to go back to Cairo. No, Luxor. Wait, the order has changed. It’s difficult to negotiate so we go with the General to his station. Thus ensued 36 hours of pseudo-arrest.
More pressed white uniforms surround us, cycling on to Hurgada at this point seems to be a disappearing dream, getting further from our grasp as falcon-crested General Ahmed gets increasingly impatient. For now we have to play their game and negotiate by their rules. Glimpses of rage intermittently escape through General Ahmed’s stern composure, his hands shaking, his English polite.
The situation gets more and more out of our control, we and the police both being controlled by omnipotent orders cast from above. Orders capable of changing from one phonecall to another and with the constant threat of sending us back to Cairo. Impossible choices, either get in the police van or return to Cairo. It’s all a blur, trying to maintain a locus of control whilst we, our possessions, our bike are hurtled around in the back of police pickup. Police station, armed guards, count our money, eating under armed guard. Why? Danger on the road, broken road, the minister says. What is the threat? Return to Cairo ordered. Egyptian friends scared to intervene. Call the embassy. Negotiation not possible. National Security involved. The president. What is going on. Sleep in the police station, no, armed guard at hotel. Will we have to leave Egypt?
Early morning woken up by banging. General Ahmed is at the door, in the room “GET UP”. We have no control. They want us out of here asap. Bike pushed into coach. Doesn’t fit. Minivan. Police check points. Speeding along through the desert toward Luxor. Move vehicles, try to keep track of possessions. “Where you stay? HOTEL HOTEL” “with a friend” “Not possible. HOTEL”. We become more isolated as any more of our remaining contacts fear getting too involved with police. Under escort now. Lights flashing, sirens going, flanked by police motorbikes. Are we really this high profile? Prisoners? “Presidents orders”. Day 3 and the trip has already gone tits-up. Will we really cycle? Disappointment sits in our tummies as we console ourselves with the fact that at least we are still in Egypt, even if we may never cycle another kilometre. The powers that be know everything, who our friends are here, where we stayed in Cairo. Is this really all to protect us?
Coming to a stop at a Luxor roundabout we are unloaded and as if by magic the police are gone. We are left bewildered scratching our heads. We laugh as we have to load up the tandem and cycle around trying to find our hotel, police nowhere to be seen. Maybe we are free?
We had been reunited with the Nile, and followed it now to Aswan. The fertile strip of land either side of the river is what has fed Egypt for millennia. But rather than modernising farming practices, the land is cultivated by locals on a small scale. Donkeys pass by laden with crops of sugarcane and bananas, and irrigation pumps flood patches of land dammed with earth. The unhappy encounters of the Red Sea were replaced by friendly waves, and we were welcomed by a kind family to camp in their garden. It so happened that there was a wedding next door, and after an evening of festivities we crawled into our tent. Yet at midnight the police are shouting outside the tent. “VISA. PASSPORT” How did they find us? They need to see the visas. But nothing else, and we travel with no problems in the morning. An unsettling reminder of the times along the Red Sea, and the omniscience of the state.
At Aswan the river has been dammed to create Lake Nasser, an enormous reservoir surrounded by desert – 500km of Nile settlement, villages and history now underwater. For the few vehicles that travel to Abu Simbel, Egypt’s southernmost town, the road dog-legs through the desert for 300km. To occupy our weary minds, we listened to a number of podcasts and learned more about the Egyptian government, police, and the Arab Spring. These are topics that neither of us could fully understand over the course of our short journey, but raise interesting issues. It is also important to note that most of the people we met on our journey were genuinely welcoming, friendly and helpful. Egypt clearly has two stories to tell. One is well known around the world: the land of the Pharaoh’s, ancient civilianisation, pyramids. Through our experience with the police we gained a brief insight into a second story which continues to unfold and affects the lives of many Egyptians. Below the surface veneer of hieroglyphic wonder, the story of modern times is one that the government are somewhat less keen to advertise, or even acknowledge.
It’s strange to recognise that Egypt, with its 8 million tourists a year, is a place with police beatings, rape and disappearances. Many of the victims are younger than we are, activists, who in 2013 called for free speech and democracy. Families left wondering, teenagers tortured. It’s uncomfortable having been a tourist here, protected so heavily by the same organisation that carries out human rights abuses. Our country, engaging in trade of goods and oil to meet the demands of our UK market, also turns a blind eye because economics rules. If you’re interested, or think we had it bad with the police, listen to the BBC World Service ‘Documentary Podcast: Crushing Dissent in Egypt’. BBC Podcast
Maybe it isn’t right, as the West, to be poking our noses into other countries’s business. But maybe, when our lifestyle is funded and fuelled through the trade of oil or cheap labour in this globalised world, we have to think about what we are supporting.
Perhaps you feel the West has an unwelcome ideological crusade on the East, disrupting a country’s or population’s own right to self governance. Even then, should we not be accountable as a nation for what we do and what we sell? “Weapons of mass surveillance” that allow an entire population’s encryptedmessages to be read is being sold to Gulf states by the UK. Are we now not part of a system that is keeping many millions silent, preventing change? The power of these governments’ control is scary. And the UK helps it happen. Really. Find out more through the BBC World Service ‘Documentary Podcast: Weapons of Mass Surveillance.’ Another BBC Podcast
At Abu Simbel the colossi of Ramases II are seated before his great temple. They commemorate the reign of a pharaoh who waged war and enslaved many. A man who used art and grand constructions as propaganda for his victories against his enemies. He is celebrated every year when the sun rises to illuminate the interior of the chamber cut deesmalEgyptp into the sandstone. This ancient achievement in engineering and astronomy stands on the waterline of Lake Nasser, a modern feat of engineering that once threatened to drown the temples forever. Pyramids and temples replaced by fortified cities and dams. As the sun breached the waters horizon, we wondered what Ramases II would have thought of his modern contemporaries, and how future generations will remember the government that waged war against its own people, in the shadows of a legacy of great leadership. Will it always be the case, that the ego and might of the powerful is remembered, and the suffering of many is forgotten?
Alex McMaster and Merlin Hetherington