Writing by Patrick Keddie
[This article was first published in the Huffington Post here]
A jolt of excitement ran through the house as it was announced that the butcher Ahmad Najjar had arrived. Ahmad was in the El Azba area of Barat, a village on the West Bank of Luxor, Egypt, to slaughter a sheep for twenty-two year old Mohammed Sakkar’s family onEid al-Adha, one of the most important Muslim festivals of the year.
Eid al-Adha, which was celebrated last week, is a time to spend with family and friends and to resolve grievances; something that is much needed after months of political division and economic turmoil in Egypt.
Whilst the sheep was being butchered, Mohammed Sakkar’s uncle – Mohammed Ali – repeatedly told me, “Sisi good, Sisi good!”, referring to the Egyptian army general who led the military intervention against the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Mohammed Morsi on the 3rd July, after huge protests against the enormously unpopular President.
A sort of cult of personality has grown up around Sisi since the ousting of Morsi. He is often described as a father figure for Egypt and his photograph is proudly displayed on many living room and shop walls. When I asked Mohammed Ali what it was that he liked about Sisi, he thought for a moment and replied, “his organizational skills.”
In the chaos and violence of the past years, many Egyptians are now craving a strong leader who can deliver stability. “We tried democracy and it didn’t work”, Mohammed Ali told me, referring to Morsi’s year in power. He had actually voted for Morsi last year but became disillusioned after the economy and the security situation deteriorated.
After the military intervention that ousted Morsi from power a year after his election, Egypt experienced its worst violence in modern times as over a thousand of Morsi’s supporters, the vast majority of whom were unarmed, were killed by the security forces as they camped and protested in the streets. The Egyptian authorities began a widely-supported and systematic crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood; seizing their assets and arresting their leaders and supporters.
Waves of sectarian violence broke out as Islamist supporters sympathetic to Morsi attacked Christians across the country, blaming them for Morsi’s ouster. The security situation has deteriorated in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula as militants launch attacks on the military. Protests continue to erupt periodically – on 6th October over 50 ‘anti-coup’ protesters were killed in confrontations with the security forces.
Luxor has remained relatively untroubled by the violence that has beset the rest of Egypt, although there have been limited clashes, but foreigners have still been staying away and now the hotels are empty, the sights scarcely visited and the touts and shop owners are desperate.
On the day before Eid al-Adha I rented a felucca on the Nile in Luxor. It was the perfect antidote to filthy, traffic-choked Cairo. For most of the time the only noises came from the water sloshing as it was parted by the boat’s rudder and a gentle creaking as the sails pulled against the mast. There was a distinct, merciful absence of tooting horns.
The natural beauty belied the harsh economic reality for the felucca sailors – we were the only felucca visible on the water. I was their first customer for two weeks and they had no other means of income. Before the 2011 uprising they would have made around four trips a day with tourists. The felucca’s sailors had suffered from political change that held little appeal for them. “Morsi is a son of a bitch”, one of them muttered – “things were better in Mubarak’s time.”
Back in Barat village, Mohammed Jaber, 26, told me that he had trained for several years as a tour guide but by the time he had qualified, there were barely any tourists. He had last worked in tourism a year ago. When I asked him what he does now he said “this”, and rested his chin on his hands, feigning boredom. Like many people working in the tourism industry he is not optimistic that the situation will improve any time soon and he is intending to leave Egypt to find work.
Many of the people in the village are suffering. With no money from tourism, the money circulating through the local economy is dwindling. As part of the Eid tradition I went with Mohammed Sakkar as he handed out meat from his slaughtered sheep. Heavily armed children ran around the village toting toy guns bought with their Eid money. Several houses were decorated with brightly painted murals and quotes from the Koran to commemorate Hajj trips made by family members.
We stopped for tea at the house of one of Mohammed’s cousins. She had tacked a poster of a proud looking Sisi to her wall, pictured alongside a lion with a similar expression. She told us about her Muslim Brotherhood-supporting cousin who had been imprisoned after a political disagreement at work. He was still in jail and was struggling to find a lawyer who would agree to represent him. She had little sympathy for his plight. “He got what he deserved” she said, “why couldn’t he change his mind about Morsi?”
The stark nature of the political division in Egypt runs counter to the values of Eid al Adha. In the Eid prayers early that morning I had witnessed people greeting each other effusively in a deliberate expression of fraternity that is demanded during Eid. I was told that people with differences were obliged to take the opportunity presented by the festival to resolve their problems. The imam made a speech imploring people to set aside political differences and come together.
Yet, as Egyptians celebrated the traditions of Eid, their future looks frighteningly uncertain. The uprisings have destablised Egypt and further weakened its already struggling economy, yet the harsh moves to re-impose order seem destined to prolong long term grievances. There is now a willingness to sacrifice revolutionary concepts like democracy and human rights in the search for much desired political and economic ‘stability’.