Looking Beyond the Normal Tourist’s Itinerary

    Train conductors and sympathetic Egyptians rally at Ramses Station in Cairo in an effort to oppose the Railway Authority’s significant increase in certain fines. (courtesy of David Harvey)

    After undergoing an hour of interrogation while fidgeting
    nervously at the crossing to Sinai, and then being detained for more than two
    hours in the Ismailiya police station, we were led up three flights of stairs
    to a small office decorated in papyrus and family photos. There, a youthful,
    slightly overweight police chief in a baby blue sweater said we were free to go
    — straight back to Cairo. “Do not
    go to Al-Arish,” he said. “There are 700,000 Palestinians in the Sinai. You are
    American and they are from Hamas. It is too dangerous.”

    Dangerous, perhaps. We predicted news reports from Gaza
    of cross-border rock hurling, as well as gunfire, between Palestinians and a
    strained Egyptian police force. When Eleanor
    Roosevelt College

    junior Kevin Staight, Earl Warren
    College
    senior Wesley Horne and I
    gathered in front of the American University
    in Cairo campus on a whim 12 hours
    earlier, we were worried the opportunity to witness political history in action
    would be lost. We rushed to the Metro and headed for Ramses Station, the main Cairo
    train depot, where we met up with John
    Muir College

    junior Mariela Goett.

    It had been nearly a week since an explosion from the
    Palestinian side ofthe strip had brought down a section of the wall at the
    Rafah border crossing between Gaza
    and Egypt,
    allowing Palestinians to flood across in search of much needed supplies,
    cigarettes and business opportunities. As cars drove across the border,
    Egyptian authorities — having earlier expressed a desire to approach
    containment passively — were preparing to strengthen security. We wanted to go
    before things in the area settled, or exploded into violence.

    “When there is a big political situation in the Middle
    East
    , and it’s right there, you need to go,” Horne said. That’s
    the reason I came to Cairo.”

    At Ramses Station we were told the train was booked, but
    managed to secure four third-class seats, though these are rarely sold to
    foreigners because of their poor riding conditions. We boarded the train a few
    minutes before it was scheduled to leave, taking our cramped spots next to an
    open door among several anxious Egyptian men. Some, opting for a more
    comfortable ride, climbed onto the baggage racks above the seats to lie down.

    Thirty minutes later several passengers had disembarked, but
    the train was still quietly standing in its loading position at the station. A
    crowd, gathering outside and around the front of the train, 12 cars up,
    eventually drew our attention. Jumping out onto the abandoned tracks alongside
    us, we headed toward the chanting mob.

    Anxious for action in Rafah, we were excited and surprised
    to find such a commotion at home in Cairo.
    Horne and Staight, utilizing their burgeoning Arabic language skills to ask
    about the protest, were quickly surrounded by a crowd of 20 or more Egyptians
    eagerly venting their frustrations of the government’s failure to meet basic
    needs. Others were simply intrigued by foreigners taking interest in the
    demonstration.

    The Egyptian Railway Authority, the other observers informed
    us, had raised fines. Exactly which fines were unclear. An interview with
    Railway Authority Supervisor Said Tahah in a quiet train car was equally
    unclear, despite translation. An English speaker, on the other end of a cell
    phone passed between Tahah and I, explained that fines were hiked because train
    conductors were arriving at destinations late and passengers were boarding
    without tickets, which conductors collect in transit.

    Fines for first-class riders had been tripled and
    third-class passengers would now pay a fine of 10 Egyptian Pounds, an increase
    of 20 times the current amount. Conductors already face the possibility of
    being attacked or even shot when collecting fines. The increase could put their
    lives at further risk. Nevertheless, the question “What will the Train
    Authority do in response to the protests?” garnered only a smile and a nod from
    Tahah.

    Recently, the Egyptian government has given in to many
    demands of such economic protests, while simultaneously becoming increasingly
    harsh when dealing with political opposition and political rallies. Peaceful
    activists and politicians associated with the Muslim Brotherhood consistently
    face the threat of imprisonment, and many have been, or remain, behind bars.
    Likewise, political bloggers face jail time for even writing negative
    statements about President Hosni Mubarak.

    Train conductors, protesting economic issues, were not only
    certain fines would be lowered, but, like several union and labor protests in
    the past few years, they would succeed without being detained or attacked. Less
    than three hours after the protest gathered, and less than an hour after I
    spoke with Said Tahah, the Railway Authority reversed their decision, and
    restored fines to their previous rates. We were not present for the
    announcement.

    Despite our enthusiasm at being a part of a local political
    movement in the heart of Cairo, the four of us still had a determination to
    visit Rafah and witness the international situation unfold before us.

    Mohammed, a twenty-something Alexandrian patiently awaiting
    his trip home, helped us find a minibus to Port Said
    before the announcement. We spent the next four and a half hours on the road.
    We had been told we could cross to Sinai in Port Said,
    but there we discovered the only bus route originated from Ismailiya.

    We were shown to a taxi that drove us straight back down the
    same highway to Ismailiya, where our minibus had stopped an hour and a half
    earlier, and arranged another bus to Al-Arish after allaying the driver’s
    concern that we might be Palestinian. With any luck, we could catch a cab from
    there to Rafah.

    The traffic at the border crossing was halted. Trucks, cars
    and buses waited in an ever-growing queue while Egyptian military personnel
    tore through luggage and cargo in an attempt to sever the flow of supplies to
    Gaza. Our American passports, to the delight of all onboard, allowed us to cut
    to the front of the line, bypassing the stalled traffic — we didn’t fuss about
    special treatment.

    But the mood changed quickly when an officer ripped
    Staight’s camera from his hand after he flashed a picture of confiscated
    cigarette cartons piled on the highway. Minutes later, Horne, Goett and I were
    asked to step out of the bus. As the photos on our cameras were carefully
    scanned, questions grew. “Where is this?” asked an officer in dark green with
    bloodshot eyes. “This is not Cairo.”

    “It’s a protest at the train station,” I responded
    cautiously, knowing that my photos of officers at Ramses Station were quite
    illegal, and that such photos had been known to inspire not only camera
    smashing, but violence as well.

    “These are not beautiful photos, these are not tourist
    photos,” he said with a condescending air and military authority. I did not
    respond.

    The bus driver waited briefly before heading on to Al-Arish.
    We waited considerably longer — a full hour — whispering among ourselves about
    reacquiring our passports and cameras, as well as the possibility of resuming
    our journey to Gaza, before being shuttled back to the center of Ismailiya. We
    were shown into a quiet, brightly lit room with white chipped paint and Quranic
    verses hanging askew on the walls. We were informed our phones would be joining
    our cameras in police custody.

    “Straight back to Cairo,” we muttered as we collected our
    things from the reception at the police station before heading out into the
    predawn cold of Ismailiya. Skeptical about the police chief’s assertion of
    danger in Sinai we contemplated other means of reaching Rafah, certain if we
    were to return to the same crossing we would land ourselves right back in
    custody. We never made it to Gaza.

    The next morning, in a second-class car on the train back to
    Cairo, Goett bought the morning edition of Al Masry Al Youm, an Egyptian daily
    paper. On the front page was a picture of the Ramses Station protest — a
    reminder of our previous day’s adventure and our subsequent run-in with the
    Egyptian military.

    Back at Ramses Station, heightened security meant to keep
    ticketless passengers, those who would have faced the consequences of new
    fines, off the platform, was another footnote to the demonstration and a
    reminder of Cairo’s struggle with issues of class.

    Stepping out into the sun and toward the Ramses Station
    Metro stop, we were greeted by the unavoidable shouts of taxi drivers.

    “Welcome to Cairo.”

    “You want to see the pyramids?”

    These shouts, meant for tourists who would normally never
    experience the frustrating policies and politics of Egypt
    firsthand, were a vivid reminder of defeat. They were meant for those more
    interested in a photo of a pyramid than in the political failure at the border
    and the station. They ignored the Egypt
    struggling with control, authority and transparency — an Egypt
    tourists rarely get the chance, or even want, to experience.

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