Striking up a conversation with a cab driver usually is no big thing - unless you've been a tourist in Egypt during the last 40 years. Speaking with tourists has been strictly verboten. Police would stop any exchange observed. If anyone was found to have said anything against the authorities, stark punishment would follow. Conversation consisted of guarded generalities.
Go to Egypt now, and people can't wait to tell you about the Mubarak years of oppression and what expectations for the constitution and elections might be. Granted, Egypt has always had a lot to offer - 5500 years of (discovered) history is definitely a draw. Couple this with history-in-the-making, and it's a whole different trip. Go now, and you risk being able to have conversations with real Egyptians.
A guide on a mid-March Nile cruise says it's more than worth the downturn in business to be free to say what horrible people Mubarak and his wife are. He goes on and on about how much they have stolen from the people and the state and kept the country poor. Before the Jan. 25 revolution, he was not allowed to say anything about politics or religion on tours. He was obliged to portray Mubarak as his country's great protector.
His tour group chides him when there's a group decision to be made, insisting that democratic votes be taken--no more being told what to do!
Post revolution prices are another reason to go. The online travel newsletter that proposed a week-long Nile cruise in mid March touted 50% off. Such boasts should always be taken with a grain of salt, but after talking with other passengers, it appears that indeed this trip is at least 35% less than usual and sometimes actually 50%. That is, I paid $880 (635 Euros) that included round trip air fare from Paris, transfers, eight days on the boat, a 115-euro supplement for a single room, three meals a day and daily excursions. Base price was 500 Euros.
But going now yields not only price advantages. With only 20 of 300 cruise boats operating as of mid March, those who go enjoy more open vistas and less diesel fumes. You don't wait in long lines to enter temples. Of course, there are fewer boat arrivals to approach, so expect aggressive vendors. However, this is pretty much the norm, any time.
Pre-revolution, souk merchants were not allowed to approach tourist boats while waiting to go through the Esma locks. Now a frenzy of salesmen appear barking their wares, even throwing tablecloths or towels onto the deck if someone expresses interest in buying. Intense bargaining ensues, intensifying as the boat starts to pull away. They are now free to do this and determined to take advantage of whatever opportunities arise.
Another guide on our boat says that his job has not changed because of the revolution, other than there are so few tourists. The future with his particular company is uncertain though, as the owner is imprisoned, charged with bribery as are a number of those suspected of profiting from corruption.
Guide Sultan says it took two years to recover after the 1997 Luxor attack where tourists were killed. Before that, the U.S.'s 2003 Iraq invasion caused tourism to plummet. He thinks recovery this time shouldn't take so long, although it's an open question, since the many other revolutions breaking out in northern Africa and the Middle East may complicate recovery.
Brutal protests dominating TV screens two months ago are a far cry from the placid, sunny Nile documenting 5500 years of history along the way. For courageous and resilient Egyptians, this latest turn of events is just another drop in the river of history. The government cannot do much to promote its tourism industry. There are so many other priorities in writing a new constitution and getting a new government operative. However helpless those witnessing their struggle feel, we can at least vote with our travel budgets.